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Wick (John Macleod), Week 9: 21 January

As a keen student of contemporary politics on both sides of the Atlantic, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve spent most of this last week sobbing into my handkerchief. And I was surprised to discover that the handkerchief as we know it was first invented in the Middle Ages by King Richard II of England (1377-99). Which raises a fascinating question: what did people do before that? (It also raises another question after a few seconds’ nauseated reflection: what on earth took them so long?)

Luckily there are court documents in the National Archives that capture the exact moment of discovery between Richard II and Isabella, his young French bride:

“Oyez, Richard, mon husband, come-toi back to le bed, c’est freezing. Holdez votres chevaux – ou the hell est ma duvet? Et qu’est-ce que tu fais avec mes scissors?”
“Un moment, ma petite cabbage, je suis almost done.” (He holds up a piece of cloth) “Et voila!”
“Que? C’est un petit square de ma bedsheet. Couleur moi unimpressed.”
“Non, regardez! Je honkais mon hootaire comme ça!”
(Demonstrates by blowing his nose on the square.)
“Eurgh! C’est fort unhygienic! Et très gross aussi.”
“Pas du tout, ma petite brassica de choice. C’est preferable au blowing snot rockets tout over le floor. Remembrez last year quand tout le court had colds, et j’ai dit que nous avons un infestation de slugs?”
“Ils n’étaient pas slugs.”
“Je voudrais return au maison de ma maman first thing demain. Aussi, je sais that nous vivons dans les Middle Ages, but je voudrais un divorce chop-chop tout de suite.”

Fishing boat in Thurso harbour

Sadly, the fragment ends there. Richard is also credited with insisting that spoons be used at court banquets, thus ending the hilarious custom whereby courtiers had to eat soup with a fork. He’s also supposed to have installed the first royal bathhouse. (On reflection, it’s perhaps not surprising that the English deposed him and put him to death a few year years later.)

Frosty morning

But I digress. Back to the subject of John MacLeod’s gansey that I’m recreating just now. I’ve finished front and back and joined the seed stitch shoulders, and completed the collar. (And while I consider myself a rational being I’ve come to realise that I’m reluctant to make my collars 13 rows; I mean, it’s not like I’m short of bad luck, so who exactly do I think I’m fooling?) Just the relatively plain sleeves to go now.

Incidentally, the word kerchief comes from two French words meaning, literally, a head-cover. So a handkerchief means a head-cover for your hand. This has given me an inordinate amount of pleasure, rivalled only by that moment at school some 45 years ago when I realised that the German for a mitten, Fausthandschuh, meant a hand-shoe for the fist. Aren’t words wonderful?

Wick (John Macleod), Week 8: 14 January

The far north of Scotland is being battered by deep depressions just now. (I mean this in a meteorological sense rather than a spiritual one, of course; since the doctors put me on antidepressant medication I rather feel, to quote The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that anything I still cannot deal with is therefore my own problem.) But then that’s the price you pay for living here: as the old joke about the BBC weather report goes, “Severe gales are forecast, so viewers in England and Wales are warned to stay indoors and avoid travel; and for viewers in Scotland, you’ll need your coat…”

Top wind speed in Wick last week was 74 mph, which really isn’t a lot of fun. Caravans were blown across the main north-south route through the Highlands, bridges were closed and a convenience store had its roof torn off. The wind blew straight down from the north and in Thurso it lifted the sand up off the beech and on through the town, creating an eerie drifting-fog effect, as though a stray group of Nazis had foolishly decided to open the Ark of the Covenant on Thurso esplanade for a lark.

Confused Daffodils

On the plus side, I’m about two-thirds of the way up the front of John Macleod’s gansey, and have set up base camp preparatory to making the final assault next week. I’m deliberately knitting more slowly with this pattern: it’s easy to make mistakes when I’m tired, and every other row I stop and count the number of stitches in the centre panel to make sure I’ve done all the yarn overs in the right places and still have the correct number of stitches.

Sunset on the riverbank

And shall I tell you something rather impressive? This is actually being knit with two separate dye lots of Frangipani sea spray yarn (two 500g cones). I knew it was a risk, because you can end up with visible lines where the colours don’t-quite-match; but as I had the two cones to hand, and was knitting the pattern as an example, I thought I’d take the chance. But here’s the thing: I can’t see the join, even in our currently elusive daylight. Sometimes fortune favours the casually reckless; and all credit to Frangipani for the consistency of their dyes.

