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Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 5 – 25 May

The age of miracles, alas, is over. I mean proper miracles, of course, not the everyday sort like smartphones or microwave ovens, my comprehension of which is more or less on a par with a Neanderthal invited to assemble the engine of a helicopter. No, the sort of miracles I’m talking about are the ones used by the saints to convert the heathen back in the day, before prayer meetings and leaflets became the norm.

The Daily Exercise

Saint Columba came to the Highlands in 565 AD, and paid a visit to Inverness. According to the Life of St Columba by Adomnan of Iona, he gained entry to the fortress of the Pictish king Bridei or Brude by making the sign of the cross, whereupon “the bolts slid back and the gates swung open”. Not only was Columba a useful saint to have around if you’d lost your keys, he also had what may be the first recorded encounter with the Loch Ness monster. He wanted to cross the river Ness, but when he reached it he found the locals burying a man who had tried to swim across for the dinghy on the far bank, and who had been killed by “a water beast”. Columba told one of his party to try, and when the beast duly appeared he made the sign of the cross and said, “Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once”. At which the beast “fled in terror so fast one might have thought it was pulled back with ropes”. (Isn’t that great? It’s also a perfect description of me, the time I opened the door to find some Mormon missionaries on the doorstep.)

St Fergus’ through the trees

In gansey news, I have started the gussets. I’m doing something slightly different this time: instead of growing the gusset from within the purl “fake seam” stitch, I’m keeping the purl seam stitch as it is and growing two half-gussets either side of it. This was a recognised traditional variation on the theme—Rae Compton features it in her book, for instance—and I’ve always liked it: it seems such an elegant solution, and you then have the seam running (seamlessly, as it were) from the ribbing, up the body, through the gusset and so down the sleeve to the cuff. Other than that, the gansey grows apace; and looking at the pattern I can’t help but think that, if nothing else, my friend Vincent, for whom it is intended, will never find himself short of a cheese grater again.

And so I bemoan the lack of miracles nowadays. It’s the smiting I chiefly miss, something that would have come in handy this afternoon when I met a young lady on the riverside; she was pushing a double pram that completely blocked the path, and talking unseeing into her phone, so that I had a choice between diving into river or the brambles, or being mown down like a dormouse under a combine harvester. Even St Columba might have struggled. But mostly when it comes to miracles I’m with Woody Allen: “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank…”

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 4 – 18 May

Spring has come to Caithness—by which I mean that it snowed last week, a light pithering on the wind, soft white flakes swirling out of a dark grey sky. Of course it didn’t settle, but it was cold enough for February with the weather screaming straight down from the arctic. Then we had 45 m.p.h. March winds for a couple of days. Now it’s warmer but raining, which just goes to show that God enjoys a laugh as much as the rest of us. The good news? As Scotland remains in lockdown while England has decided to substitute Russian roulette for football as the national sport, there’s not much incentive to go out.

St Fergus from the riverside path

As a student of history (among other things, viz. the recorded legacy of Bob Dylan), one thing I’ve learned is that, with a few exceptions, the processes of history are invisible to those who live through them; as the song says, you never know what you’ve got till its gone. Neolithic people didn’t eagerly wait for the latest calendar to tell them they were now living in the New Stone Age (“Ha, look at the poor old Mesolithic Thargs at Number 37; still working stone in the old way, not like us Neolithic go-getters!” “Never mind that dear, we’ve run out of toilet paper again.” “OK, just let me chisel you a new roll…”). 410 AD is usually accepted as the end of the Roman Empire in Britain, as that’s when the legions were withdrawn to shore up the Empire on the continent. They were only supposed to be away temporarily; but they never came back. Things carried on in the same old way for a time, but gradually entropy took over, closely followed by the Anglo-Saxons. In retrospect, we can see that 410 was the end of an epoch; it’s just that no knew it at the time.

