Vicar of Morwenstow 9: 14 December

M141214a Just a short blog this week, as we’re taking a break and going down to Edinburgh for a few days’ holiday to see old friends, do some Christmas shopping, go to a carol concert—and visit the Apple Store which has just been built literally next door to where I used to work, not that I’m bitter or anything, oh no, not at all; I’m sure they’ll build one in Wick soon.

We were going to go see The Hobbit Part Three while we were there, but then we realised it would be dark, grey and gloomy, filled with greed, decapitations and a desperate struggle for existence, all of which already make up such a large part of our life in Wick, and so decided to go see Paddington instead.


Sunrise, 12.12.14

It’s been a wintry few days up here, sleet, hail, rain and snow, and the sort of winds that have weather presenters practicing how to say “weather bomb” in front of the mirror like a doctor telling you that perhaps you’d better sit down before he gives you the results; on the plus side, the temperature sometimes rose above freezing. (And still you see people strolling through town in T-shirts or short skirts—either they’re a shockingly hardy breed up here, or the alien invasion has already begun.)


Stroma, with an icy Orkney beyond

On the gansey, I’ve finished the first sleeve, cuff and all, picked up the stitches for the second and decreased the gusset out of existence like a stage magician making a pigeon disappear. Now it’s just a question of a hundred-odd rows of plain knitting, then the cuff and we’re done.

I might have finished it this week if we weren’t going to be away. Even so, it should still be done in time for New Year. Tune in next week for the last blog of the year, and news of some changes coming in 2015.

Till then, as it’s nearly Christmas, I leave you with this traditional carol:

In the Wick midwinter, rain had turned to sleet,
No matter how many pairs of socks you wore, you still had icy feet;
Sleet had fallen, then it rained, and it was dark by three,
In the Wick midwinter, sooner you than me…

Vicar of Morwenstow 8: 7 December

M141207a It looks as though Winter has finished all his chores, done all the washing up and ironed all his shirts, and is now free to devote his full attention to Caithness. So today an arctic gale has been blowing showers of sleet and rain horizontally across the fields all day, as though the frost giants had got themselves Indy cars and gone racing across the north Highlands.

M141207bI took a day off work last week and we travelled the 104 miles south to Inverness, our nearest big town. In retrospect, this proved to be a schoolboy error: I’d naively imagined we might do some Christmas shopping, but when we arrived we discovered that the Black Friday sales have penetrated even as far as the Highlands of Scotland. The town centre was heaving with people like the Tokyo underground in rush hour and Marks and Spencer’s reminded me of archive footage of the Beatles playing Shea Stadium.

M141207dI suppose I’ve just become acclimatised to living in Wick (pop. 7,333), where a crowd means having to queue behind two people at the checkout in Tesco’s. Going to Inverness in the sales involves the same amount of culture shock for me as sending one of the Pilgrim Fathers into hyperspace.

M141207cI came away from Inverness with a pair of socks and a migraine. (I mean that these were additional things: I didn’t actually lose all my clothes—though there were one or two moments in the scrum in Marks’ when the issue seemed to hang in the balance.) Next time I could probably achieve the same result more cheaply by climbing into one of the industrial driers in the launderette.

Safely back in Wick, I’ve been working hard on getting the heather gansey finished and am already some 14 inches down the first sleeve with three inches to go to the cuff. I decided to go for just three pattern blocks on the upper arm because the jumper is already quite wide across the chest, and with a drop shoulder style there’s already a bit of “overhang” on the sleeve; I don’t like the pattern extending over the elbow. Having disposed of the gusset, I’m decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every fifth row.

By next week I hope to have the first sleeve finished, and, if I can stand it, to have picked up the stitches ready for the other one. My target is to finish it by the end of the year, and then take stock. In the meantime, there’s little else to do but wrap up warm, crank up the heating, and make sure that in future all my Christmas shopping is done online…

Vicar of Morwenstow 7: 30 November

M141130a T.S. Eliot’s lines in his poem East Coker, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,” are commonly supposed to be a reference (among other things) to people crowding into the London Underground for shelter during the Blitz in World War Two. I, however, have a simpler explanation: after living in Wick for three years it’s obvious Eliot was referring to a typical Caithness winter.

I don’t just mean the late sunrise (8.35am) and early sunset (3.27pm). I mean skies the colour of a recently-deceased porpoise stretching from horizon to horizon, behind which the sun lurks like a torch with a dying battery dimly glimpsed through a fog bank. It’s as if God cut a few corners when He made Caithness, using cheap dyes which have run in the rain, so that all the colour’s washed away from the world and only dreary grey remains.

M141130b-2 There are compensations, though. We went down to the harbour on Saturday at high tide, and the wind was driving the waves in from the ocean, breaking them against the harbour walls in showers of spray and submerging the piers so that they looked like vast stone submarines rising out of the sea. And now and then great waves swept into the harbour, so that standing on the quay and looking down on the suddenly swelling water it felt as though great whales were swimming past below, just out of sight.

M141130bGood progress on the gansey. I’ve finished the body, joined both shoulders and knit the collar. As the neck is quite deep and wide I decided to make the collar a little higher than usual, about 1.75 inches, in the hopes that it won’t asphyxiate me when I sneeze. I’ve also picked up stitches round the first armhole, and am now cheerfully tobogganing down the left sleeve of destiny.

M141130a2For whatever reason, doubtless because I’ve been loosening my stitch gauge and there aren’t any cables to pull it in, this gansey has come out a bit shorter and wider than usual. I don’t think this will be a problem, though, as it will be stretched vertically at blocking; and anyway, it’s looking like we’re going to have a cold winter, so I need something to accommodate 17 layers underneath.

