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Inverallochy, Week 11: 12 March

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I have all the discrimination of a magpie when it comes to Caithness history—if it’s shiny, glitters in the sunlight and grabs my attention, I scoop it up to line my metaphorical nest, along with a quantity of twigs and some rather unsavoury half-eaten bits of (soya protein-imitation) rabbit.

But today we leave history behind and enter the murky world of myth. There is a famous reference to Caithness in Njal’s Saga, the great Viking epic full of betrayal, blood feuds and vengeance (a sort of 13th century Icelandic Lion King). Tucked inside the saga is the Darraðarljóð, or “Song of Dorrud”, and it’s a weird and creepy and rather wonderful poem.

Snow in the Cairngorms

In 1014 the Earl of Orkney took a force of men from Orkney and Caithness to go and fight in Ireland, as you do. But the Battle of Clontarf was a defeat and most of them were killed, including the earl. The poem describes how the Valkyries, the warrior handmaidens of Odin, selected who would die in the battle. Did they cast lots? Throw dice? Did they draw up a list, set up a subcommittee and have a debate? No, no, no, no (and no). The verses say that a man called Dorrud saw them enter a house in Caithness; when he followed and looked inside, he discovered that they had set up a loom with a view:

The warp is made/ Of human entrails/ Human heads/ Are used as weights/ The heddle-rods/ Are blood-wet spears/ The shafts are iron-bound/ And arrows are the shuttles/ With swords we will weave/ This web of battle.”

Dunnet Head and Castletown harbour from Dunnet Beach

Isn’t that great? (Batshit crazy for sure, but great.) Though it seems a little impractical; not to mention a tad messy. (I wouldn’t have thought entrails would make great warp threads either, given their elastic nature; tennis rackets or banjo strings, yes—though the thought of Valkyries taking a break to play mixed doubles, or sing close harmony Appalachian folksongs, is perhaps something of a stretch.)

Anyway, the warrior maidens finished their song, broke up their loom, took their strands and went away to claim the souls of the dead. And we’re left with a glimpse of a worldview utterly alien to us. (Though I sometimes think if cats wrote bardic poetry they might produce something close to the Viking sagas—albeit with epic heroes called Tippytoes and Mr Fluffy instead of Erik Bloodaxe or Thorfinn Skull-Splitter.) We can reenact historical events; but the minds of the people who lived them are ultimately, I think, as unknowable as yours or mine.

In gansey news, it’s time to celebrate another landmark: I have finished the front, and joined the shoulders with a traditional ridge and furrow shoulder strap. In keeping with the extra large size of the jumper I have knitted eight ridges per shoulder (plus bind-off ridge) instead of my usual six. Next step is the collar, and then it’ll be time to think about picking up stitches around the (*gulp*) 12/13-inch armhole…

Inverallochy, Week 10: 5 March

Europe has been socked in with extreme wintry weather all week, and, as Brexit has not officially happened yet, that meant Britain got it too. Of course, living in the farthest of norths, in the Lowland Highlands of Scotland, this is not actually all that unusual. (Or, as Judit of this parish observed, in Britain this was christened “The Beast from the East”; in Finland they called it “Wednesday”.) In any case, Wick has its own microclimate and didn’t get a lot of snow; but the roads to the north and south of us were blocked, and the snow gates were closed in the high passes on the road from Inverness.

By mid-morning on Friday Tesco’s had run out of fresh milk and were having to make up the online orders with baby milk (this raised a number of questions, some of them biological, but I certainly was not the man to ask them). Amid fears of a recurrence of the Great Quinoa Riots of 1969, checkout staff were being sworn in as special constables and undergoing baton training with stale baguettes in the frozen goods aisle. For an afternoon civilisation teetered in the balance, as the population of Caithness faced the prospect of a breakfast of cornflakes soaked in Irn Bru (or as they call it in Scotland, “Sunday”).

Bridge over the Grand Union Canal

Well; it got slightly warmer, the roads reopened, and Caithness was once more a land flowing with milk and honey. And I found myself wondering how I would tell the tale to my grandchildren, supposing I had been careless enough to have any. Somehow, “Come gather round, children, and I’ll tell you the epic story of the great freeze of 2018 that lasted just over three days and Tesco’s almost ran out of milk” doesn’t quite have the ring I feel it ought to…

Ice on the canal

Luckily for me, the gansey is big enough now to serve as a blanket—well, all right, two blankets—so even though the temperatures outside have hovered around -1 to -3ºc I’ve been able to knit to stay warm, an incentive if ever there was one. I am about 8 inches up the front, and it will soon be time to think about dividing for the shaped neck. I am now on my tenth ball of 100g yarn; and I haven’t begun to grow tired of the pattern, which is a good sign.

