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Hebrides, Week 9: 22 May

Hi everyone. I’m afraid there won’t be a regular blog this week owing to a family bereavement, which means that we’re away south for a few days.

You’ll see from the photo that I have (just) finished the knitting of the Hebrides cardigan; though all the washing, blocking, un-steekening and zipperydoodahing will also perforce have to wait, pro tem.

Also, Judit has turned up trumps again with another gansey, a really effective combination of different diamond designs shown off to great effect in a light colour.  

Finally, I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite poems. I’ve always had a deep love for ancient Chinese verse, in which words are deployed as skilfully as brush strokes, like one of those paintings which seem to come to life as you look at it. This one’s by Li Po, “Taking Leave of a Friend”, freely translated with great skill by Ezra Pound:

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance,
Our horses neigh to each other
as we are departing.




Hebrides, Week 8: 15 May

By way of variety this week I thought I’d share with you an extract from Iain Sutherland’s book on the Fishing Industry of Caithness (2005). It’s about ganseys, of course, and I think it’s interesting because it’s written from the perspective of a historian, not a knitter:

The visiting fishermen all wore ganseys, which varied from area to area, with the Highland fishermen the most distinctive of all. They wore the Highland bonnet, which was similar to a Tam o’ Shanter, and their dress ganseys had a distinctive pattern knitted into them. Every fisherman had at least two kinds of gansey, one for working in and the other was a dress gansey for any social event, including the kirk.

Nybster Harbour in fog

“The work ganseys were knitted round with thick wool, very plainly, and had no buttons on which a net could catch. The sleeves were knitted short and stopped in mid-forearm with deep cuffs down to just above the wrist to keep in the warmth and to prevent the chafing if the sleeves got wet. Similarly there was a deep midriff to grip the area around the kidneys and to keep their backs warm. The dress ganseys were where their wives really showed what they could do with knitting needles, and nearly every port had its own patterns which usually involved the Horn of Plenty, cable stitch, an anchorage, the shore, all knitted round on needles so fine that the knitting looked like weaving.

Mervyn’s Tower at Nybster – a gansey in stone?

“They also had certain button arrangements, grouped on the shoulder, which could be undone to stop the neck from stretching when the gansey was being taken off or on. Most Highland fishermen wore horn buttons, which appeared white, and fishermen from the east coast wore their buttons in groups of up to four on either shoulder. Wick fishermen usually had four evenly spaced on the left shoulder while others could have groups of two, three and one, so that the home port of most fishermen could be identified at a glance if they were wearing their buttons. The buttons on their ganseys could sometimes identify the origins of a drowned fisherman.” [Sutherland, p.103]

I hadn’t come across the information on buttons before, and, leaving aside the water-muddying reference to identifying drowned fishermen (let’s all agree not to go there), even if was only in part a “rule”, it shows that there’s always something more to gansey lore than one may think.

With regard to the gansey cardigan, we had friends up for the weekend so I wasn’t quite able to get it finished: just a few more inches to go. The first step will be to get it washed and blocked, and after that—coming soon—the be-steekening!

Hebrides, Week 7: 8 May

The battle of Altimarlach took place on 13 July 1680, just a couple of miles up river from where we live. It’s been described as the last clan battle in Scotland, although, Highlanders being the loveable wee scamps that they are, this seems unlikely. I’d read about the battle but never seen the site, so last week as the sun was shining we decided to pay it a visit. 

The battle came about because the previous Earl of Caithness had sold the title in 1675 to Lord Glenorchy, a Campbell (also known to history as “Slippery John” just in case you’re wondering who to root for in this story). But George Sinclair, a local man, claimed the earldom by inheritance and, when a lawsuit failed, took to armed resistance. In 1680 Glenorchy invaded Caithness with 700 or so Highlanders, mostly Campbells; George Sinclair summoned an army of Caithnessians, and the two sides met where the burn of Altimarlach joins Wick River.

The Cross. A windfarm with Morven peeping above the horizon at the right.

Somehow I find it more moving to walk over a battlefield where hundreds fought, than thousands: it’s easier to imagine what it must have been like, just standing where they stood. The Altimarlach Burn joins the river at a right angle, cutting a deep cleft through the grassy meadows overlooking the river and marshland below. The main force of Campbells were drawn up on the hill, but Slippery John had some hidden out of sight, down in the burn. Well, the two armies clashed, the Sinclairs were driven back and then the Highlanders rushed out of hiding and hit them in the flank—and that was pretty much that.

Gordon photos the gorse. In the distance, the airport on the left and St Fergus on the right.

The battle was over in minutes (or about four hours if Peter Jackson ever decides to make the movie). So many Sinclairs were cut down trying to escape over the river that it’s said the Campbells could walk across without getting their feet wet. And like many battles it was all pointless anyway: within a few years a court had ruled that George Sinclair was the rightful earl after all and Glenorchy was awarded the consolation title of Earl of Breadalbane (he was later implicated in the infamous Massacre of Glencoe).

There’s two kind of history, I find: the history of kings and queens and faraway places; and the kind that happened on your doorstep, involving people who might almost be your neighbours. The local stuff may be smaller, but it feels more real, somehow.

By the way, the story goes that the famous tune “The Campbells are Coming” is said to have been composed by Glenorchy’s piper Finlay MacIvor to celebrate the victory; apparently for many years it was considered an insult to play it in Wick. Well, they say the devil has all the best tunes…

Lower sleeve pattern

In gansey news I have finished the first sleeve, which ends in a 6-inch cuff so the wearer can roll it back to fit; and am embarked on the second. I would normally expect to finish it this week, but as we have guests coming next weekend I might not make it. (As usual, my biggest challenge is remembering what I did just last week.)

