As I still have the dregs of my cold, so that I sound like a man gargling with gravel when I cough, and as the Caithness nights are drawing in (sunrise at 8.21, sunset at 15.36), I thought I’d skip six months and take us on to May Day, a.k.a. Calan Haf in Wales, or Beltane in Scotland. (I know it means missing Christmas, but look on the bright side: just think of all the money you’ll save.)
You see, this week I came across an interesting account of a Beltane custom from Shurrery in the parish of Reay, up on the far north-west corner of Caithness, recorded back in the 1930s. It seems that on the last night of April all fires in the neighbourhood were extinguished. A group of men then went off in the dark to a certain place and set about lighting a fire from pieces of bog-oak, using only friction to get them alight (apparently a true Beltane fire could only rightly be started in this way, or by striking sparks from a flint).
When they had a fire properly burning in an open hearth all the people of the neighbourhood came to the special place, bringing their cattle. They and their beasts then passed through the smoke of the fire, being careful to move in a sun-wise direction.
After they’d all passed through the smoke, faggots from the fire were distributed to everyone and taken home to re-kindle their own hearth-fires. (This was a known as a teine-éigin, or “need-fire”; it was believed that the smoke had healing properties and would keep them free of disease in the coming season—a sort of sacred fumigation.)
Meanwhile, back in the present day bleak-almost-midwinter, I’ve been making progress up the front of my heather gansey, and have almost completed the first shoulder. (I see some of the stitches are a tad uneven, caused by the fact that it’s usually cold in our lounge when I sit down to knit of an evening! But this should all be sorted out when it’s washed.)
Hawthorn & Lichen in evening sun
Now, on the back, if you remember, I had 63 stitches for each shoulder and 60 for the neck. And each pattern band is 14 rows deep: 12 rows of the main pattern plus 2 additional rows (a purl row and a plain row to mark the boundary).
So I’ve decided to indent the front neckline by a depth of 16 rows (one whole pattern band plus the two boundary rows of purl and plain from the previous band). And because I decrease each side of the neck at a rate of one stitch every two rows, this means I’ll be decreasing 8 stitches either side of the neck (16 / 2 = 8) by the time I reach the shoulder. To achieve this, I’ve divided the front into 71 stitches for each shoulder (71 – 8 = 63); which leaves 44 for the neck in the middle. (Trust me, it’s easier to do than to explain.)
So hopefully by this time next week I’ll have finished the front, joined the shoulders, and maybe even have done the collar too, assuming my cold continues to improve. In fact, now I come to think of it, and given how many colds I’ve had this year, perhaps I should consider investing in some bog-oak and some kindling for next May’s Beltane Eve…
Once more I seem to be participating in a cosmic game of whack-a-mole with fate, fate being the one holding the rubber mallet. For yet again I’m heavy with a cold, and the world feels remote and far away. (Of course, I live in Wick, so the world really is far away, but you know what I mean.) I’ve developed an irritating cough which makes me sound like a Klingon complaining about a parking ticket, and my sneezes resemble the birth of the universe, a parallel universe in which mucus replaces carbon as the basis for life.
As a result, I’ve been reclining and gansifying like nobody’s business, and have finished the back and back shoulder straps. (I followed the traditional rule of thumb by dividing the body into approximate thirds: so as it’s 186 stitches wide, I have 63 stitches for each shoulder and 60 for the central neck portion.)
You can see the full effect of the pattern now, a purple chequerboard. (If I ever win the lottery I shall bury the gold in a field somewhere and knit another gansey like this with the location woven into the pattern.) To bring the armhole up to the full eight inches I added an extra three purl rows at the top, to mirror the ones at the start of the yoke; these are always nifty ways to make the pattern fit.
In other news, I heard a remarkable story this week from one of the small fishing villages down the coast from us, about a man who was drowned. It’s a sad story, so I won’t mention names or go into detail; and besides, it’s really the sequel that caught my interest.
Well, so the man went into the water and was drowned, and his body wasn’t found after the usual searches. So the local fishermen took a rowing boat, and got a live cockerel and placed it in a wooden cage, and then they rowed up and down the harbour with the cockerel in the bows. The belief was that if the cock crowed, that was where the man’s body lay.
Back and forth they went, but it never made a sound, except once when it made gave a sort of croak. They found the man’s cap, but the body was never discovered.
Isn’t that amazing? Like something out of Thomas Hardy, and yet it dates from the 1930s. The newspaper account said that this practice was common in Scandinavia, but this was the first time it had been tried in the north Highlands. (As I’ve said before, the past really is another country; and it’s name is Caithness.)
Waves at John o’Groats Harbour
Another time I’ll tell the story of the Caithness witches who changed into cats to persecute a local blacksmith—perhaps next Halloween. (Though you’d think it would work better the other way round, wouldn’t you?)
Outside the skies are grey, rain is lashing the windows, the wind is buffeting the house and it’s a full week since we saw the sun—and there’s still a month to the winter solstice. Ah, well. As the soldiers used to say in the First World War: shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke…
On Saturday my colleagues and I went down to Lybster, a small fishing village along the coast south of Wick. We took a carload of archives for local people to look at—including some lovely hand-coloured maps of the harbour, a Victorian school log book, and (a perennial favourite) a police conviction book.
It’s always fun to find out that human nature hasn’t changed much down the ages. So the book is full of convictions for theft, drunkenness, dangerous driving (with a horse-drawn cart), the ever-popular “malicious mischief”, and even stealing a rabbit trap from the local estate, and theft of a turnip from Thurso.