Finally, Margaret is still 600 miles away away in Northamptonshire with my family. But she’s sent some pictures of the fields and canal near my parents’ house, which are included here. (My favourite song by Neil Young is called “Helpless”. The first stanza goes, “There is a town in North Ontario / Dream comfort memory to spare / And in my mind I still need a place to go / All my changes were there.” Substitute “house” for “town”, and “Northamptonshire” for “North Ontario”, and that’s my childhood. It’s still home. All my changes were there. Damn you, Neil.)

Winter textures



Inverallochy, Week 9: 26 February

I was reading about Robert the Bruce the other day and came across something that stopped me in my tracks. No matter how much the narrative wanted to sweep me along I couldn’t get past it, like a sort of metaphysical flypaper for historians.

The story of Robert the Bruce is, of course, well known. In 1306, when Edward I seemed to have Scotland under his gauntleted thumb—no open opposition, all the Scots castles in the hands of English and Welsh soldiers, the royal insignia and the Stone of Destiny safely removed to England, the state archives (*sob*) at the bottom of the sea—Bruce raised the standard of rebellion. Defeated time and again, he spent a miserable winter in 1306-7 in hiding, was bitten by a radioactive spider which gave him superpowers, and returned to wage a ceaseless war against evildoers everywhere… No, wait, that’s not it.

Wick River

Well, joking aside, here’s the thing: in 1306, on the run, Bruce sent the women of his party away. The plan was that they would seek safety overseas, where they had kin. But they were caught at Tain (between Wick and Inverness) and handed over to Edward’s men. The men of the party were executed, Bruce’s wife Elizabeth was imprisoned and his daughter sent to a convent. But Isabella Macduff, countess of Buchan, was hung in a cage from the battlements of Berwick castle; and Bruce’s sister Mary was hung in a similar cage at Roxburgh. The cages were open to the air, “that both in life and after [their] death, [they] may be a spectacle and eternal reproach to travellers”.

The narrative of history tugs at my sleeve, wanting to move me on to Bruce’s incredible guerrilla campaign of 1307, all the way to the heady triumph of Bannockburn in 1314. But I keep thinking, No, wait, hang on a minute: what do you mean, a cage? The women hung there for four years—four years—before it occurred to Edward that they might be more useful as live hostages than as a dead reproach, and they were transferred to other quarters. Finally, after Bannockburn Mary and most of the others were ransomed; but Countess Isabella isn’t mentioned, and probably died in captivity.

And no matter how much Bannockburn resonates today (and stirs the blood in the unofficial national anthem, Flower of Scotland: “But we can still rise now/ And be the nation again/ That stood against him/ Proud Edward’s army/ And sent him homeward/ Tae think again”—take that, English rugby team!) I keep thinking of those poor women in their cages. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus says that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”; and, you know, I think I’m starting to understand what he means.

Cliffs at Nybster

Meanwhile it’s milestone time in gansey land this week: I have finished the back, rig ‘n’ fur shoulder straps and all; and have made a start on the front. To give you an idea of scale, I’m currently halfway through my ninth ball of 100g yarn; and it’s not impossible that this will end up weighing more than Robert Bruce’s armour by the time I’ve finished…

[Editor’s Note: Margaret’s still away “dyne sythe”, so continued apologies for quality of images, formatting, and, well, everything really…]

Inverallochy, Week 8: 19 February

Hi, voice of experience here. I thought I’d start this week with a word of advice. When someone you know is ill—as it might be with a respiratory infection—and has coughed so hard they’ve pulled not one but two muscles in their side and shoulder so that it hurts when they breathe, and are under orders to lie very still; when, as I say, you know someone in this situation, it’s probably not a great idea to send them absurd cat videos from the internet to cheer them up.

