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Scarborough: 21 August

4W160822-2If you ask an archaeologist who created the ancient stone cairns that dapple the landscape around here, they will tell you it was Neolithic people; if you ask them why, they will cheerfully throw around words like ritual, ancestors, sacred, and the like. But they are, in fact, wrong: I can now reveal that cairns were created by swarms of midges as traps for unwary sightseers.

Sc160820-1We discovered this on Saturday when we paid a visit to the remote Cairn of Get at Ulbster, a few miles south of Wick. I’m suffering another of my summer colds and, looking for somewhere not too strenuous to explore, was misled by the directions which said it lay just a mile from the car park. Unfortunately the mile was on the vertical axis, not the horizontal, and we were soon scrambling up muddy hillsides (Caithness has hills; who knew?) and squelching through boggy marshes.

A heavy mist had descended, the kind you see on those late-night movies featuring promiscuous teenagers who’ve lost their way and are about to encounter assorted zombies or werewolves, possibly brandishing chainsaws. Landmarks, including the helpful posts to guide our way, vanished. But at last we found the cairn, set in the very apex of the hill’s crown, bulging up like the bridge on top of the Starship Enterprise, or the cherry on a bakewell tart.

Sc160820-2It’s a stunning location high above Loch Watenan, nothing for miles but fields and sheep and peat bog and heather; and silent, just the birds and the wind. But when we entered the shelter of the cairn the midges sprang their ambush. In seconds we were smothered in dancing clouds of tiny insects, so that the air seemed to boil around us. It felt like having pins and needles everywhere at once. I brushed my forehead with my sleeve and it came away a black smudge; a tickle in the ear resulted in excavations like Sherlock Holmes cleaning out his Meerschaum pipe.

A signboard near the entrance said that skeletons had been found inside, and speculated that Neolithic residents had used the cairn for ceremonial burials. But this is, I fear, erroneous: it was midges, tiny airborne piranhas. Realising that if we lingered archaeologists would have two more sets of bones to theorise over, we hurriedly retreated to the safety of lower levels.

4W160822-1In gansey news, I have finished Side A, turned the record over and started Side B (as this is going to be another traditional collar there is no front and back). I had intended to knit another couple of plain rows before starting the shoulder rig ’n’ fur, but the pattern creates a sort of elastic stretchy tension in the yarn. The armhole should measure 8 inches from the end of the gusset to the start of the shoulder strap, but when I checked it was anything between 7¾  and 9½ inches, depending on how far I stretched it, so I chickened out and decided to stop there. It won’t look quite as elegant, but on the other hand it mayn’t hang down to my knees.

Sc160822-1As for the cairn we visited, every time I drive along the A99 and pass the sign I can’t help thinking of the Beatles’ track I’m So Tired, in which John Lennon wittily sings, “I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset / Although I’m so tired I’ll have another cigarette / And curse Sir Walter Raleigh / He was such a stupid get.” “Get” is of course a Scouse variant of the British slang insult “git”, meaning a stupid or contemptible person. I like to think that the cairn was named after a disagreeable Stone Age chap: though, to be fair, The Cairn of the Cantankerous Old Git wouldn’t look quite so good on the tourist signs…

[Apologies to Judit: I should have mentioned last week that she has finished her glorious green gansey. Here it is in all its glory! And many congratulations again to her.]

Scarborough: 14 August

4W160815-1 Some old friends came to stay over the weekend – old in the sense that we’ve known them a long time, you understand, not that they are themselves elderly. (Though I am slowly beginning to wonder, given how spry Ian and Ruth seemed and how generally un-spry I am these days, whether some sort of reverse relativity effect may not be happening; and just as someone travelling in outer space will age more slowly than another on earth, whether I mayn’t be aging faster the closer I end up living to the north pole.)


We went to the lighter patch in the distance . . .

The weather was a little north pole-ish at times, too. We went to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the British mainland, and the drizzly low cloud was so dark it felt as though God had put in a mezzanine floor, possibly with a view to sub-letting the upper atmosphere to angels for harp practice.

We met a nice German couple at the view point, hunched against the wind and grimly determined, having come this far, to make the most of it. “The cloud,” the man said, with a wave of his dripping arm, “is very…” He sighed and shook his head, searching for the mot juste … “Dense”. We agreed with him: it was dense.

