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Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 8 – 16 September

And so I’m back in Caithness (Margaret following in a day or so), swapping sunshine and temperatures in the low 20ºs for downpours, gusts of 50 mph and roughly 12ºc. It’s good to be back. We’ve been taking the rest cure with my brother at the ancestral mansion, sadly ancestral no more in the absence now of both my mother and father. Strange the way bricks and mortar resonate with the absences of loved ones, the way a concert hall resounds to a great symphony in the seconds between the performance ending and the applause beginning. I love the house very deeply; but I loved it more for being theirs.

The view from the upstairs window…

The house is in the country and backs onto the Grand Union Canal. It used to be a pub. It’s four storeys high, three from the road but go round the back and the way slopes down to another floor: boatmen would tie up their narrowboats at the back garden and go inside for a drink. (The original bar is still there; lean against it, your back to the great inglenook fireplace, and history is right there nudging your elbow.) What a place to grow up in. I spent most of the last couple of weeks sitting at an upstairs window, knitting, thinking and watching the ducks, and the boats chugging past. A canal holiday is said to be one of the most relaxing things you can do; but take it from me, watching other people have one is even more so.

St Mary’s, Badby

As expected, I have finished the Thurso gansey, and I couldn’t be more pleased. It will have to wait till we get ourselves sorted before it’s properly washed and blocked, but it almost fits “as is”, and will hopefully become my new everyday gansey. (Given the weather I found awaiting me, this can’t happen too soon.) I’ve already started my next project, another very old favourite, but I’ll say more about that next week.

And if a canalside holiday is relaxing and revitalising to the soul, the 1,200-mile journey there and back down the M6 motorway is anything but. Dante originally had Charnock Richard services as one of his circles of hell, in between (appropriately) violence and fraud; after stopping there DH Lawrence described it as “utter hopeless ugliness for a long and gruesome mile” (the toilets alone he said were “like black manna from the skies of doom”). It’s said that the average person spends roughly a third of their life asleep, the equivalent of 25 years: trust me, this feels like time well spent compared with time on the M6, and shorter, though there were times I came perilously close to combining the two.

Pitlochry. (Not to be confused with the M6.)

I’m going to leave you with one of my own poems, written a couple of years back when I was experimenting with the style and spirit of zen poetry, trying to say a lot with very little. It was about going back to what I still think of as home:

House where I grew up,
How low the ceilings!
With every step
Dust rises.

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 7 – 9 September

It was a blustery September morning and the rain rattled the windows of 221B Baker Street. As I sat down to breakfast I noticed my friend and companion Mr Sherlock Holmes, after a night consuming innumerable ounces of shag tobacco and a quantity of cocaine in his favourite seven-per-cent solution, swinging upside down from the chandelier while playing popular excerpts from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan on the violin and blowing tiny bubbles from the corner of his mouth.

“Well, Watson,” Holmes said at last, breaking in on my thoughts as I reached for a fifth croissant, “have you decided to take out a subscription to that magazine, or will you continue to buy them from those “specialist” shops in Soho?”

“Er—what magazines?” I asked, colouring.

“Why, Manly Chaps’ Monthly,” he said, executing a neat triple loop and dropping to the floor. “Those racy ones with the centrefolds showing uncovered piano legs.”

Foggy Wick Harbour

“But this is unworthy of you, Holmes!” I protested. “You have been following me.”

“Not at all, my dear fellow. The problem is a simple one. When a man in his familiar place on the sofa rises by a quarter of an inch a month to an elevation of eighteen and a quarter inches, it does not take a consulting detective to deduce that he is surreptitiously hiding magazines under the cushion. But it is easily verified. I can, if you like, lift the cushion, so—”

“No! Er—no, that’s quite all right.”

But at that moment, and somewhat to my relief, we were interrupted by the arrival of our staunch housekeeper, Mrs Hudson.

“Why, Ethelfrida,” exclaimed Holmes, “you appear flustered. Whatever can be the matter?”

“Oh Mr Holmes! The most dreadful thing has happened. Cook’s been murdered!”

“Dear me,” said Holmes. “This is most gratify— I mean, appalling news. Still, at least she’d finished cooking breakfast.”

“But not the washing up. Oh Mr Holmes, we shall all be murdered in our beds! Well, except for Cook, of course: she was murdered in the kitchen.”

Holmes strove to calm her. “Things are not always what they seem. Let us examine the scene of the crime.”

Cat Rescue at Southport Model Village

As we made our way down the stairs, Holmes asked, “By the way, what was Cook’s name?”

“Mrs Rachel Cook, it was. Her cooking was terrible, I know, but I chose her because of her name. One less thing to remember, it all helps at my age.”

In the kitchen the unfortunate woman lay stretched on her back on the tiles before the cooker.

Holmes glanced indifferently at her, then said, “Watson, you’re the medical man. Have a look at her, will you?”

But no sooner had I felt for her pulse than I cried, “Holmes! She’s still alive!”

Holmes was examining the cooker. Without looking up he said coolly, “An electric shock, I take it?’

“Good Lord, Holmes, how did you know?”

Holmes twiddled the knob. One of the rings flashed a spark and a smell of burning filled the room. “As I suspected. Mrs Hudson, how long has this element been defective?”

Mrs Hudson wrung her hands in her apron. “Well, just a few days, Mr Holmes. I was going to get a man in to look at it but what with electricity only just having been invented and all…”

“As I thought. Mrs Cook went to turn off the cooker after making our breakfast, her hands still wet from the washing up, and received a nasty shock. She’ll be all right shortly.”