Ripples in the harbour

Which is why I can’t help but feel the chill winds of history blow when I watch the UK Government’s daily press briefings on the coronavirus, and listen to announcements that—although they don’t directly say so—only apply to England. Health, social care, transport and education are all powers that have been devolved to Scotland. I’m quite sure that once the crisis is over things will go back to normal, or nearly—this isn’t the actual end of the United Kingdom, of course; not yet. It’s just that part of me can’t help thinking of those poor anxious, hopeful Roman Britons: all of whom expected the legions to come back, and everything to return to just the way it once was, too…


Robin Hood’s Bay pattern chart

As you’ll see from the photos I’m making good progress on the gansey, and should be making a start on the gussets later this week. It’s still drawn in because of all the cables and their purl stitches, so it looks narrower than it will once its been finished and blocked. It’s a pretty stunning pattern and deserves to be much better known, I feel. I’m posting the pattern chart this week, too (though it’s hardly necessary; this is one case where what you see really is what you get).

Finally Judit has sent a photo of her last gansey being modelled by its lucky owner. It looks great—and a great fit—and you can see the picture on Judit’s page here.

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 3 – 11 May

More proof, if any were needed, that my life is being scripted by a writer superannuated from a 1970s sitcom, or possibly one of the minor Carry On films. It was a quiet evening at Reid Towers, and a drowsy stillness lay heavy on the air. I had emerged, pink and glowing, from the early evening bath. The thorny question of getting dressed now presented itself. A creature of habit, I usually put my clothes on starting at the top, working my way down, with various scenic detours along the way, to the feet. But on this occasion, possessed by a spirit of caprice, I decided to reverse the order, beginning with the socks. Taking care to keep out of the way of our large bedroom windows, which overlook both our neighbours’ gardens, I carefully selected a sock— a tasteful pale grey number—and began. 

Winter returns

Now, etiquette dictates that there are two ways for a gentleman to don a sock. Either you perch on the edge of a chair or bed to draw it on, or—what you might call the advanced level—you balance on the opposing leg and stoop to meet the other foot halfway. Rashly, I adopted the latter approach. On such decisions the fates of nations hang. Reader, the sock met an unexpected snag somewhere around the region of the big toe; and as I struggled to ease it past the obstacle I began to lose my balance. In danger of toppling like a felled redwood, I endeavoured to stay upright by executing a series of sideways lurches, like someone trying to master the pogo stick from illustrations in a book. At last my efforts were crowned with success: I managed to get my sock on and remain upright at roughly the same moment. Flushed with success, and still balanced precariously on one leg, clad only in a single sock, like a portly heron with a natty taste in footwear, I looked about me. It was then that I realised my hopping had placed me squarely in front of the window.

The Soldiers’ Tower, Wick

About a nanosecond later I met the astonished gaze of our neighbour who had evidently until that time been gardening. I don’t know that she actually saw me: her attention may have been caught by a noteworthy chaffinch in the plum tree beneath the window. All I can say is that she seemed to visibly age before my eyes, and her mouth kept opening and closing like a fish experiencing an existential crisis, much like I imagine the Virgin Mary looked when visited by the Angel Gabriel. (Though angels are notoriously pleasing to behold, whereas in a state of deshabille I resemble nothing so much as a life-size waxwork of Donald Trump that’s been left too close to the fire.) My only consolation is that she didn’t have a camera phone on her, in which case I’d have no choice other than to change my name and leave the country. As it is, I haven’t seen her for a few days: my working hypothesis is that she’s probably joined a convent to preserve what remains of her soul.

Laura in her gansey

So we avert our gaze and turn with relief to the current gansey. I’m making slow but steady progress up the body. It’s a gnarly pattern that requires you to pay attention, stitch by stitch, but the results speak for themselves. It’s a stunning pattern, the moss stitch and cables making for a cumulatively impressive result—and of course the natural yarn shows it to perfection. It’s a pattern that needs a light-coloured yarn to really shine. N.b., in its unblocked state the cables draw it in, so it looks narrower than it really is. We’ll just have to wait a few months to see it as it really is.

