I know I said I wasn’t going to do an entry this week, but as I’ve just finished the neck I thought I’d post this while we’re away in rural Northants (think of this as a ‘post restante’).
Now, my second-favourite Bob Dylan song is the sublime “Mississippi”, an amazing jumble of images about life and death, all delivered in the strangled croak of an elderly raven with laryngitis who’s decided to become a folk singer.
It’s full of wonderful lines that mean a lot to me (e.g., “Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay/ You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way”); and my favourites are “Walking through the leaves, falling from the trees/ Feeling like a stranger nobody sees”.
Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags and the Pentlands from across the Firth
We’re into autumn now and this line plays in my mind every time I find myself scrunching through the fallen leaves down by the river (it doesn’t take long, of course, as there aren’t that many trees in Caithness).
Bearing that in mind, a curious thing happened to me the other day. I was strolling along the river when a woman who was walking her dog stopped me as I passed. ‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘I hope you don’t mind, but we see you walking here every day, and we were wondering who you were?’
Haws and lichen
Once I got over my surprise, it turned out that, far from being a stranger nobody sees, the good people of Wick had been noticing me all the time and, since I appeared to be a fixture, had decided it was time to place me. (I mentioned this to my colleague at work, a native herself, and she looked at me like I’d just discovered Santa wasn’t real. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘People ask about you all the time.’) Dog walkers. Who knew?
Meanwhile, I’ve emailed Dylan and suggested that in future he change the lyric to more of a Caithness vibe: “Walking through the leaf, falling from the tree/ Feeling like a stranger with zero anonymity…”
Still haven’t heard back, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.
See you next week!
Thursday was the day of the referendum on whether Scotland should be independent of the United Kingdom, so on my way to work I stopped at the polling station in the old parish church of St Fergus and placed my cross in the box.
I’d woken up to television pictures of people queuing outside polling stations, reporters and cameras, campaigners, balloons, everything but elephants and a chorus line. So it was rather a surprise to get there at 8.30am and find the place deserted, not a soul inside or out apart from the two ladies handing out forms. Had it been busy at all, I asked? They looked at each other uncertainly. ‘Er… no, not really,’ one of them said. ‘Not as such, no,’ the other confirmed. (This counts as voting frenzy in Wick, I suspect.)
As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered—no one from the Highlands need have. There was a tragic accident that night at Berriedale, about 25 miles south of Wick, a lethal series of hairpin bends on cliffs overlooking the sea. As a result the main road was closed, so the ballot boxes had to be sent on a 90-mile detour before they could be counted. The Highland result was announced around 8.00am, but by then the No campaign had already achieved a majority, the Yes campaign had conceded and the Prime Minister was already finagling over the promises he’d made.
I don’t know if you followed the referendum at all, but all the national parties committed themselves at the last minute to guaranteeing Scotland more devolution and levels of funding, in hopes of shoring up the No vote. The BBC invited listeners to send in poems after the referendum and my favourite went something like:
Only in Britain could such things be done/ There were two options to chose from, and the third option won
—which seemed to sum it all up, rather.
Wick river bridge in fog
In gansey news, I’ve finished the front and the two shoulders, and joined them both. The next step will be the collar, and then—sigh—it’ll be time to pick up the stitches round the armhole of the first sleeve. I decreased a few stitches when I got to the rig ’n’ fur shoulder strap this time, as I’ve noticed that they can stretch a bit, especially on already large pullovers; so I reduced it by 5 stitches, which will hopefully keep things in better shape.
Spiderwebs in the railings
There’s an autumnal feel to the air just now, and the mornings are misty and moisty, just like in the old folk song. Spiders are everywhere. They’ve even been colonising the spaces between the railings outside the library where I work; one day I came out to find the webs all glistening with dewdrops and billowing in the breeze, as if the spiders had fashioned an armada of ghostly pirate ships with webs for sails. (Quite cool and more than a little creepy.)
There won’t be a blog next week, as we’re heading down south to visit my parents in Northamptonshire—no passports required, which is lucky as mine has expired. (If Scotland had voted for independence, sooner or later I’d have had to choose a nationality.)
The next post will be on Monday 6 October—see you then.
September is harvest time here in Caithness, and the last few days have been gloriously warm and sunny—or at least, when it’s not been dank and foggy and cold—real harvest weather. The wheat’s been cut to stubble, the hay has been baled and the fields are scattered with dozens of tightly-packed cylindrical bales; and these are now gradually being encased in shiny black plastic to keep the rain out through the winter.
It’s a slightly creepy spectacle, to be honest—each bale in turn is hoisted onto the back of a tractor and slowly rotated and twisted an encased in a black cocoon, as though the tractor was a giant metal spider and the bale its paralysed prey (think of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo is trussed by Shelob and you’ll get the picture). Someone should fill one with cheese, just for fun.
It was a still, mostly clear day on Saturday so we went up to John O’Groats and passed field after golden field of hay in the making, or grass drying in rows in the sun, with the sunlight shimmering on the sea beyond the cliffs. (I’m going to get a T-shirt printed, which I can wear and flaunt at tourists on days like this, that says, “It’s not normally like this”.)
The fog was drifting inland in patches, so you passed from sunshine into thick fog and out again from minute to minute; from the international space station it must have looked as though Caithness had been barcoded, and was on special offer.
Thanks to everyone for all the good wishes on my migraine and cold last week. For a few days there I felt as though my consciousness had been placed inside the body of a robot, one whose instruction manual was only available in Japanese and I couldn’t find the On switch. (It’s never good when you blow your nose and your handkerchief looks like an alien life form has just given birth in it.)