The pattern for the lower sleeve is almost identical to the one on the lower body—the wave and seed stitch border are the same—the only change I made was to make the starfish slightly smaller. It’s a strong pattern, and as I said last week, because it’s on the forearm and bound to be noticed more, I didn’t want it to dominate the rest of the gansey.

Hebrides, Week 6: 1 May

The end of April in the North Highlands of Scotland is noteworthy for two striking phenomena: first of all, the hillsides are awash with flowering gorse, a stunning display of bright yellow that turns the countryside into something resembling the inside of a sickly god’s handkerchief; and secondly, of course, it’s my birthday.

Last week I celebrated my 57th year under heaven. Paul Simon once tried to imagine how terribly strange it must be to be 70; but I expect it will turn out to be much like 57, only with a few more parts missing—the damage, you might say, already having been done. I did worry that as I got older I’d have said everything I ever wanted to say; but as it turns out whole new topics of fascinating conversation pop up all the time: viz., medications, operations and what shows actors used to be in. (And did you know that the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album is 50 years old in June? Yes, I’m scared too.)

The gorse at Helmsdale

Bill Bryson once observed that the British are one of the happiest races on earth, because all it takes to make their day is a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. In my case, I’ve discovered, it’s a new flat cap, a CD of Herbert von Karajan conducting Bruckner’s 7th symphony, music so transcendentally perfect it’s what God listens to on his iPod when he’s having a bad day; and a leather-covered notebook. (Well, yes, all right; and a cup of tea.)

Bench with a view

I’ve wanted a leather-covered notebook ever since I read PG Wodehouse’s masterpiece The Code of the Woosters. It’s what Gussie Fink-Nottle uses to record everything he dislikes in people. (“Have you ever heard Sir Watkyn Basset dealing with a bowl of soup? It’s not unlike the Scottish express going through a tunnel… Have you ever seen Spode eat asparagus? It alters one’s whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word.”) Of course I don’t use it to detail the foibles of my fellow men—there’s only 192 pages, after all—but I am using it to make notes on Caithness history, shaking my fist at the 21st century and writing by hand with a fine-nibbed fountain pen (though not both at the same time, obviously).

Waiting for Gordon

Speaking of Caithness history, I read today that the Earl of Cromarty and his son, Lord Macleod, who’d been recruiting for Jacobite cause in the county, missed the dreadful battle of Culloden because they stayed too long in the castle of Dunrobin “to watch the tricks of a juggler”, and were captured. Isn’t that great? (This is an excuse I now intend to use at work to explain my next missed deadline.)

In gansey news I am well down the first sleeve. Now that I’m back at work I have less time for knitting, of course, but I still hope to finish this one in a fortnight. The patterns are essentially the same as the body, except that the starfish are slightly smaller—the reason for this being that they will be on the forearms, in full view, and I didn’t want them to dominate the rest of the gansey’s patterns. (It’s possible I may be over-thinking this.)

I’ll post a chart next week if I remember—but as far as today’s concerned it’s a bank holiday, the sun is shining on the hills and somewhere in the distance I can hear a god sneezing…

Hebrides, Week 5: 24 April

History, when you come to look at it, isn’t very pretty, is it? Or maybe it’s just historians who can’t come across a disembowelling without experiencing an urge to share it, hoping, like the Fat Boy in Pickwick, to make our flesh creep.

I start my phased return to work as of Monday, and to get myself back in the zone I’ve been swotting up on my Caithness history—and what a bloodthirsty tale it is. A viking lord is slain leaping from his window to escape his pursuers; a bishop is burned in his kitchen for demanding too high a tithe on butter; an earl’s son is imprisoned by his father, starved, then fed salted beef but no water and dies of thirst; a clan chief is treacherously murdered while at prayer in a chapel—honestly, it makes the Sopranos look like Teletubbies (word of advice: never turn your back on Tinky Winky when he’s holding a kitchen knife).

The chronicles, I notice, never include such passages as, “Earl Ronald, seeking to avenge the cruel death of his father, gathered his followers and sought out Harald Skullsplitter in his house where he offered him a fairy cake with pink icing as a peace offering.” Or, “Lachlan ‘Vicious Bastard’ Gunn, lusting after the wife of his neighbour, the Fair Helen of Tarool, decided instead to move to London where he changed his name to Lionel and became a celebrated interior decorator.”

If only the Vikings had turned their energies into more creative pursuits how much nicer history might have been (though I can picture in my mind’s eye the final seconds of anyone who suggested to a Viking they should “bury the hatchet”, realising just too late that murderous pirates probably have a limited understanding of metaphor). I mean, if he’d taken up knitting, Erik Bloodaxe might now be known to us as Erik Cableneedle.

It snowed Monday morning

Well, as last week was my final week of freedom, I chose to spend much of it knitting. I’ve finished the front—note the steek running all the way bottom to top—and joined the shoulders, and knit the collar. I’ve picked up stitches round the armhole and started on the first sleeve, essentially the same pattern as the yoke without the side ladders. Now I’m back at work of course progress from now on will be a lot slower: but I managed to complete 3.5 ganseys while I was ill, so I shall definitely have happy thoughts of the last few months to go with all the bad stuff I’ve been dealing with.

And here’s a final thought: we are all creating the history of our times, every day, all the time. It’s up to us to make sure that our story, when it comes to be written, is a good one. For my part, despite pretty strong temptation, so far today (it’s 8.00 pm) I haven’t burned a bishop, or murdered a clan chief, or slain an enemy in battle. So there you are: I’ve done my bit. One day down, the rest of my life to go…