For now, however, it’s time for my bath; I mean, what could possibly go wrong…?

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 2 – 4 May

After I left university—we’re talking some years ago now, when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and the Crimean war was raging—I found myself within the orbit of a group of broadly left-wing young people who were looking for an alternative kind of society. Green before the ecology movement acquired the label, some were anarchists, some were marxists, some were artists or going to be, and all were deeply earnest. Many cigarettes were smoked and much coffee was drunk into the small hours; there seemed to be a general belief that we could somehow get to the truth of things by talking, ideally while listening to Abraxas by Santana or The Concert for Bangladesh. It was a time of flamboyant dress and facial hair, some of it worn by the men.

Under a Rookery

Well, all I can say in our defence is that we were very young. Or, no, not all: for they were also idealistic, friendly and fundamentally good-natured. There was no harm in any of them, and I remember that was what first attracted me to them. Because even if I felt they were on some points misguided, I saw that they were, like the Cavaliers in 1066 and All That, “wrong but romantic”. (What sorts of things were they wrong about? Well, I remember one young man solemnly assuring me that the Anglo-Saxons held all land in common and there were no wars until the coming of the Normans; as if the Welsh had been dispossessed by a curiously persuasive leafletting campaign.) There’s a lovely song by Jethro Tull, Inside, which captures perfectly what it felt like to be part of it all, to belong on the inside of the outside: “Can you cook, can you sew/ well I don’t want to know/ that is not what you need on the inside”. Looking back, there’s a fragile sepia innocence about that time, like the golden summers before the war.

The Old Lifeboat House

It couldn’t last, of course. There was one night I heard we were getting a visit from one of our leading lights who’d left town a couple of years before. No one knew quite what he’d been up to since, but everyone was excited to see him, and we threw him a party. I can see it now: he turned up looking very out of place in a suit and tie, told us he’d made a career in insurance and—with a fatal misreading of his audience that makes me fear for his future prospects—spent the evening trying to sell us all life insurance.

And so, just as Christopher Robin eventually has to leave the Hundred-Acre Wood, so society took us and shaped us to her courses. Haircuts became a thing, and it was a shock to discover that your friends had so much forehead above their faces. Human kind cannot bear very much reality; and, alas, neither it seems can the ideals of sweet-and-twenty; youth’s a stuff will not endure. Turns out, life insurance is not what you need on the inside either…

Interested Bystanders


As the title suggests, this will be a gansey cardigan. The pattern is from Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire, a very simple but effective combination of moss stitch panels alternating with cables.  There are a lot of cables, 20 in all (by the time I’ve done a few rows of moss stitch and cables Margaret has to get the steam iron out to straighten out the kinks in my fingers). The only change I’ve made to the original pattern is that my cable is six stitches, rather than four.

I found it quite hard to come up with the right number of stitches. I usually add a stitch for every cable, to compensate for the way cables draw in the yarn; but there’s already a steek of 18 stitches running up the front of the body, and it will be slightly wider because of the cardigan’s zip. So in the end I made a guess and hoped for the best.

The gansey (excluding steek) is to be 22 inches across. 22 x 8 (stitches per inch) = 176 stitches. Excluding the steek I’ve added an extra 5 stitches to the front and back, and am hoping that—between this and the steek/zip—it will all work out. But we won’t know for sure until we’re just about at the armholes, so we’ve got a few weeks of blind faith ahead of us…

Robin Hood’s Bay Cardigan: Week 1 – 27 April

Sunlight was streaming through the windows into the breakfast room of 221B Baker Street as I took a seat across the table from my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes. It was week five of the lockdown and the strain was beginning to tell.
“Everything all right, Holmes?” I asked, unfolding my napkin.
“Never better, my dear Watson. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that when I came in, I thought I heard you saying to the toast rack, ‘Tell me everything, omitting no details, however slight.’”
Holmes coloured. “Possibly you heard Mrs Hudson singing ‘A Wandering Minstrel, I’ in the shower?”

