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Dunbeath: Week 4 – 1 March

Did you know that we archivists have our own patron saint? She’s St Catherine, the Great Martyr; although, as there are only so many saints to go around, we have to share her with a whole bunch of freeloaders such as librarians and teachers and knife grinders. (This probably explains why she never answers my prayers: “You have reached the number of St Catherine of Alexandria, I’m too busy to come to the shrine right now so please leave a message after the world-weary sigh, honestly how hard is it to keep an edge on a blade—”; but by then I’ve usually hung up.) St Catherine’s qualities are said to be beauty, fearlessness, virginity and intelligence, and if that’s not a perfect description of an archivist then I don’t know what is.

Nets on the quay

Catherine is supposed to have lived around 300 AD. She was a famous intellectual (the sort of person our current Prime Minister would probably characterise as a “girly swot”; I’d always thought of the Billy Bunter books as a series of children’s public school stories, instead of, as it turns out, Cabinet Office papers). One time the Emperor Maximian gathered some fifty pagan philosophers to dispute with her. She not only won the argument, she even converted several of them to Christianity (Maximian, a textbook bad loser, promptly had them executed). She was going to be martyred on a burning wheel, but when it shattered at her touch she was beheaded instead. Now she spends her afterlife rushing about helping, among others, potters, hat-makers, theologians, tanners, haberdashers and Greece. And archivists. No wonder my records contain so many mistakes. I can’t help feeling the church needs more saints.

Wick on a sunny day

I was shocked to learn that there isn’t a patron saint of gansey knitters, probably because several centuries of picking up dropped stitches in other people’s knitting would try the patience of—well, of a saint. (Dare I propose St Gladys of Thompson?) Still, even without divine assistance, the body of my gansey is coming along nicely, just the collar and sleeves to go. Incidentally, if you want to see the original pattern we’ve based this gansey on, you can find the photograph on the Wick Society’s Johnston Collection website.

In parish notices, Nigel has sent us pictures of a very splendid gansey he’s made. The yarn is Frangipani Helford blue, with edging in paler blue merino wool. The pattern is Matt Cammish, an absolute classic, and Nigel’s done it full justice here. Many congratulations to him!

Snowdrops catching the sun

And if St Catherine is one of the busiest, which saints have the strangest responsibilities? Could it be St Columbanus, patron saint of motorcyclists? Or perhaps St Balthasar, one of the three wise men, who looks after playing card manufacturers? The saint with the most challenging caseload is probably St Rita, patron saint of the impossible. Then there’s St Drogo, who has charge of unattractive people and, er, coffee houses (still, it’s good to see Frodo Baggins’s father gainfully employed). In fact, I imagine St Catherine saying to St Polycarp of Smyrna, “Look, you take earaches, I’ve got my hands full with all these by-our-lady archivists complaining their pencils need sharpening (and no, St Fotino and St Hypatius of Gangra, and how many times must I say this, that is not a euphemism!)…”

Dunbeath: Week 3 – 22 February

What a difference a week makes! Last weekend it was winter, we were being hammered by gale-force winds and rain was washing away the ice and snow. The winds blew hard enough to crack the brackets attaching our satellite dish to the wall, turning it, as the repairman observed, from an aerial into a weathervane. For three anxious days we were deprived of television news, only to discover when we were reconnected that not a lot had changed. There may be a lesson in that.

Heron fishing

And now suddenly it’s spring. Everything is blues and greens instead of greys and, well, more greys. God’s got His attic conversion done, and the sky now extends all the way up to the ozone layer. Snow has been replaced with snowdrops. The trees and hedges look thicker somehow, as though, despite it being too early for blossom, they’re getting ready to bud, like athletes limbering up before a race. Children were actually playing in the play area and, what’s more, even seemed to be having fun; the last few months the handful I’ve seen down there shuffled about sullenly like prisoners being forced to exercise in the yard. Walking by the river the other day I saw a heron on the island raise its beak like a periscope out of the long grass and survey the waters, before mysteriously submerging again.

