Support Gansey Nation -

Buy Gordon a cuppa!

Many, many thanks to those of you who have already contributed!

Navy Gansey, Week 9: 12 November

We were walking along the cliffs at Noss Head, the spiked promontory just north of Wick, when we heard the urgent barking of a dog. There was a curious echo, and we realised we were hearing the sound of two dogs coming from one of the narrow inlets somewhere below us, out of sight. It was high tide, and we wondered if they had been cut off; or else—the thought arose courtesy of a childhood devoted to watching Skippy the Kangaroo on tv—there had been an accident, and the faithful dogs were calling for assistance.

Sinclair Bay and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe from Noss Head

Well, it was nothing so dramatic. When we looked over the edge we saw the dogs and their master on a narrow strip of beach: the dogs advancing on the incoming waves, barking furiously and wagging their silly tails, skipping back when a surge sent water spilling over their feet then returning to the charge; while all the time their owner looked on indulgently from the safety of the rocks. It was as if King Canute had been reincarnated as a pair of dogs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two creatures so happy—the last time I had that much fun must’ve been sometime around 1975—and it was curiously uplifting. Wise men have sought for a meaning to life for many centuries, and have variously turned to religion, philosophy and chemicals, all in vain; when it turns out all you need is a couple of tame wolves and an ocean.

Fishing Boats in the Harbour

In gansey news, I am on the home straight: getting on for a third of the way down the second sleeve. As I said last week, I’m decreasing every fifth row down the sleeve. Because I started with fewer stitches around the armhole, owing to the thicker texture of the yarn (136 stitches in this case, as opposed to my more usual 145) I reached my requisite number of stitches for the cuff sooner than I usually do. By just over two inches, in fact. So I decreased down to 88 stitches and then knit straight for the last couple of inches, without decreasing further. This gansey was always going to be a trial—I still have two ganseys’ worth of this yarn to use—so next time I will decrease by two stitches every sixth row, and it should come out more or less right.

Bonfire Night Fireworks

I’m writing this on the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War: and I’d like to bring two sound clips to your attention, each of which, in their different ways, have moved me deeply this week. The first is the folk song, No Man’s Land/ The Flowers of the Forest, written by Eric Bogle and sung here by June Tabor. If you don’t know it, I can’t recommend it highly enough: the words and music perfectly suited, June’s voice soaring effortlessly, then segueing into the Scots lament The Flowers of the Forest—originally written to commemorate the fallen at Flodden Field in 1513 and now used in services to remember all war dead.

The other clip is quite astonishing. The Imperial War Museum commissioned a company to recreate the moment the guns fell silent at 11am on 11 November 1918, based on archive footage of the time. As you listen you can hear guns gradually falling silent; then the sound of the wind; and finally, tentatively, hesitantly, a solitary bird starts to sing…

Navy Gansey, Week 8: 5 November

Sandside Bay lies some 32 miles northwest of Wick, along the coast road, out past the Dounreay nuclear power facility. It’s the last sandy beach this side of Sutherland, and despite—or perhaps because of—the unrivalled views of the nuclear complex, it’s rather lovely. We were there the other day, taking advantage a lull between a couple of ex-tropical-storms, which always stagger across Britain at this time of year like disappointed marathon runners finally breasting the tape.

The bay is a bite-sized rectangle chomped out of the coast; the village of Reay and the beach run along the south side and there’s a harbour on the western edge, facing east. Incidentally, I was delighted to discover that there’s no agreement on the origin of the name of Reay: suggestions include Gaelic words, as in Reidh (a flat place) or Ratha (a fort or enclosure); and Old Norse, as in Ra (a boundary marker) or Vra (a nook or corner). But it seems to me you might just as well go for Ra (an Egyptian sun god) and admit you haven’t a clue.

We saw dog walkers and bird watchers (at least I assume they were watching birds; their binoculars were trained across the bay towards Dounreay, and they packed up hastily and drove away when we pulled in next to them. Hmm) and strolled along the beach. I misjudged an incoming wave (oh wait, you mean the tide comes in as well as out?) which dumped about a pint of seawater in each shoe. It was cold. There was a lady walking a dog nearby, so I strove to keep my dignity; and rather than squealing like an electrocuted ostrich and leaping six feet in the air, which was my initial impulse, I pretended it had all been deliberate. From the sniggers of the lady—and I grieve to say, her dog—I fear my innocent deception may have been seen through.