4W160815-2And yet, as we were leaving, driving back down the coast past Brough Bay, the clouds parted and for a half an hour everything was bathed in brilliant sunshine, all nature suddenly coming to life. There were birds and bees (the wildlife kind, I mean; don’t go getting ideas); there may even have been a seal. It felt like someone had put a shilling in the meter and summer had clanked into gear. Then the moment passed: the clouds rolled back, the sun vanished, and nature packed up its tent and went home. As, in fact, did we.


. . . where the sun shone

I have divided the gansey and have started knitting the back. The gussets are halfway complete, placed on holders, and measure about 3 inches long. I have to pay attention: I get so used to the repetition of “knit two-purl two” that unless I’m careful I knit through the ladders at either side and am in danger, in moments of abstraction, of knitting it into the sofa cover too.

And now the weather outside is glorious, supposed to last till Friday (then rain), which hardly seems fair after so much grey and damp and cold. At Dunnet Head I tried to explain to our friends that it’s not always like that: “You should come back in summer,” I said. They reminded me politely that it is August; according to the Met Office summer has a fortnight left to run…

Scarborough: 7 August


[N.B., This week’s photos not taken by Margaret…]

It’s August, Sunday afternoon, and outside it’s about 16ºc and the winds are gusting up to 60 mph. At the petrol station this morning I inadvertently dropped my receipt; it vanished in the direction of Denmark like the starship enterprise jumping into hyperspace. (I looked this up in Bumper Book of Caithness Euphemisms and this strength of wind qualifies as “a bit blowy, mebbe”.)

Yes, it’s high summer in the north Highlands (the other clues are the slate grey skies and the driving rain, and the sullen tourists wrapped up like Captain Scott’s sled crew). In Narnia, I seem to remember, it was always winter and never Christmas; here the dial seems to be stuck permanently on about the 5th of March and there’s never a talking lion around when you need one.IMG_3951

Of course, it’s not all bad—we’ve had a couple of days this year when the temperature reached the giddy heights of 21º. And it is one of the great compensations of living here: when the sun does come out the sea and the sky bounce the light around like a hall of mirrors, and it’s as though you’re living inside a stained glass window. (You can always tell when it’s a bright and sunny day, as the inhabitants stumble around the streets in a sort of daze, as though the council has slipped marijuana into the water instead of chlorine, staring wide-eyed and whispering in awed voices things like, “Dude, you can see everything” and “The sky…”)


Wick River, that day I didn’t need a scarf

Still, I’ve got a lot of knitting done—sunbathing not really being an option just now. I’ve started the gussets and the pattern: I’ll post a chart next time, hopefully, when tech support (aka Margaret) is back.

This is the classic Scarborough pattern, a yoke of double moss stitch flanked by a ladder at either side. I’ve always liked the look of it, though whether I can get through an entire yoke of knit two-purl two ad infinitum without clawing out my eyeballs remains to be seen. It’s the kind of pattern that should look good when it’s blocked, and the light strikes it just so, but till then rather appears as if I’m trying to knit green scrambled eggs.

8 Aug Fireworks 2

Fireworks by the river,or possibly a Martian invasion…

And now the wind is shaking the hedgerow that runs down the lane behind our house, rippling the leaves as it moves along the line, all the branches waving in unison as though a bunch of bored ents had decided to stage a Mexican wave, or reenact a Busby Berkeley musical while they waited for the entwives to return. Oh, and that reminds me—if anyone is reading this in Denmark and comes across a Tesco’s petrol receipt for Pump 5, would you please be so kind as to post it back to me when you get a chance…

8 Aug Fireworks 1

Scarborough: 31 July


Main ImageIf the fantasy writer George RR Martin follows this blog—and let’s face it, he’d be a mug not to—this week’s entry contains just the sort of blood-drenched tale of treachery, revenge and legal quibbling that is so dear to his heart. (It also holds the answer to that age-old question, how long can a Highlander hold a grudge?)

The Battle of Champions took place in 1478 or so, and was supposed to settle a long-running feud between two Caithness clans, the Keiths and the Gunns. The idea was that there would be a battle between a few hand-picked champions from each side, or as the legend has it, “twelve horses and their riders”, at the Chapel of St Tears just north of Wick. The twelve Keiths got there first and, while they waited, went into the chapel to pray.

Then the Gunns arrived; only the cunning devils had brought 24 men, i.e., two men riding on each horse. They dismounted and raced into the chapel and promptly massacred the outnumbered Keiths, though only after a savage hand to hand struggle. (The lord of the Gunns afterwards declared it was no breach of trust as they had but twelve horses as agreed—I like to think of him spreading his gore-drenched hands and saying innocently to waiting reporters, “What?”)