Snowdrops by the riverside

And while I’m sure winter hasn’t done with us quite yet, this will do to be going on with. As I write this it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining and the sky is filled with seagulls making cries like the laser cannons in Star Wars. It’s windy, of course, but you expect that. Hmm: I wonder what’s on tv…?



As I mentioned last week, this gansey is being knit using blister (or coin) stitch. On the pattern row, which is every sixth row, you knit 3 plain stitches, then insert the needle through the next stitch four rows down, loop a new knit stitch over your needle, draw it back through the stitch, then, with a gentle tug of the yarn, allow the rows above the stitch you’ve just made to drop. Then you knit the next 3 stitches as before, and repeat the process. (The diamond in the chart shows where to knit the blister stitch.)

It takes a bit of getting used to, this business of actively dropping stitches, but you soon get used to it. It’s both very easy—five rows of plain knitting is always a joy—and slightly stressful. You do have to concentrate: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve, er, lost count, and cheerfully dropped four rows on a stitch, only to find it was the wrong stitch, and had to go back and pick them all up again. Plus inserting the needle through a stitch four rows down is a bit like trying to vaccinate someone while you’re wearing a blindfold.

I don’t really understand how it all works—it seems like the sort of thing that would’ve got you burned at the stake a few hundred years’ ago—but it makes for a very neat, unusual effect. I’m more than halfway up the front (or back; this gansey won’t have a shaped neckline) and should finish it sometime this week, before we do it all again on the other side.

Dunbeath: Week 2 – 15 February

According to the Met Office it’s been the coldest start to a year for over a decade, with an average UK temperature of 2.2ºc. And I can’t help thinking: 2.2º? (Wait, let me say that in italics: 2.2º?) Bah, luxury! It’s been so cold for so long that even a temperature of 0º would’ve been an improvement. Last week Wick fell overnight to -9º, with daytime temperatures around -3º to -1º. Half the river was frozen over, confusing the heck out of the ducks—I checked in case the penguins from The Muppet Christmas Carol were holding their annual skating party, but alas not—while moody seagulls scratched rude words in the ice and waited for spring, and the sun, and tourists careless where they put down their sandwiches.

Ice in the river

The rainwater in the barrel froze, then it snowed on top, then that froze too. If we were pirates, our timbers would be well and truly shivered. I’ve taken to wearing a huge, black, fuzzy Russian hat around the house, leading one work colleague on a Zoom call to wonder how I managed to persuade a baby panda to go to sleep on my head. Even the brass monkeys are resorting to thermal underwear. (Did I mention it’s been cold?)

Last week’s snow

Meanwhile, in gansey news I’ve reached the pattern and the yoke. I’m trying to recreate the pattern on Graeme Bethune’s—whose sheep the yarn comes from—great-grandfather’s gansey, based on the photo in the Moray Firth Gansey Project book. Trouble is, the photo is about the size of a postage stamp, and blurry withal, so it’s impossible to see much actual detail. It could be one of a number of patterns, all similar. So we’ve turned to a photograph in the Johnston Collection of Victorian fishermen for a pattern, one that should give Graeme a distinctive and slightly unusual gansey that’s still pretty close to the original. It involves seed stitch panels, alternating with panels in a stitch that’s new to me: blister, or coin stitch. (“Blister” is the mot juste, as it creates little swellings or pockets, just like the bubble-effect of a blister.)

How pleasing that there are still new things to learn! For I was starting to feel a bit like Ecclesiastes, the Eeyore of the Old Testament: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Also, don’t blame me if it rains.” I’ll post the chart next week. It’s early days, and it’ll show more clearly next time, but it involves five rows of plain knitting: then on the sixth, on every fourth stitch along, you go back four rows and pick up a stitch, then let the stitches above this drop, before carrying on. (You’d think a stitch that has dropping stitches built into it would be right up my alley, but evidently not; I’m only a natural if I don’t do it on purpose.) As ever, I’m indebted to Margaret for this, as she’s charted out the pattern and shown me how to knit it.

Wigeon on the ice

And now, as I write this on Sunday evening, the rain is lashing against the windows, blown by winds of over fifty miles per hour, which I guess counts as a thaw. But then, we do live in the far north of the Scotland, and Thurso, just a few miles up the road, is on the same latitude (59º) as Juneau, Alaska, so the odd bad winter does rather go with the territory. As the soldiers used to say in the First World War: you shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke…

Dunbeath: Week 1 – 8 February

In his final case Sherlock Holmes muses on the coming threat posed by an expansionist Germany and says ominously, “There’s an east wind coming, Watson”; to which dear old obtuse Watson replies, “I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.” This forces Holmes, not to break a whisky bottle over Watson’s head, as you might expect, but to spell out his metaphor more clearly. (Incidentally, there are few scenes in literature that can’t be improved by inserting Watson into them. Take The Lord of the Rings: “Though I don’t know what the likes of me can do against, against –” the innkeeper faltered. “Against the Shadow in the East,” said Strider quietly. “I think not, Aragorn,” said Watson, taking out his pocket watch. “The sun will have set and it’s too cloudy a night for there to be any shadows, even in Mordor.“)

Well, even Watson couldn’t deny the east wind just now, a bitter, biting wind blowing in rain, sleet and snow fresh from Siberia. It’s been cold so long that when I look up frost in my dictionary it just says, “see perma“. But I can’t stay mad at snow. It always takes me back to my childhood, and the sense of wonder I had, as a child of the more temperate parts of the North Island of New Zealand, at coming to Britain and experiencing snow for the first time. (The child is father to the man, of course; a saying that, taken literally, set me back about six months in biology class.) Even the lightest dusting, the merest pither of snow blown in on a wind as easterly as this, is enough to gladden my heart; however pessimistic it might make Sherlock Homes.

Wind & Waves

New month, new gansey: this is a special commission, requested by Graeme Bethune, whose Caithness yarns I featured back in December. It’s made from his own yarn, and the pattern will be based on that of his great-grandfather, a fisherman from Dunbeath, a little fishing village on the east coast of Caithness. All we have to go on is the slightly blurry photograph that appears in the Moray Firth Gansey Project book, but the pattern appears to be a variant of the classic Staithes/Henry Freeman of Whitby pattern. More on this next week.

Snow in Dunnet Forest

Also in parish notices, Judit has knit another splendid gansey, a very fetching combination of zigzags and moss stitch in a very lovely colour. It’s a Valentine’s Day present, and I was interested to learn that in Finland the 14th of February is celebrated as Friends’ Day, Ystävänpäivä, not just a day for lovers. What a wonderful idea! Many congratulations to Judit and a very happy, chocolate-enhanced Valentine’s Day to all.

Winter Fishing

Meanwhile I’ve been listening to the audiobook of The Godfather while I knit, quite possibly the sleaziest book ever written. But it’s got me wondering what would happen if the Mafia ever moved into my own line of work, that of libraries and archives…

The room is in shadow, the blinds drawn. Joyful Sicilian music filters through the window from the wedding party taking place on the lawn outside. The Don is seated behind a large desk. Behind him stands his counsellor, who leans towards him attentively. The Don sighs.
“Is that the last of them?”
“There’s just one more. Shall I call him in?”
The Don gestures weary assent. The counsellor brings in a nervous middle aged man carrying a book.
“What favour do you ask of me, my friend?” the Don asks.
“I’d like to borrow this book, please.” He holds it out. “It’s Mary Berry’s latest cookbook.”
The Don is offended. “You come to me, on this the day of my daughter’s wedding, and you ask me for this favour. But you show me no respect. Why have you never visited me till now?”
“It’s only just been published. I thought I might give her bubble and squeak a try.”
The Don considers. “All right. I’ll make you an offer you cannot refuse. Bring it back in three weeks and phone the consiglieri here if you want to renew. Fail to return the book and you will sleep with the fishes.”
“Look, I only want to cook them, not— Oh, I see what you mean. Thank you, Godfather.”
He kisses the Don’s ring and departs. The Don sighs.
“When I said we should take over the books on the East Side, I must admit this is not exactly what I had in mind…”

Finally this week, it was a great pleasure to be invited to chat with Dotty Widman and her lovely gansey knitting group of Cordova Alaska. Gansey knitting can be a solitary occupation, and, even in these grim lockdown times, it’s nice to be reminded that a whole community exists out there of like-minded people: You’re not alone, as David Bowie observes (though it’s possible he wasn’t thinking of knitters at the time). Many thanks to Dotty for the invitation!

Filey Pattern IX: Week 5 – 1 February



Every now and then I like to punish my brain by reading a book on modern physics. (Not that you should picture me next to a blackboard covered with equations while I check that Einstein got his sums right; we’re talking The Big Boys’ Bumper Book of Quantum Mechanics, or My First Little Nuclear Reactor level stuff here.) So I’ve been reading a book on the nature of time, with about as much success as Bertie Wooster struggling to come to grips with modern philosophy. The author defines time as “the order in which things happen”, which I feel is either a blinding insight, or else staggeringly obvious; possibly both. (This reminds me irresistibly of the splendid bon mot from Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys: “History is just one ****ing thing after another”.)

That Otter again

At one point the author toys with the idea that time is just a concept invented by human beings, which tells me that this is a quantum physicist who’s never had to try to explain to his cat that, since the clocks have gone back, they’ll have to wait an extra hour for their dinner. (“Time,” as Ford Prefect wisely observed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so.”) In the end I read all this stuff, get a glimpse at the illusory nature of reality and then, like a Hindu who accepts that the material world is naught but Maya, a deceit of the senses, but who still buys himself a 50-inch plasma tv, I go and write up my diary.

Hawthorn by the riverside

Meanwhile, as I continue to splash about in the shallow end of the swimming pool of time, I’m pleased to report that the Filey ganseyette is finished. It was so pleated by the time I’d finished that blocking it felt like stretching a heretic on the rack: every time Margaret inserted another pin I found myself leaning over and whispering, “Confess, my son, and all your suffering will be over”. Will it fit? Lord alone knows. I’ll find out next week when it’s delivered. And now it’s on to my next project, and here I must apologise: I had planned next to make a gansey using the stunning Cordova Frangipani yarn I got from Deb Gillanders. But I’ve had a special request from Graeme Bethune, whose yarn I featured back in December, to knit a gansey based on his great-grandfather’s Dunbeath pattern, and I’m going to try to squeeze this in before Easter. So, sorry about the delay. Hopefully the Cordova yarn gansey will be worth the wait.

Walking in the Snow

Speaking of which, I’ve been provisionally invited to attend another online session with the Cordova Gansey Project on Thursday (the words “punishment”, “gluttons” and “for” spring to mind). These sessions save me a fortune in psychotherapy, as I exorcise the traumas of my youth. (“Kidnapped as a child by Barbary corsairs while punting on Billing Aquadrome, I was sent as a barge-slave to work on the Grand Union Canal, until one day I escaped in thick fog caused by the fumes from the Carlsberg brewery. I soon fell in with a travelling freak show, where I scraped a living as The Amazing Bearded Archivist; people gasped in wonderment while I arranged medieval Latin title deeds into chronological order before their very eyes…”) If it goes ahead, and you’re interested—it seems morbid to me, but you never know—I’ll post details when I get them. I believe it starts at 9.00pm GMT; assuming, of course, that such a thing as time even exists…