Clouds over Stroma

You’d think I’d know better by now, but apparently not. Oh look, a cat video, I’d think, innocently clicking on the link on my iPad. Then there’d come a brief pause while I’d watch with a growing sense of unease, followed by a suppressed snort of laughter, causing my cheeks to bulge like a hamster being inflated with a bicycle pump. The snort, probing for an exit, would find its way into my nose and, after a few seconds of steadily mounting pressure, would explode, taking with it whatever had been blocking my sinuses and distributing it over the sheets like a glistening volcanic ash cloud.

By now I’d be gasping for air, only for this to strain my pulled muscles and cause me to cry out with pain. But I couldn’t stop laughing either, while the now disregarded cat carried on serenely, its video stuck in a loop. So I’d thrash about in the bed like a newly landed halibut, in a loop of my own, making a sort of “Skrrrt—hur—wheeee—arrgghh!—shutsshutsshut” noise, until gradually the fit passed and I was able to close the tab and wait for the world to stop spinning.

Well, I’m delighted to say that the infection is wearing off, and I am almost back to my old self. One sign of this is that I am knitting again, for the first time in several days. It was a bit of a slog at first—it sounds stupid, but I had to recall the mechanics of how to make a stitch, then a purl, and then get back into the pattern. Even then it was as if I was picking up someone else’s knitting. But this passed quickly enough, and I’m almost back in the zone: I’m not so far from finishing the back now.

Also, my brother is out of hospital and convalescing, many thanks for all the expressions of good will last week; and Margaret has gone down to help out for a few weeks, so once again the quality of pictures will drop perforce, for which our apologies.

One good thing about feeling better is that I was finally able to stagger to the bathroom to trim my beard, which was becoming a touch Old Testament prophet-ish round the edges. Or as my old friend Yeats famously put it:

And what rough archivist, his stubble grown long at last,
Slouches towards the bathroom to be shorn?

Hmm. Haven’t coughed for a while. Time for another cat video, I think…

Inverallochy, Week 7: 12 February

There’s a scene in the first Matrix film where our hero is offered a choice between a blue or a red pill. The blue pill will return him to normality, while the red pill will uncouple him from the illusory virtual reality environment that he—and we—think of as the real world. He swallows the red pill and as he waits for it to take effect, he idly reaches out and touches a mirror. And there’s a wonderful moment when it vibrates like a membrane, sending ripples shimmering across the surface of something that just seconds before had looked solid and permanent. The red pill is working: the uncoupling has begun.

Soon be spring . . .

As I’ve got older I’ve realised that we all have red pills of our own, in the form of a phone call at an unexpected hour. You lift the receiver, you hear the news, and all of a sudden everything you thought was real and important—that work deadline, those mortgage payments, whose turn it is to do the washing up—simply evaporates, as irrelevant and insubstantial as Neo’s mirror, and you’re suddenly confronted with a harsher, starker world. This time the news wasn’t as bad as it could have been: my brother was in hospital after a heart attack. It was, diolch byth, a mild one. But just for a moment the world took on a distinctly red pill-ish tint.

It’s not been a great week, really, as I’ve also been struck down with whatever lurgy is currently doing the rounds, and confined to my bed: too ill even to knit. It’s passing slowly—my breathing still sounds like a sumo wrestler sitting on a basket of puppies and I’ve a cough like Darth Vader being tickled—but at least I’m (mostly) vertical again.

One night I sweated so profusely I soaked through my pyjamas, my pillows, the sheets, the duvet, and the under-mattress. As we disbelievingly peeled back the layers it was like the scene in Alien where the crew first discovers the alien’s blood is acid, and they frantically rush from floor to floor following the holes it’s burned through the ship’s structure. When I got up, the bed was so wet it looked as though someone had sprayed a rough body-shaped outline onto it with a garden hose, a sort of Turin shroud of sweat.

St Fergus’, Wick, on a sunny day

There has not, you will already have guessed, been a lot of knitting this week, what with one thing and another. But I have reached one milestone—I have finally divided for front and back, and am embarked on the back. It’s a nice, simple, clean, effective pattern, one where I don’t have to count the rows. Hopefully we can put this week behind us and, in every sense, move on.

And it’s funny how your perceptions change with age. Take The Matrix: when I was younger my sympathies were altogether with Neo and the other rebels. Now increasingly I find myself identifying with the traitor, the guy who sells them out for the chance to reenter the Matrix and lose himself back in the illusory VR world. TS Eliot, as ever, said it best: human kind cannot bear very much reality. Blue pill for me, thanks all the same…

Get well soon, Colin.