Sheep Watch

Lookout sheep on Holborn Head, Thurso Bay

Now, it sounds like the Gunns had a first-rate legal department, like Amazon, who pored over all their contracts looking for loopholes. But surely they missed a trick by not turning up like those motorcycle stunt riders who balance a human pyramid on their backs; or in pantomime horse costumes, which they could unzip at the crucial moment and shout “Surprise!” before leaping into action?4W160725-1-2

Meanwhile in gansey news I have duly started my next project, a classic Scarborough pattern in Frangipani bottle green. It’s to fit a 45-46 inch chest, so I cast on 332 stitches, knit 4 inches of ribbing, then increased to 368 stitches for the body, which I plan to knit for 12 inches before starting the gussets and yoke pattern.

The colour is a deep and vivid green, the sort of colour Robin Hood might have worn if he’d decided to take up herring fishing instead of robbery (I was sorely tempted to knit a Robin Hood’s Bay pattern as a sort of in-joke). Like so many gansey colours it has a metallic sheen in sunlight, in this case like the iridescent hue of a green tiger beetle.

4W160725-1In parish news, the indefatigable Judit has completed another splendid gansey, also in green. (Apologies but you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks till Margaret’s back—she’s away just now—to see the finished product, but meanwhile here Judit’s gallery here is a picture of it under construction.)

Oh, and as for the matter of how long Highlanders can hold a grudge? After the Battle of Champions the Gunns and the Keiths went on killing each other pretty much until punk rock had come and gone: the two clans finally signed a bond and covenant of friendship on 28 July 1978—just the small matter of 500 years, then…





Wick IV – George McKay: 24 July

4W160723-2The funfair’s back, down by the Riverside—you can almost see it from our house, and judging by the flashing lights and pounding music every evening it’s as if the spaceship from Close Encounters has landed in Wick. (Apparently a signal transmission containing Saturday Night Fever has just reached their home world, and now they’re trying to communicate with the citizens of Earth using the music of the Bee Gees…)

I’m not a big fan of funfairs, to be honest. The rides always make me feel like I’m trying out for NASA moon landings, while the overall experience feels like a tawdry Las Vegas theme park in a damp field with added sheep. (Mind you, if I ever did find myself in Las Vegas I’d probably experience sensory overload, and the medical team would have to bathe my temples with lavender water and read Proust to me while I listened to Wagner in a darkened room until I recovered.)


The view up the river

Meanwhile the latest gansey has rolled off the production line, polished and sparkling and ready for a test drive. I must say, I’m really rather chuffed with it: not only for the pattern, which is an instant classic, nor the thrift of reusing old yarn (which was a bit of a pain); but it’s soft and chunky and comfortable, and it already feels like I’ve had it for years, a good sign.

I’ve started the next gansey, a classic Scarborough pattern in Frangipani bottle green, but I’ll say more about that next week.

In other news, I went back to see the consultant at Inverness hospital about my swollen lips. In the last few months you’ll remember I’ve tried eliminating all the likely causes of an allergic reaction (cinnamates, sulphates, crisps, chocolate, etc.), and then reintroducing them—starting, purely in the interests of scientific research you understand, with chocolate—but the situation’s remained more or less the same: no major flare-ups of ulcers, but my lips are still rather puffy, my mouth still sensitive.


Grass seedheads and Valerian

The consultant poked and prodded, and asked me questions like “Have you been anywhere exotic?” (I told him I’d been to Northampton, but apparently that doesn’t count). We agreed it was probably an allergy, but he’s keeping me on his books a little longer as there’s just a remote chance it could still turn into something serious.

“Now, when you say serious,” I prompted. He affected nonchalance. “Oh,” he said, “you know. Tuberculosis.” At which point my eyes came out on little stalks like a snail’s and the nurse had to hold me down for a bit. (It’s absolutely not TB, of course—the odds were always vanishingly small, and are now even smaller; and as he said, if I develop it now it’d be so rare I’ll be famous ever after in medical textbooks—not exactly what I meant by wanting to see my name published.)

4W160723-1Well, I’ve got another six months before I can be safely discharged. In the meantime, meals have turned into a sort of culinary Russian roulette, never knowing which mouthful will prove the trigger for another outbreak. Hmm, I wonder—could Hotel Chocolat truffles be the cause? There’s only one way to find out…