I’ve been doing a lot of knitting recently, but the illness slowed me down. Still, I’ve finished the back and done a standard “rig ’n’ fur” on each shoulder (12 rows, or 3 ribs consisting of two rows of purl and two rows of knit stitches). The armhole measures six inches, together with an inch of shoulder ribbing, giving a total of seven inches from the gusset to the top of the shoulder. I’m now embarked on the front, and if I’m lucky will get it finished next weekend.
Finally, I’ve had a query asking if there are any gansey patterns for two needle knitting? I don’t know of any, because this is all I do, but I was wondering if anyone out there had any suggestions where to look…?
So that was summer, then. Only last weekend we were sunning ourselves down by Lybster harbour, inhaling ice creams and watching the sunlight shimmer on the ocean like a sprinkling of fool’s gold; today, Sunday, we huddle indoors as the rain lashes the windows and the wind shakes the branches of the tree in the garden so vigorously it looks like Treebeard with his finger stuck in the light socket.
I had another migraine today. Sometimes they come like the end of the world, bright lights and dysfunctionality, like watching the last quarter of an hour of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a hangover; sometimes, as today, they just sneak up on you and mess with your head.
On Saturday we had hail . . .
It’s hard to describe a migraine to someone who’s never had one, like trying to persuade a lover of classical music (or, well, any music, come to that) that Bob Dylan is a great singer. (Someone once said to me that Bob Dylan is what a migraine would sound like if it had a recording contract, but I tell myself he was just being mean.)
. . . and sunshine
So today I had a headache, sure, but that wasn’t the worst part—everything became fragmented, disjointed. To take just one example, after taking a bath I became convinced that my shirt had been folded inside out—but every time I corrected this and put it on it was still, bafflingly, inside out again. I did this three times. I even tried reversing just one sleeve to see if I could figure out what was wrong (I couldn’t). The only way I could make sense of it was to take another shirt from the rack and compare the two, by aligning the labels. (Honestly, sometimes the flashing lights are preferable.)
Anyway, ganseys. I have finished the gussets as far as the body is concerned, and put them on loops of yarn ready for when I start the sleeves. I increased 2 stitches every 4 rows along the gussets until they were 17 stitches across.
Now I’ve divided front and back, and am embarked on the back. With a pattern as fiddly as this it’s a challenge to do the reverse rows, especially in such a dark yarn, so I have to concentrate (hmm, a migraine you say?). But it’s shaping up nicely, and I do like the effect of the vertical ribs separating the seed stitch panels. Many years ago we lived in East Anglia, the flattest land I’d yet seen (I hadn’t been to Caithness then, of course): this pattern reminds me rather of the drainage dykes running straight as Roman roads across the sunken fields.
Oh, and speaking of flatlands, the Caithness community website has posted some aerial photographs of the county, which you can view here: well worth a peek if you want to see what God’s early handiwork looked like before He moved into the third dimension with the rest of His creation…
Summer returned this weekend, like a guest you thought had gone but who came back for her umbrella and stayed for a cup of tea and a scone; and so, as it was a warm and sunny afternoon, with a light sea breeze and blue skies from horizon to horizon, we jumped in the car and went to Lybster. (Seeing the sun acts on us much as the bat-signal affects Batman; we change clothes and jump in the car—with only this difference, that he combats flamboyant villains, whereas we go out for tea and cakes.)
Lybster (the y is pronounced long, to rhyme with “lie” and not “lip”) is a small fishing village with semi-detached harbour, thirteen miles south of Wick. You can drive all the way down to the harbour, but we parked up in the village and walked the steep road to sea level. That way we got a stunning view of the harbour and the sun-dappled sea beyond, framed by the jagged cliffs that shelter the bay; and also of the Reisgill burn, the stream that plunges down from a rocky defile and runs into the sea.
Like so many of the east coast harbours, Lybster was developed for the herring fishing. It’s said that in Victorian times the fleet consisted of some 357 boats (which seems an awful lot to me, but who am I to argue with the internet?), and 50,000 barrels of herring were shipped out each year; now there are just a handful of small boats fishing for lobsters and crabs.
But Lybster harbour has two things going for it the other little Caithness harbours we’ve visited don’t: a café, and tourists. A former smokehouse has been converted into a café and visitor centre, and on Sunday several people were sitting outside in the sunshine, having a drink and watching the waves breaking on the shingle beach, and the seabirds wheeling below the cliffs, with that peaceful vacancy of mind that comes from a sunny day and nothing particular to do. (If I’m honest, my idea of an afterlife would be much like this; especially if, as Lybster did, it involves ice cream.)
I’ve had a cold—one of those tiresome sort that leaves you constantly fatigued, and in need of a sympathetic person to bathe your temples in lavender water every few minutes (I did suggest this to my colleague at work, but she was surprisingly unenthusiastic). As a result I’ve really got my head down and done a lot of knitting, and am now embarked on the gussets.
I should have said last week, I cast on 312 stitches, which I increased to 336 after the welt. (I’m still working to my new, looser stitch gauge of 8 stitches to the inch.) This gives me 2 seam stitches, and 167 stitches front and back; each seam stitch is flanked by 3 plain knit stitches. The pattern consists of 13 blocks of seed stitch alternating with 12 of basket.
It’s turned cloudy again today, and the wind’s got up. But I don’t care. If I close my eyes I’m still sitting on Lybster harbour steps, the sun on my face, the cries of the birds and the crash of the waves in my ears, Orkney ice cream burning my tongue—and the long, hot walk back up the road to the village yet to do. In a couple of months the clocks go back: I’ve got to remember there can be days like this…