St Fergus’ from the riverside path

As I write this the wind is getting up again, a mere 50 mph this time. So I’m going to finish with four lines by Li Po, the great Chinese poet and drinker. (It’s strange to think Li was writing tranquil poems like this while across the globe the Vikings were just starting to think it might be fun to bring down western civilisation.) In this extract he has come down from Zhongnan mountain; it’s dark and he’s stopped by the farmhouse of a friend for a drink:

We sang to the tune of the wind in the pines;
And we finished our songs as the stars went down,
When I being drunk and my friend more than happy,
Between us we forgot the world.

Wick (John Macleod), Week 7: 7 January

When we travel back and forth to Northampton we usually stay a night or two in Edinburgh to break the journey. It’s almost exactly halfway, in time if not in distance. In the run-up to Christmas, in this dark time of year, it’s doubly welcome—being full of lights, and people, and shops, and the general electric sort of buzz and bustle which is, alas, sorely lacking in Wick in the bleak midwinter.

I’m not much of a lad for crowds, as a rule. But there’s something about Christmastide in the city that brings out the best in people. And an untimely jostle in the German market, that on another occasion might result in a swift left hook to the jaw and more stars than one might see over Bethlehem, merely results in a polite, “Oh I say, I’m most terribly sorry,” and a “Not all, I was just thinking that this gluhwein would work better spilled all down my front anyway”.

Clouds over Dunnet Beach

We perambulated the Christmas market, we frequented coffee shops and we almost climbed Arthur’s Seat, the great volcanic hill that dominates Edinburgh’s skyline (look, we made it as far as the foothills before it occurred to us that Starbucks would be open, okay?). And I was interested to notice a new phenomenon among all the tourist shops along the Royal Mile: shops selling Harry Potter merchandise. They were busy, too, far too crowded to get into; and I found myself wondering, how many Slytherin sweatshirts do they sell?

Looking towards the Pentlands from Arthur’s Seat

Returning to the magical land of ganseys, I have finished the back of John MacLeod’s gansey. Of course, it helps that I only worked two days last week; progress in future will necessarily be a lot slower. It’s a really stunning pattern, and the lace-effect central trees have an almost three-dimensional quality. It pays to know your row gauge, though an element of luck is always involved too: the pattern fits almost exactly as I’d hoped. (The only thing to watch is the seed stitch shoulder strap, making sure that both match the seed stitch panels on the borders.)

Seals at Sarclet

In parish news, Judit has sent through pictures of her revised pink gansey, a very effective combination of chevrons and border panels. She’s also sent another picture, an early contender for this year’s Most Adorable Dog Posing With a Gansey award…

Finally, the local seals have moved away from Sarclet beach, where they came to pup, round the cliffs to a rocky outcrop inclining into the sea. There they haul themselves up for a leisurely bask, and to utter their weird, unearthly cries, which echo strangely off the rocks—not so much like the siren call of a mermaid as of a bass-baritone with an upset tummy. Though now I think of it, I don’t suppose anyone was ever lured to a watery grave by the siren call of a 300-lb whoopee cushion…

Wick (John Macleod), Week 6: 31 December

So this is Christmas, as the poet Lennon observed, And what have you done / Three ganseys finished / And a fourth one well begun. Yes, we’re back in a warm, wild and windy Caithness just in time for New Year, which we shall celebrate in the traditional way, i.e., sitting quietly at home, watching other people party on TV—at gunpoint, if the rictuses of forced jollity on the faces of the studio audience are anything to go by.

I’ve never really got the hang of New Year: you force yourself to stay up past your bedtime, feeling wrecked; you count down the hours and minutes to midnight, and then, after you’ve said “Happy New Year!” and “Wa-hey!” a few times, possibly to strangers, and watched the fireworks, that’s about it. Granted you get the excitement of brushing your teeth at about 12.30-1.00am, but is this enough, I hear you ask? I fear not.