But who needs dignity if you have a gansey, I hear you ask? Moving on hastily, I’ve knuckled down this week and am a few inches from completing the first sleeve. I knit the pattern for 5 inches from the armhole, and am decreasing at my standard rate of two stitches every fifth row. A couple of weeks might see it finished, and no one will be more surprised than I. I’m currently on my eighth 100g-ball of Wendy’s navy yarn: it’s as uneven as ever, but I hardly notice the bobbles now; and it is pleasingly chunky.

Finally this week, one of my favourite poems, by one of my favourite poets, Li Bai, also known as Li Po. As regular readers will know, I’m very fond of Chinese poetry. After much reading I have discovered these poems tend to fall into three key subjects: (1) I am far from home and very homesick, (2) Life is short and all things must pass, and (3) Let’s drink! And then there’s this:

The birds have vanished from the sky.
Now the last cloud evaporates.

We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.

Navy Gansey, Week 7: 29 October

It’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to draw the curtains, gather round the fire and tell tales of the supernatural; and of one Caithness witch in particular—the sinister Graycoat of Thurso, self-professed raiser of the dead. There are numerous stories of witches in Caithness, usually women who could turn themselves into cats to work mischief. And it’s a tempting thought: who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be a cat? Sure, the diet’s unappealing, but think of the savings in toilet paper.

But Graycoat is different: it seems she really existed. We know this because she appears in the minutes of the Thurso Kirk Sessions, the meetings of the elders of the parish. In July 1654 the record says, “Isobell Groat declairs that Graycoat wes in her houses, and hir sonne, William Caldell, being standing at the fyre, she looking to him said he wald be a hard fortunat man, and that he wald die by the sea, which fell out.”

Phragmites by the riverside path

Isobel Groat’s husband George had been on his deathbed, and “she comeing from his house weeping, mett Graycoat in the way, who asked if it was for him she was weeping, and she answered it wes. Therefore she desyred to sie what they wald give her and she wald make him weill, for he was witched. They said if she would have cow or horse they would give, and she ansred she would not have that, but lyff for life.” Isobel properly refused, and said that it was the Lord’s will, she would not meddle with her. (This is why it’s a joy sometimes working with archives: “life for life”, “a hard fortunate man”—people speaking in their own voices, though 350 years have passed.)

Dunnet Beach from Castletown

Meanwhile back in the present, if All Hallows’ Eve is imminent the clocks have gone back and the inexorable slide into winter is gathering pace. The sun already sets at 4.30pm, so it’s a race against time to get this gansey finished before it’s too dark to see what I’m doing. But as ever at this stage, things are coming together swiftly: I’ve finished the front, joined the shoulders, knit the collar (14 rows), and started the first sleeve (136 stitches picked up around the 18-inch armhole). If I crack on I should finish this by the end of November.

Door at Sandside, nr Dounreay

Graycoat turns up again in the Thurso Kirk Sessions in November 1655. This time Katherine Skinner “confest that her husband being [new]lie diseased the said Graycoat cam in to the house [and] offered to heale him for reward, whereupon the said [Kather]ine gave her fortie shillings Scotts money but denyes that [she] knew the said Graycoat to [refer] any incantatione or [cha]rming or that she applied any thing to the diseased person.” As this was a first offence Katherine was let off with public rebuke. (There’s no record of Graycoat being punished—presumably she evaded justice yet again, possibly in the form of a cat.)

But let’s take comfort that even a witch’s prophecy can be ambiguous. Take William Caldell, above: he may in fact have had a long and happy life; finally expiring, 17th century banana daiquiri equivalent in hand, reclining in a deck chair on some Florida beach, at the splendid old age of 97. Happy Halloween everyone!

Navy Gansey, Week 6: 22 October

It must be autumn: the leaves here are turning golden, just briefly, before being stripped from the branches by the gales and turned into compost by the rain. It has rained a lot. There’s an old sea shanty whose opening verse is: Oh the rain it rains all day long / Bold Riley-o, Bold Riley / And the northern wind, it blows so strong / Bold Riley-o has gone away. And I can’t help thinking, if Bold Riley had been living in Caithness I’m not altogether surprised.