But if you really want proof that previous generations were no better than, well, we ourselves, look no further than the records of the Kirk Session, a monthly meeting of the parish elders to consider cases of morality. These were common across Scotland: in one case a woman is brought before the court for “lifting her skirt” to strangers, while in another a couple have to explain how they were seen lying together in a meadow, and she with her skirts “above her knees”. (I know, it’s almost too shocking to imagine; not that I haven’t tried.)
Caithness Police Conviction Book
Courtesy of Caithness Archives
In one three-month period in the early part of last century, the Kirk Sessions for Latheron, the parish Lybster lies in, dealt with five cases of illegitimate children. But there’s a twist: you might expect the mothers to be outcast, condemned like characters in a Thomas Hardy novel; but in the early 1900s, once they admitted the error of their ways and accepted the discipline of the congregation, that was the end of it. They were forgiven and everyone moved on—which shows, I guess, that you should never take history for granted.
Now I’m having to work for a living, instead of lounging around at home watching the rain explode against the windows like birdstrikes on a 747, the gansey knitting has slowed down. Still, I’ve divided for front and back, put the gussets on holders, and am embarked on the back. The chequer pattern’s becoming clearer now, and I have great hopes that when I’m sleeping people will be able to use me as a chessboard.
Finally this week, many congratulations to Vicky for this splendid gansey, using a combination of Polperro patterns from Mary Wright’s book, and knitted in Frangipani Cornish fudge. (Note to self: yet another colour to try.) From the look on the dog’s face, I’m guessing the next step will be a canine gansey…
And there we are, another Halloween flitting past cackling on a witch’s broom, and no one so much as knocked at our door; for once I was rather disappointed, as I’d come up with a clever plan for lighting the house involving a captive trick-or-treater, a treadmill, a generator and a chocolate orange on a fishing line just out of reach; but then, life is full of disappointments.
I was on holiday last week, but it wasn’t the weather for doing much out of doors; on even the rare fine days the wind made it feel like you were standing slightly too close to a nuclear test site. Other days it rained (if you don’t live in the far north of Scotland, to understand the effect ask a friendly fireman to play his water jet over you next time a warehouse catches fire in a hurricane).
So all things considered, it’s not a surprise that I got a lot of knitting done (I also drank a lot of tea, mind you; I can multitask with the best): I’ve finished the body of the gansey and started the patterned yoke, as well as the gussets. It’s a simple pattern, so simple that even I can keep track of it without notes, yet the plain segments stand out like geometric fields seen from the air. I’m very pleased with the colour, too, which shows up the pattern most effectively.
Incidentally, the pattern appears in Mary Wright’s book and Michael Pearson’s, but is charted differently in each—Michael Pearson has the purl segments comprising solid blocks of purl rows, whereas Mary Wright has alternating purl and knit rows; I’ve decided to follow the latter, as this seems to be closer to the original photographs.
It’s just a short blog this week, as I’m still in holiday hibernation mode (in fact going back to work this morning hit me like a brick wrapped in a gansey knit sock), but there’s just time to offer congratulations to Jane on her splendid Child’s Guernsey Duffle Jacket” from “Traditional Knitting in the British Isles” by Gywn Morgan (published by Ward Lock, London, 1981), which you can view here. And, of course, the bonus of knitting for the very young is that you get to have another go every couple of years!
And now at Reid Towers all we have to do is try to work out what to do with all those piles of chocolates we bought in for Halloween, “just in case”—oh, wait…
We’re past the autumn solstice, the clocks have gone back and it’s almost Halloween—and outside it’s wild, wet and desolate enough to send one of the Bronte sisters reaching for her pen and racking her brains for something to rhyme with “Byronic”—so it must be time for a new gansey project.
By a stroke of luck, here’s one I prepared earlier: it’s the gansey worn by the vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall. I’ve always liked those simple patterns that rely on contours and texture, and this is one my favourites. It has a plain body and a patterned yoke, and the effect is a little like the Lizard pattern I knitted back in the 1890s for my old friend Ian.
I’m knitting it in Frangipani heather yarn, which should set off the pattern nicely. (Great sculptors like Michelangelo were said to be able to see the perfect realisation of their sculptures in an uncut block of marble; I have a lesser talent—I can see the pattern of an unknit gansey in a cone of 5-ply.) Besides, I’m feeling unusually patriotic about my adopted country just now, and nothing quite symbolises the Scottish Highlands like heather.
I’m knitting it for myself. I measure a squishy 42 inches round the chest; I’m aiming for about 46 inches in the round and so, with a stitch gauge of 8 stitches to the inch—and with a little bit of fiddling to finesse the pattern (which we’ll come to in a week or two)—I’m knitting 374 stitches in the round. (I cast on 340 stitches for the welt, and increased by 34 at the body.)
It’s going to be quite long in the body, a real bum-hugger; it will be 27.5 inches from top to bottom. The ribbed welt was 4 inches long, and there will be 9 inches of plain knitting before I can start the pattern, and as I’m on holiday this week, that may not take long.
Totem Poles, Dunnet Forest
We survived ex-hurricane Gonzalo last week, thanks for all the good wishes, though it was pretty wild for a time. I rashly walked to work and found myself almost running at one point as a gust of wind pushed me violently from behind, as though God didn’t want me to be late. It was like being beset by the poltergeists of ex-rugby players. But even though it passed, Scotland’s being battered by wave after wave of wind and rain just now; so all in all I think I’m going to take ‘holidaying at home’ literally this week…
Charlotte’s smile is ironic
As she practices looking sardonic;
But Emily just glares,
Says, “Don’t give yourself Eyres,
Mr Rochester’s far too Byronic”.