On the plus side, living in the far north of Scotland at this time of year you’re unlikely to be woken up by sunlight streaming through the window at some ungodly hour on New Year’s Day: the gods up here don’t wake up till after 9.00am, and even then they’re more likely to just roll over in bed and leave the day to make its own arrangements. No: I’ll take all the Christmas I can get; I’ve never lost the feeling of Christmas as a special, magical, wonderful, cinnamon-spiced, holy time—but New Year for me has all the excitement of watching the car’s milometer turning over.

Sea Stack at Latheronwheel

Ah well, there’s aways knitting. I’ve now divided front and back, and am well embarked on the yoke pattern. And isn’t it splendid? I have to concentrate, and there’s lots of detail to keep track of: but this I think stands the equal of all but the most elaborate Hebridean patterns. Caithness ganseys really deserve to be better known. (More information on the patterns is set out below.)

And now all that remains is to wish you all a very happy New Year, and even, though this is entirely optional, wa-hey!


This gansey makes a change for me, as it’s an attempt to recreate an original gansey as closely as possible. Obviously it’s not possible to do that exactly, as the old knitters, at least in the north-east of Scotland, seem to have knit on finer needles with finer yarn: but as I’m bigger than the average Scottish fisherman of a hundred years ago, using the fine Frangipani yarn it almost works as a like-for-like transcription.

We had to finagle the patterns very slightly to get them to my size (46 inch gansey in the round). To make a gansey in my size, each side of the body has to be 183 stitches. To give me the extra number of stitches I needed, I added one stitch to the moss stitch border on either side (12 stitches rather than 11), and added cables either side of the tree panels (the original just has a purl-knit-purl detail there). With regard to cables, I’m a bit like Slartibartfast from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: I tend to add them whether the pattern calls for them or not, as I feel they give a lovely baroque feel to a gansey. But when I added them and found I had almost the exact number of stitches, I felt the hand of destiny on my shoulder…

Another thing to note is the importance of having the yarn-over rows of the central trees happening on an odd, or right-side-facing-forward row. Other, more experienced knitters may feel differently, but I want to do my yarn-overing on a front-facing knit row, not a purl row.

Also, note that the pattern starts below the gussets. This is the case in the original, though mine starts a little earlier to get all the rows in.

I still have no idea if this will work out: whether it will be too wide, too narrow, too short or too tall—or just right. It’s something of an experiment. If nothing else, I can still donate it to the local museum, as was my intention from the start. And speaking of which, many thanks to the Wick Society for giving us access to the high-resolution image of John McLeod in his gansey; and to Margaret for painstakingly charting it out.

Wick (John Macleod), Week 5: 24 December

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all throughout Wick
Not a creature was stirring, not even a tick.
I’d just gone outside to throw rocks at the moon
Before falling down drunk in a whisky-soaked swoon,
When I saw on the roof in astonished surprise
A sleigh and six reindeer, and a fat man likewise.
He was dressed all in red and his beard it was white,
And his shouting and curses enlivened the night.

“Oi, Rudolph, you halfwit, alas I’m undone!
It’s twenty to midnight and we’ve barely begun,
You knew a shortcut, you said, not to worry,
There’s plenty of time, we can stop for a curry;
You blithering imbecile brain-dead crustacean,
Next time I’ll adopt satellite navigation!”

He gazed all around as he blasphemed and cussed,
“Where the hell is this anyway?” he asked in disgust.
“Sir, this is Caithness,” I told him with pride,
“It’s just thirty miles long and it’s thirty miles wide.”
“Caithness, eh?” he mused. “Then we’re near Sinclair’s Bay,
By God! We can do it, let us be on our way,
On Grumpy, on Dopey, on Sleepy and Doc,
We can still shove these presents down somebody’s sock—
On Sneezy, on Rudolf, and most of all, Me,
And if time’s too short we can dump them at sea!”

He sprang onto his sled, with a shake of the rein
The man and his team became airborne again.
But ere he departed he looked down at me,
And called out this message, so bold and so free,
“People think I’m a nice guy, but I never forgive;
Tell no one about this: I know where you live…”

(A very Happy Christmas from Gordon and Margaret)

The Christmas Tree Festival
The Decorated Umbrella Procession
Decorated for Christmas: Cabin in Dunnet Forest