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Filey – Mrs Hunter’s Pattern: Week 9 – 27 June

Last Tuesday was the Longest Day—no, not the solstice, though it was that as well—when we were scheduled to fly to Paris for a couple of days. And (spoiler alert), scheduled is the operative word here. I was due to attend a workshop on archiving records of nuclear waste, was even going to give a presentation; and the powers that be, having a pretty good idea of how I feel about travelling anywhere further away than, say, Thurso, had invited Margaret to accompany me, on condition we paid the cost of her flights. So it was that we approached the trip with a mixture of dread and anticipation: that is to say, I was dreading it and Margaret wasn’t. Reader, we got as far as Inverness.


You may have noticed that Britain is currently in the grip of a sort of collective travel omnishambles, with rail strikes, airport delays and flight cancellations. Our original return flight had already been cancelled, causing a lot of stress finding an alternative at a week’s notice. Well, we drove down to Inverness airport, checking our phones for any alerts that might indicate trouble. Nada. Then, just as we set foot inside the terminal, we, along with all our fellow travellers, were told that the flight was running about three hours late. This meant that we would miss our connecting flight, resulting in a 24-hour stopover at Bristol, and I’d miss the workshop. (On the plus side, we were given £3 vouchers for refreshments, which, given airport prices, meant we could put down a deposit on a cheese sandwich.) We were encouraged to hang on for as long as possible in hopes our connecting flight would also be delayed, but as this turned out to be the only flight on the entire network that was departing on time, after four hours we admitted defeat and drove all the way back home. Where, adding insult to injury, we had to unpack.

Yellow Flag Iris

If there is a silver lining—which I am not at present prepared to admit—it’s meant I’ve got more knitting done this week than I’d expected. And at least I’ve finished the pattern section of the sleeve, which means that, for the foreseeable, cables are no longer part of my life. (All I have to do now is iron the kinks out of my fingers.) As ever, once the second sleeve is underway it really looks like a jumper, and what a striking pattern this is: the photos in the books don’t do it justice.

St Fergus’ in the fog

I spent part of the time at the airport chatting to a French lady booked on the same flight as we, who also had to be in Paris next day (“But I ‘ave a plumbeur coming tomorreau!”). She was understandably inclined to take the pessimistic view—to be fair, Inverness airport can have this effect at the best of times—and her opinions on the current state of the world would might caused even the prophet Jeremiah to urge her to lighten up a bit. In particular she deplored what was happening in her own country, how people had become selfish and no one cared for their neighbours any more: “France used to be a great country,” she sighed, “but now eet ees just sheet!”

Filey – Mrs Hunter’s Pattern: Week 8 – 20 June

I’ve started volunteering at the local museum on Saturday afternoons. It’s a lot of fun to spend a few hours welcoming visitors, getting them oriented and sending them off to explore the collections with a guidebook, and sometimes chatting with them when they get back. It’s not so very far removed from my old life as a local government archivist, but now I’ve moved into middle management I spend more time interacting with a computer screen than face-to-face with the public. (You’d think this would be perfect for misanthropic me—I’m a little surprised myself—but it turns out I actually quite like people. Maybe it helps that they’ve usually just given me money.)

St Fergus’ from across the river

The museum’s surprisingly big, and is sort of a cross between the Tardis and Ghormenghast Castle, all winding stairs and corridors, unexpected galleries and annexes, and absolutely crammed with stuff. There’s a working lighthouse light from Noss Head, a smithy and a cooperage, a kippering kiln that could smoke up to 8,000 herring (once Wick had fifty such kilns in operation; not for nothing was it known as “Herringopolis”, though personally I prefer its other soubriquet, “the Sodom of the North”). There’s the old schoolroom from the abandoned island community of Stroma just north of John O’Groats, and a replica of the Johnston photographic studio where all the marvellous glass plate negatives that make up the Johnston Collection were taken. There’s even—*coughs modestly*—a gallery where modern copies of ganseys from Caithness and elsewhere are displayed.

Yellow Flag Iris

Speaking of ganseys, behold! The first sleeve is completed, even unto its entirety, and all that remaineth is to grit my teeth, pick up the stitches around the armhole of the other sleeve and Get It Done. And looking at it in it’s nearly-finished state, all those cables (and their flanking purl stitches) really do act like pleats, drawing the fabric in so that it looks very compact; I keep fighting the urge to water it, in hopes it will expand like a parched flower. But it’s bigger than looks, and washing and blocking should teach it who’s boss.

Hawthorn bough

It’s people and their stories that make volunteering in the museum so interesting. I was talking to one lady who said that her mother remembered when she was a little girl in Wick in the Second World War. One time a German plane came low over Bridge Street. She was too young to do anything but stare, even when it opened fire, until a man knocked her down into a doorway and threw himself over her. She remembered the feel of his tin helmet on her head, when he hastily shoved it on to protect her. Incredible. Another time I was talking to a couple of ladies. One was interested in exploring lighthouses, but the access road to one she wanted to visit was marked Private. “That’s down by the cemetery,” the other said. “You can always say you’re visiting it if anyone asks”. And when the other still demurred, she said: “Tell you what, you can look like you’ve got business there. Take a shovel.”

Filey – Mrs Hunter’s Pattern: Week 7 – 13 June

Last Monday I had the pleasure of being filmed by BBC Scotland talking about ganseys—though pleasure may be stretching it, my feelings beforehand being much like those of a medieval astronomer who’s noticed the Earth going round the Sun, and who’s just been told a couple of chaps from the Inquisition are downstairs and would like a word. But actually it was a lot of fun. The whole crew were professional and charming—I got the impression they’d done this sort of thing before—and I became relaxed enough to hear my mouth spouting the most godawful nonsense while my brain searched frantically for the chloroform. (This is perfectly normal for me, of course; but then I’m not usually being filmed for broadcast television.)

Blooming grasses

The programme is called In Our Town, and the presenter, Ian Hamilton, a quite lovely man, is blind. Any nerves I felt going in vanished immediately when I met Ian, who put me at ease at once, and his patient guide dog, Major (I shall in future insist that every tv interview I give must include a friendly dog). The filming took place at Wick Museum, upstairs in the gallery with the Johnston photographs and all my ganseys. I’ve been filmed for tv before, and the experience is a bit like finding yourself being interrupted by a SWAT team in the middle of making breakfast. So I was prepared to move my chair an inch to the left, hmm, how about to the right—your right—tell you what, just stand up a minute, I’ll move it—and doing different takes of the same answers. Ian, who is a good sport, had a go at some knitting, and if we’d had longer I think he’d have cracked it. Though given the fact that I’m effectively down to one working eye, the phrase “the blind leading the blind” has never felt more apt.

Taking in the view

Out of the limelight, my latest gansey has exploded into life this week: the front finished, the shoulders joined, the collar done and the left sleeve started. The original features Betty Martin as the sleeve pattern, but while I’m a huge fan of Betty I do prefer the look of having the body pattern mirrored at the top of the sleeve. So I’ve abandoned tradition for a change. The pattern on the sleeve is exactly the same as on the body.

Hawthorn blooming in the hedgerows

Back in the museum there was one camera, so I was the sole focus of the actual interview. They then filmed the reverse shots of Ian repeating the questions, so they could splice those shots into the footage of my answers (oh, I thought naively, so that’s how they do it). Then I was free to go. They were up here filming all week for a 30-minute programme, so who knows if I’ll even make the cut. Not that I plan to watch it; I don’t think I could bear it. The producer told me the programme was likely to go out maybe in October. Perfect, I said: that gives me just enough time to change my name and start a new life in another country…

Filey – Mrs Hunter’s Pattern: Week 6 – 6 June

The UK’s been celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee this weekend and the weather—unusually for a bank holiday—has been glorious, even here in Caithness. The clouds vanished and suddenly the sky got bigger, as though God had lifted the lid off the pot to see if we’re done yet. Even the sun seems to have had its dial turned up to eleven, there’s light everywhere, reflecting off the sea and turning the world into a giant kaleidoscope. We’re almost at the solstice, too: the days are already long enough that, when the sun shines, it’s actually brighter when you turn the lights off to go to bed.

Ruin by the sea, Crosskirk (not the chapel)

We took advantage of the sunshine and headed for two separate cliffs, north and east: St Mary’s Chapel at Crosskirk on the north coast, on the road to Dounreay, and Sarclet harbour, just south of Wick. St Mary’s Chapel itself dates from the 1100s, when Caithness was a Norse province. It overlooks a bay that mostly consists of shelves of rock vanishing under the sea at an angle, which always makes me want to get in touch with my inner Charlton Heston, fall to my knees, bang my fist on the grass and shout, “You maniacs! You blew it up!” Later, when we reached Sarclet the haar was just rolling in from the sea, a wave of low cloud drifting in over the cliffs, then pouring down to envelop the harbour in a slow-motion waterfall of vapour. The sun was shining hazily through the mist, as though in a sign that the Holy Grail was buried somewhere near, but though we searched we couldn’t find it anywhere.

Oystercatcher and thrift on a sea stack

One advantage of the holiday has been the chance to draw the curtains, ignore any street parties, and crack on with the gansey: I’ve finished the back, and am well on the way to getting the front done too. As usual, I have to pay extra attention when knitting front and back, as I’ve never quite got the hang of the knitting on the back rows being, in effect, inverted; and as I lost the ability to concentrate somewhere around 1979, a certain amount of unpicking and re-doing is, alas, involved.

Haar rolling in at Sarclet

And as for the monarchy, well, it’s one of any number of things that I find I don’t have to have an opinion on, along with such weighty matters as the offside rule, why modern music doesn’t have any decent tunes, and the heat death of the universe. It’s really very liberating. If anyone asks me what I believe, I simply refer them to the poet Stipe, who stated that he believed in “coyotes and time as an abstract“, and also that his shirt was wearing thin—a philosophy I think we can all get behind. Though as I get older I also find myself increasingly coming round to Groucho Marx’s famous credo: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well I have others…”

Filey – Mrs Hunter’s Pattern: Week 5 – 30 May

There are some words you don’t want to hear in an optometrist’s, and near the top of my personal blacklist is: “Oh well, at least the other one’s in pretty good shape”. (At the very top would probably be, “Hold still, I saw where it went and I’m sure I can pop it back in in a jiffy”.) Regular readers will be aware that I suffer from myopic macular degeneration in my right eye. This means that I have a blank spot right in in the centre of my vision in that eye, not unlike the cheesy special effect for an energy being in the original Star Trek. (If I’m reading, it’s a space about the size of the word “the”.) My peripheral vision’s still partly there, so when I’m having an eye test I have to sway my head around like the snake Kaa in The Jungle Book trying to hypnotise its prey just to read one of the big letters.

Swirl of Daisies

It’s all because I was born so short-sighted. My eye sockets are deeper than usual (30+mm deep, as opposed to the average of 20+mm), which stretches the blood vessels servicing the retina, particularly those to the macular, which is the bit that does all the work. Some of those have just become stretched to breaking point. (Or the way I look at it, some of the LED lights in the tv of my brain have blown, and they don’t make replacements any more.) It’s very weird. Straight lines bend around the blank spot, so if I look at grid pattern it resembles an illustration of a black hole distorting the fabric of space-time (look up “Amsler Grid” to see what this looks like; like I say, it’s weird). And it’s deteriorated quite a lot since my last checkup.

Photobombed by a Swallow

Still, it’s been this way for a few years now. It is what it is, and, as Gandalf so wisely observed, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”. (In his case this meant overthrowing the Dark Lord of Mordor, whereas I prefer to spend my time on the couch knitting; each to their own.) So I continue to make progress on my olive gansey. I’ve finished the half-gussets, and divided front and back. This is always the payoff moment, when everything goes twice as fast and you can see the pattern really come together. I may never knit another cable pattern ever again, mind.

Budding Hawthorn

And anyway, even if one eye’s a crock I’ve still got another which is, I’m reliably informed, in pretty good shape. The consultant who first diagnosed my condition told me that it might never develop in this eye too, or “it could happen tomorrow” (I’m sure he meant to be reassuring). So as far as I’m concerned every day’s a bonus, and every piece of knitting is literally a stitch in time. And if the absolute worst should happen? Well, so long as they can find it and pop it back in I should be all right…