Finally, I’ve been contacted by Yasmin of the Hebridean Isles Trading Company to update their contact details ( I hadn’t heard that they suffered a disastrous fire on Colonsay last December; as a result, they’ve relocated to the Isle of Skye where they’re re-establishing the business. We wish Yasmin and her family every success, admire their fortitude, and hope things come good for them very soon.

Vicar of Morwenstow 6: 23 November


Ye Front

As I still have the dregs of my cold, so that I sound like a man gargling with gravel when I cough, and as the Caithness nights are drawing in (sunrise at 8.21, sunset at 15.36), I thought I’d skip six months and take us on to May Day, a.k.a. Calan Haf in Wales, or Beltane in Scotland. (I know it means missing Christmas, but look on the bright side: just think of all the money you’ll save.)

You see, this week I came across an interesting account of a Beltane custom from Shurrery in the parish of Reay, up on the far north-west corner of Caithness, recorded back in the 1930s. It seems that on the last night of April all fires in the neighbourhood were extinguished. A group of men then went off in the dark to a certain place and set about lighting a fire from pieces of bog-oak, using only friction to get them alight (apparently a true Beltane fire could only rightly be started in this way, or by striking sparks from a flint).


Ye Back

When they had a fire properly burning in an open hearth all the people of the neighbourhood came to the special place, bringing their cattle. They and their beasts then passed through the smoke of the fire, being careful to move in a sun-wise direction.

After they’d all passed through the smoke, faggots from the fire were distributed to everyone and taken home to re-kindle their own hearth-fires. (This was a known as a teine-éigin, or “need-fire”; it was believed that the smoke had healing properties and would keep them free of disease in the coming season—a sort of sacred fumigation.)

Meanwhile, back in the present day bleak-almost-midwinter, I’ve been making progress up the front of my heather gansey, and have almost completed the first shoulder. (I see some of the stitches are a tad uneven, caused by the fact that it’s usually cold in our lounge when I sit down to knit of an evening! But this should all be sorted out when it’s washed.)


Hawthorn & Lichen in evening sun

Now, on the back, if you remember, I had 63 stitches for each shoulder and 60 for the neck. And each pattern band is 14 rows deep: 12 rows of the main pattern plus 2 additional rows (a purl row and a plain row to mark the boundary).

So I’ve decided to indent the front neckline by a depth of 16 rows (one whole pattern band plus the two boundary rows of purl and plain from the previous band). And because I decrease each side of the neck at a rate of one stitch every two rows, this means I’ll be decreasing 8 stitches either side of the neck (16 / 2 = 8) by the time I reach the shoulder. To achieve this, I’ve divided the front into 71 stitches for each shoulder (71 – 8 = 63); which leaves 44 for the neck in the middle. (Trust me, it’s easier to do than to explain.)

So hopefully by this time next week I’ll have finished the front, joined the shoulders, and maybe even have done the collar too, assuming my cold continues to improve. In fact, now I come to think of it, and given how many colds I’ve had this year, perhaps I should consider investing in some bog-oak and some kindling for next May’s Beltane Eve…

Vicar of Morwenstow 5: 16 November


The Front

Once more I seem to be participating in a cosmic game of whack-a-mole with fate, fate being the one holding the rubber mallet. For yet again I’m heavy with a cold, and the world feels remote and far away. (Of course, I live in Wick, so the world really is far away, but you know what I mean.) I’ve developed an irritating cough which makes me sound like a Klingon complaining about a parking ticket, and my sneezes resemble the birth of the universe, a parallel universe in which mucus replaces carbon as the basis for life.

As a result, I’ve been reclining and gansifying like nobody’s business, and have finished the back and back shoulder straps. (I followed the traditional rule of thumb by dividing the body into approximate thirds: so as it’s 186 stitches wide, I have 63 stitches for each shoulder and 60 for the central neck portion.)


The Back

You can see the full effect of the pattern now, a purple chequerboard. (If I ever win the lottery I shall bury the gold in a field somewhere and knit another gansey like this with the location woven into the pattern.) To bring the armhole up to the full eight inches I added an extra three purl rows at the top, to mirror the ones at the start of the yoke; these are always nifty ways to make the pattern fit.

In other news, I heard a remarkable story this week from one of the small fishing villages down the coast from us, about a man who was drowned. It’s a sad story, so I won’t mention names or go into detail; and besides, it’s really the sequel that caught my interest.


The Pattern

Well, so the man went into the water and was drowned, and his body wasn’t found after the usual searches. So the local fishermen took a rowing boat, and got a live cockerel and placed it in a wooden cage, and then they rowed up and down the harbour with the cockerel in the bows. The belief was that if the cock crowed, that was where the man’s body lay.

Back and forth they went, but it never made a sound, except once when it made gave a sort of croak. They found the man’s cap, but the body was never discovered.

Isn’t that amazing? Like something out of Thomas Hardy, and yet it dates from the 1930s. The newspaper account said that this practice was common in Scandinavia, but this was the first time it had been tried in the north Highlands. (As I’ve said before, the past really is another country; and it’s name is Caithness.)


Waves at John o’Groats Harbour

Another time I’ll tell the story of the Caithness witches who changed into cats to persecute a local blacksmith—perhaps next Halloween. (Though you’d think it would work better the other way round, wouldn’t you?)

Outside the skies are grey, rain is lashing the windows, the wind is buffeting the house and it’s a full week since we saw the sun—and there’s still a month to the winter solstice. Ah, well. As the soldiers used to say in the First World War: shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke…