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Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 4 – 19 August

What’s the most troubling thing you’re likely to hear over a plane’s intercom in mid flight? I suppose, “Hey—didn’t we used to have more than one engine?” would be pretty near the top, along with, “Oops, I thought you were going to organise the refuelling”. Luckily I didn’t get either of those on my flight last week from Wick to Edinburgh, but instead: “Ladies and gentlemen, um, we’re going to be slightly delayed arriving, ah, they’ve found a hole in the runway and until they can patch it up the airport’s temporarily closed.” Not even a free cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit is enough to steady the nerves as you continuously circle Edinburgh, picturing the co-pilot thoughtfully tapping the fuel gauge.

Well, of course we landed safely, just a little late. I’m not one of nature’s fliers, but I find commending my soul to God before takeoff seems to work, on the basis that if we land safely He can always give it back; if not, I’m that much ahead of the game. And as I mentioned last week, I didn’t take my current project with me on the plane (too bulky, too much concentration required). Even so, I have finished the front, and joined the shoulders, and started on the collar. Next week I should make a start on the sleeves.

Big Red Shoe – Northampton

To take my mind off things, I’ve been reading a biography of Robert the Bruce. (By the bye, I’ve always liked the Scottish custom of inserting the definite article between some forenames and surnames, as in Gordon the Reid, or Winnie the Pooh. It has added otherness when the person is also known by the colour of their hair, as in “the Red Comyn” or “the Black Douglas”—though I suppose on reflection probably not “the Brown Pooh”.) The story of the Scottish Wars of Independence is a remarkable tale, full of remarkable incidents, history that reads like fiction.

Flyfishing in Pitlochry

Isabella Fortuna leads in the flotilla

Here’s just one example. Bruce and his forces avoided pitched battles against the English wherever possible, preferring guerrilla raids and surprise attacks on English-held castles. One such was at Roxburgh, near Berwick-on-Tweed. One of Bruce’s lieutenants, James Douglas, known as the Black Douglas, was tasked with taking it. In the gathering darkness he and his men approached the castle on their hands and knees, with their cloaks thrown over them, so that they were taken for stray cattle by the castle’s guards. They had scaling ladders to climb the walls, and quickly gained the ramparts. Now, Douglas had been such a terror to the English that he’d become something of a bogeyman. The story goes that as he slipped inside, he came across a woman with her back to him nursing a baby, singing a lullaby: “Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye/ The Black Douglas shall not get ye”—at which Douglas crept up, placed his hand on her shoulder and growled in her ear, “Do not be sure of that!” Isn’t that great? Of course (what did you take this for, Game of Thrones?) he immediately swore he’d protect her and her child from harm.

But perhaps the best summary of Bruce’s career comes from Sellars and Yeatman’s classic text, 1066 And All That: “The Scots were now under the leadership of the Bruce (not to be confused with the Wallace), who, doubtful whether he had slain the Red Comyn or not, armed himself with an enormous spider and marched against the English, determined if possible to win back the Great Scone by beating the English three times running.” After which, there’s really nothing else to add…

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 3 – 12 August

Well, that’s the back of the gansey finished and about two-thirds of the front. Another week would normally see the shoulders joined, but I’m flying down to the Midlands on Monday for my mother’s funeral and my bag is already pretty heavy.

Carvings in Dunnet Forest

To take my mind off things I’ve been listening to music a lot recently. Now that the lyrics of just about every song ever written are posted on the internet, I finally realised that I’ve been mis-hearing songs for decades. I don’t mean the jokey “mis-hearings” which are intentionally, aha, funny. (Does anyone seriously think John Lennon is singing “The girl with colitis goes by”, or Bob Dylan “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind”? On the whole I rather doubt it). No, mine are simply honest mistakes.

Take Paul Simon’s classic song, Fifty Ways To leave Your Lover, the one that goes “You just slip out the back, Jack/ Make a new plan, Stan”, etc. For years I thought Lee was being advised to drop off the quay—to, you know, go down to the harbour, jump in the ocean and swim to freedom. I thought this was a great image. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it was the far more mundane, “Drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free”. This particular Lee probably had to wait for a bus. I bet it was running late, too, due to some kind of engine trouble, and he had to stand as all the seats were taken.

Another one is Jethro Tull’s classic track, Jack in the Green. I have no words for how much I love this song, have done ever since I bought the album back in 1977 (the first proper album I ever bought). The Jack in the Green is a traditional English May Day folk tradition; it’s basically someone inside a wicker frame all decked with greenery, looking like a cross between a yeti from Doctor Who and a hedge. It’s a bittersweet song that addresses Jack as an earth spirit who’s threatened by modern life: “Or will these changing times/ Motorways, power lines/ Keep us apart?/ Well I don’t think so/ I saw some grass growing through the pavement today”. Anyway, there’s a line I’ve always heard as “He’s played across, whispers Jack-in-the-Green”. Now, the phrase “to play across” comes from cricket, and it’s when a batsman hits to left or right instead playing the ball back straight ahead of him, in line. It’s very risky, but can bring great rewards. It always struck me as a great line, a perfect image in the context of the song: humanity has put the whole environment at risk for the benefits of modern life, and all nature can do is watch. But no: it turns out the line is, “Each blade of grass whispers Jack-in-the-Green”. Oh. I mean, it’s OK; it’s just not as good as the line I heard in my head.

Sarclet Harbour, near Wick

And, if I’m honest, this is the problem I’m left with. When I listen to these songs now, I try to hear them the way I used to, but I know I’m kidding myself. And while I’d never be so arrogant as to suggest that great songwriters like Paul Simon or Ian Anderson could have anything to learn from me, I’m just saying that I’m open to offers if they ever want to give me a call…

[Apologies again for the quality of the images, Margaret still being away. I know entire movies have been shot using iPhones; just not by me – obviously!]

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 2 – 5 August

As the Preacher said, for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to ride on the funfair and watch the fireworks, and a time for the funfair to pack up and move on while the rest of us wonder if anyone’s actually going to put out the smouldering embers of the bonfire. Yea, verily I say unto you, it’s barely August, and already it feels as though autumn is just around the corner; the smoke of wood fires drifts on the evening breeze. Shakespeare said that summer’s lease hath all too short a date, but in Caithness summer doesn’t have so much a lease as a weekend holiday rental.

Fireworks at Wick Gala

I think nature realises it’s running out of time. There’s a buddleia up the road which seems to be growing butterflies as well as flowers: the other day as I passed a giddy cloud of erratically dancing butterflies flew up and enveloped me, like an orange snowstorm. (I’m sure butterflies suffer from existential dread as much as the rest of us, but they certainly hide it well.) Our garden hedge is positively boiling with sparrows, everywhere you look there are shiny little black eyes, and heads appearing and disappearing like a vast game of whack-a-mole on speed. One collective noun for butterflies is, delightfully, a kaleidoscope. Another for sparrows is a ubiquity. Sometimes the English language is very pleasing.

Well, in gansey news I am about three-quarters of the way up the back. This has always been one of my favourite patterns: less ornate than some, it just seems like a perfect balance between the panels of chevrons and moss stitch diamonds; but of course it’s the double cables that really make it special, fiddly though they are to knit. The pattern is exactly the same as the last time I knit it.

I wonder what the collective noun for ganseys would be? (A botheration? A finick? A lifetime?) We all know about parliaments of owls, unkindnesses of ravens and murders of crows. My favourite collective noun is a shrewdness of apes, which seems about right. The weirdest one I found in the “terms of venery”, the old English hunting terminology, was a smack of jellyfish. This raises several questions. Do jellyfish smack, or do they not rather squelch, flop, or sting? If you inhale them, are they in fact mind-alteringly addictive?  And—most pressing of all—you mean they used to hunt jellyfish…?

The butterfly bush

[Apologies for the quality of images this week. Margaret’s off on her travels again so I’m afraid it’s back to me and my iPhone]

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 1 – 29 July

I’m very sorry to say that my mother passed away last week. Ruth lived to see her 90th birthday, had a good life and was cared for lovingly until the end, and there’s nothing to regret except the fact that she’s no longer with us; which, of course, is everything.