Plum Blossom

The door behind me creaked open.
“Ah,” said Holmes looking over my shoulder, “Professor Moriarty. I’ve been expecting you.”
I turned in my chair.
“Holmes, that’s the cat.”
“I call him Professor Moriarty,” Holmes said defensively.
“His name,” I said, “is Tiddles. Listen, Holmes, he’s a cat, not a bloody Napoleon of crime.”
“Cats can be Napoleons of crime. Look at that fellow Macavity in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”
“Holmes,” I sighed, “the only practical use for a cat is to stick a broom handle up its wossname and use it for a mop.”

Daffodils by the riverbank

Holmes reached for a croissant. “Look, I’m sorry, Watson. But my mind is a finely-tuned mechanism. I can’t theorise without data! Even that child Wiggins and his Baker Street irregulars are shut up inside.”
“Well, after Mrs Hudson served us that tin of prunes she found at the back of the cupboard that was way past its sell-by date I’ve been something of a Baker Street irregular myself.”
Holmes took a moody bite of his croissant. There was a sound not unlike the cracking of a walnut and a small projectile whizzed past my ear. Holmes gingerly explored what was left of his tooth and gave the bell a violent ring.
A minute or so later our landlady Mrs Hudson appeared.
“Yes, gentlemen?”
‘What,’ demanded Holmes, rapping the table with the croissant and watching the corner splinter off like a disintegrating iceberg, “is the meaning of this?”
Mrs Hudson wrung her hands in her apron.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr Holmes. It’s just with the shops being sold out of flour and all I’ve been making do with what I could find.”
“Which is?”
“Well, plaster.”
“Mixed with, and I know what you’re going to say, cat litter.”
Holmes groaned. “Well, I suppose we should just be grateful it was clean.”
“Ahaha, well, it’s funny you should say that, Mr Holmes—“
“Er, did I hear you going out earlier, Mrs Hudson?” I interrupted hastily.
“Well, now, here’s a thing. I went to bank wearing a face mask like the doctors say and they thought I’d come to rob the place.”
“Good Lord!” I cried. “I hope there was no unpleasantness?”
“Oh, no,” Mrs Hudson said. “The cashier handed over £1,000 in used fivers, so I legged it.”
And with a curtsey she picked up the cat and left the room.

A Rainbow of Fish Boxes

In the silence that followed I turned to today’s edition of the Times.
“Holmes,” I said, “what’s happened to the paper? There’s only half of it here. You know I’m not myself till I’ve read the latest Peanuts comic.”
“Oh, that.” He said. “It’s this shortage of toilet paper, Watson, after all that panic buying. Luckily for us, the Times lives up to it’s motto, ‘Soft, strong and very long.’”
“Ah, I’m pretty sure it’s ‘All the news that’s fit to print’, Holmes.”
“And that,” said Holmes, pouring himself some more coffee, “concludes the case of the missing newspaper.”
I sighed and reached for a croissant. It was, I feared, going to be a long spring…

I celebrated my 60th birthday on Sunday—celebrated in the broad sense that I was conscious when it happened—which is as good an excuse as any for the above. Now, when I first started this blog as a mere stripling of some eight-and-forty years, I promised myself that this would be the cutoff date, assuming it (and I) lasted this long; after which I would embark on a well-earned retirement. And yet, here we are: I’m 60 and a day, and a new project (which I’ll say more about next time) is already growing on my needles. Promises are foolish things in these uncertain times, so I won’t offer a hostage to fortune by promising to carry on for another X number of years. Instead I’d like to record my thanks to all our readers, especially those who’ve been with us from the start, and hereon in let’s just take things one week at a time…