“Good Heavens, Holmes,” I said. “How d’you do it?”

Sherlock Holmes arched a sardonic eyebrow. “Why, elementary, my dear Watson…”

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 6 – 2 September

“I shall go into a hare/ with sorrow and sych and meickle care.” That is part of the charm Isobel Gowdie, the 17th century Scottish witch, is said to have used to transform herself into a hare. The second line means, “with sorrow and such and great care” (with care, yes, but, I can’t help wondering, why with sorrow?). And hares have been in my mind recently, because I think I have finally found my animal spirit guide.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spirit guides, any more than I literally believe in witches, say, or Merlin, or Boris Johnson. But metaphorically, it turns out I sorta do. Sometimes lying in bed in the dark (and in a Caithness winter this can be any hour of the day or night) I’ve explored the idea of a spirit guide to help steer me through difficult times, just for fun, even if it’s just my subconscious doing cosplay. But which animal would it be? Well, I decided to keep an open mind and let it come to me, if it wished. And to my great delight it did, recently: in the form of a hare.

Not a hare’s nest

Now hares famously build their nests in trees and on mountain crags and have large, hooked beaks for ripping flesh from their prey—no, wait, that’s eagles. Scratch that. Hares belong to the same family as rabbits, but they’re larger, and unlike rabbits hares are native to Britain, nor do they burrow underground. And you know, it feels like an appropriate spirit guide for me: hares are known for being timid and swift, which, apart from the swiftness bit, almost exactly describes me. Plus we both tend to go a bit batshit crazy in the spring, though admittedly in my case it’s more for chocolate easter eggs. The hare in folklore is known as something of a Trickster figure, so it’ll be interesting to see where she leads me—anywhere except down the rabbit hole, I hope…

Compass points

In gansey news I’ve almost finished the first sleeve: the end is in sight. I’m decreasing by 2 stitches every 5th row down to the cuffs—I usually allow for an 11-inch cuff, but this time I’m aiming for c.10 inches. (My wrist is about 8 inches round so it should be fine, everything will depend on how it feels once it’s blocked.)

Sarclet in the rain

And in parish notices, Judit has come up trumps again with another very natty gansey. It’s a striking example of banded patterns taken from Beth Brown-Reinsel’s book, combined in an arrangement that’s Judit’s own—and once again it shows the variety that can be achieved with this kind of pattern. It’s going to be a surprise Christmas present for one very lucky person this year. Many congratulations again to Judit, and thanks to her for sharing her work with all of us.

As for Isobel Gowdie, well, she would have transformed herself into other creatures, of course. Here are two of her other spells: “With giggling, and mirth and a cheeky grin/ I shall go into a penguin,” and “With a sneeze and a cough, dagnabbit/ I shall go into a rabbit.” But she never transformed herself into an egret. Even when the inquisitor switched to French to try to trick a confession out of her, she stood firm: “Non, she insisted, “Je ne egret rien…”

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 5 – 26 August

And so August is already receding in the rearview mirror of history. The days still feel like late summer, sometimes, but the nights bring the early chill of autumn. Autumn, mind you, is my favourite season: everything seems to snap into focus after the sprawling hazy summer heat, as though God is back from His annual vacation and has adjusted the focus of His celestial microscope to see what we’ve all been up to.

A beautiful day at the beach

Another sign of the change of season is the number of spiders you see around the house. I used to think that they came indoors out of the cold, but apparently they’re cold-blooded, like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and don’t feel it. No, they’re here anyway, and we just see more of them because the males, in that rather mucky way nature has, are trying to attract a mate. I bear spiders no ill will, not even the one that ran across my cheek when I was falling asleep one night aged about 12, something psychologists tend to refer to as a “formative experience”. (Is it just a coincidence that creatures that catch their prey by stealth tend to look downright evil? I mean, you don’t usually see spiders or pilot fish on the front of golden wedding anniversary cards.) No, spiders are welcome to share my house—just not my bed, or my face; plus I really don’t want my obituary to include the words, “laid its eggs in his brain”.

Watching the boats in the harbour

In gansey news I have finished the collar and have started the first sleeve, have reached the end of the pattern band, in fact, so it’s plain knitting all the way to the cuff. It’s a race against time to finish this navy gansey before the nights draw in too far for me to be able to see to knit it properly: another three weeks should finish it, so I should be OK. Then it will be time to work in lighter yarn for a few months, till the sun comes back.

Seeing double

And speaking of spiders, everyone knows the story of how Robert the Bruce, at the lowest point in his fortunes in 1306, defeated and on the run, his brothers captured and killed, his wife a prisoner of Edward I, his army scattered, took refuge in a lonely cave. There he saw a spider try several times to anchor its web, and fail, but eventually it succeeded; and from this he took inspiration to carry on the struggle that would ultimately lead to Bannockburn and victory. Well. It’s a good story, and it has the right kind of truth about it, whether or not it really happened. Hugh McMillan wrote a witty little poem in Scots dialect about it, The Spider’s Legend of Robert the Bruce, which always cheers me up. It’s irreverent (Bruce is described as “a big lug o’ a mon… raggety, right dosser”) but not disrespectful. I won’t infringe copyright by putting it here, but I urge you to follow the link—it’s very short.

And I’ll leave you with this curious fact: did you know that spiders have blue blood? Our blood is red because it contains iron, while spiders’ blood is blue, a useful point to bear in mind next time you run out of ink, because it contains copper. Spiders and the nobility, both defined by their bloodlines. Who knew?

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…