Trees by the river

Here by the coast at least it’s not too bad. The ness of Caith—the promontory whose tip is at Duncansby Head, near John O’Groats—is a rocky triangle rising sheer out of the North Sea: surplus rain cascades away over the cliffs in waterfalls like water from the scuppers of a ship. But inland it’s another story and the ground is fairly saturated. Every now and then I pass a cow in a field, submerged past its fetlocks in mud, gazing at the passing cars resignedly as if to say, Little help?

Ishmael in Moby-Dick famously went to sea whenever it was a damp, drizzly November in his soul. But what do you do if it’s a damp, drizzly November out of doors—and it’s only October? Well, knitting is part of the answer, clearly.

Loch Stemster, looking towards Achavanich Stones

I have finished the back and am now embarked up the front. So far so good. The secret with knitting this sort of pattern back-and-forth is to ensure that the alternate plain rows are knit on the front-facing side, and the pattern row on the back (or purl) row: I find knitting an entire row a lot easier than purling it. It’s a very straightforward pattern to knit, very relaxing, and just what I needed. It suits the navy yarn, too. But I must admit my thoughts are already straying to my next project: a rather fancy Wick gansey from the Johnston Collection of photographs; a pattern that has, to the best of our knowledge, never been charted before. More on this in December, if everything goes to plan.

Keiss Harbour

Finally this week, few stories have given me as much pleasure as the one about a Coca-Cola vending machine in New Zealand, the land of my birth. In a move that backfired more than a little, the machine apparently displayed a greeting in what the company obviously thought was a disarming blend of te reo Māori (the language of the indigenous population) and English: “Kia ora, Mate,” or “Hello, mate”. Unfortunately, “Mate” in te reo means something quite different; and the message actually given was, “Hello, Death”…

Navy Gansey, Week 5: 15 October

Last night we were woken in the middle of the night. There was a loud pulsing noise coming from overhead, a deep, rumbling wom-wom-wom, and flashing lights. I looked at my bedside alarm to see the time but it was dead, all the power out. And still the deep, throbbing pulse of an engine flattened the air, louder than anything had a right to be at that time of night.

What, I thought, could be hovering over our house with flashing lights? Could whatever it was have caused the power outage? It took a few moments for my inner sheepdog to round up my scattered wits: would an alien mothership really travel thousands of light years, vast interstellar distances, only to settle on Wick for first contact? And would it—my ears finally reporting for duty, dishevelled and faintly embarrassed—travel about when it got here powered by rotor blades?

Milky Way and Moonlight

The helicopter—for helicopter it was, of course—slowly passed us, looped round and headed back to the airport. The power came back on. It was 3.00am. I forgave myself my moment of confusion: anything’s possible at 3.00am. Actually, in my case all it takes is the dark.

Once I was driving the lonely road from Llangurig to Rhayader in Radnorshire, mid Wales. I’d given a talk at a village hall, and was coming home. It was a dark, clear, early spring night, about 10.00pm. I was tired, and was letting my mind wander; anyway, the car knew the way. Suddenly I was aware of a similar wom-wom-wom, loud enough to make my fillings vibrate, and my car and the patch of road around me were illuminated by a bright light. This is it, I thought, it’s the Rapture. Finally! Then I thought: hang on a minute, why me? Before I could think of a good reason the light and the noise moved on. And I saw that a vast Hercules transport plane had crept up on me unawares, following the road, flying so low I could have bounced a tennis ball off its fuselage if I’d had one to hand. My rational mind had a good laugh at my expense: but just for a moment there…

Visiting Hour

Meanwhile in the empirical world of ganseys, I’m well embarked on the yoke of the Vicar of Morwenstow Revisited (which is like Brideshead but with more herring). The Wendy yarn continues to infuriate (my last ball contained four knots, which is a bit much for 100g) and delight by turn. I’m trying to knit a bit tighter now I’ve reached the pattern: this sort of pattern can spread if you’re not careful, making the yoke too wide, so I’m trying to rein it in. So far it seems to be working.

Finally, an update on the seals at Sarclet Haven. We haven’t seen all fifty together again but there’s still a lot of them about, black snouts bobbing in the water and a few slumped up on the beach, plus—excitingly—some young pups. There’s a tiny white seal pup on the beach just now, barely able to drag itself along a few painstaking inches of shingle but growing daily, like a slowly-self-inflating inner tube. Its whole life lies ahead of it, the book of its life unwritten. To misquote Rabelais: Go well, little seal; may your ship sail free...