A few years back I was staying at the family home, and there had been a small, sharp disagreement, the kind of trivial thing that happens when people share a house and a life over several decades. There was just my mother, my father and me. My mother got up and went out and my father watched her go. Unexpectedly he smiled and said, “You know, when I first met your mother she was the kindest person I’d ever met.” He looked at me. “She still is.” Which pretty much sums up how I feel about her too, a feeling shared by just about everyone who knew her.

‘Spirit of Wick’

Well, it’s time to unmask my batteries and reveal—let’s be honest, no one’s surprised—that I’ve been working secretly on another gansey these last few weeks, when I felt like taking a break from the Wick pattern. (Sometimes it’s nice to unclamp the fingers after so much fine work and just relax with some plain knitting.) This is another revisit of a favourite old pattern, the celebrated Skipper Donald Thomson of Thurso, from Rae Compton’s book. I’ll say more about it next week.

Summer Grasses

I’m knitting it in Wendy’s navy yarn—part of my now-dwindling stash. As many of you will know, Wendy’s has discontinued its range of guernsey 5-ply, and when existing stocks have gone that will be that. Frangipani, blessings be upon their name, now stand alone as the last major supplier. (So long as no one reports them to the monopolies commission we’re probably OK…)

Laid out to dry – net by the harbour

And when I look at the old, black and white photographs of my parents I’m struck by how much fun they seem to be having; they’re always laughing. It’s salutary to remember that many of our parents’ best years didn’t involve us at all. (As Paul Simon said: “Well, that was your mother/ And that was your father/ Before you was born, dude/ When life was great…”)

In my memory it’s always the height of summer, the house is filled with soft, golden light and she’s just laid aside her magazine to share a funny story with us. Whenever I think of her, my mother is laughing still.

[We’ve turned off the comments for obvious reasons. Normal service will hopefully be resumed next week.]

Wick (Donald Murray): Week 18 – 22 July

Courtesy Wick Heritage Society

So that’s the Wick gansey finished, cast off, washed and blocked—and very splendid it looks, too, pinned out to dry like this. The body ribbing may be a pain to knit, but it looks fine; it features in quite a few of these old Caithness ganseys, and I’m sure it was designed to keep the jumper tight close to the body. (Those of us with ballooning midriffs, such as could lead to us being placed on our sides and rolled downhill like a barrel, have of course little need of such assistance.) This is the first time I’ve seen the pattern properly, and it’s a really impressive combination. I’ve said before that these Caithness ganseys represent for me the missing link between the patterns of, say, Yorkshire and the Hebrides, and this one is no exception. It’s promised to Wick Museum, to complement the original photo that inspired it. (Next week… something else.)

It was the County Show this weekend. In the field across the road from us great white marquees sprang up, so that glimpsed through the trees they looked like giant spiders’ webs, as though Miller Avenue had turned into Mirkwood overnight. At least this year was dry: the last time they held it here it had poured for several days, turning the show into what felt like great recreation of the Battle of the Somme. I’m not really much of a lad for agricultural shows, as a rule—in the event of a bovine mugging I’d struggle to identify individual cows from a lineup—and it doesn’t help to find barricades erected across the end of one’s street, in what I assumed at first was preparation for a no-deal Brexit. And now, as I write, it’s all coming down; only without the comical whoopee cushion noises my imagination is supplying as the giant tents softly deflate. Still, I’m glad the sun shone, and the wind dropped for a change.

Sheep at the Show

Ah, yes, the wind. I keep forgetting that it’s all that protects us up here from the midges and flies, in much the same way that the Earth’s magnetic field shields us from solar radiation. On the rare occasions the wind drops when we’re out walking the conversation usually goes like this:
Self: “Ah, what a stunning view. Shame about the wind, though.”
(Wind drops. Every orifice and inch of exposed skin is suddenly assailed by clouds of midges and flies, so that one resembles a victim of tarring and feathering, only they’d run out of feathers and decided to use currants instead; all the while jerking convulsively, as though someone had slipped a fairly frisky octopus down one’s trousers.)
Self: “Arg arg arg arg arg, gettemoff gettemoff gettemoff!”
(A fresh breeze springs up.)Self (pausing to expectorate several times): “Ah, what a stunning view. Thank God for the wind!”

No Wind at Forse Castle