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Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 9 – 20 May

The gorse is out, which means it’s time to visit Helmsdale again. There’s a steep hill covered in bright yellow gorse rising high above the town and when, as now, the sun shines down from a brilliant blue sky, the sea glitters with reflected light and the gorse is full bloom, it’s as if God’s decided to paint the world in primary colours after a long, dreary, monochrome winter.

Helmsdale’s just over the border into Sutherland, some 35 miles south of Wick. It’s a lovely place, in the way that Wick, bless it’s dear old heart, really isn’t. It even used to have a castle, but—I believe the word I’m groping for here is “facepalm”—the remains were demolished in the 1970s to make way for a—sigh—bypass. Like so much of the Highlands, it’s a story of used-to-be’s. There used to be a crofting community in the uplands, but that went with the Clearances. There used to be a fishing industry, but that went with the fish. There even used to be a gold rush, when in 1869 some 600 prospectors descended on the hills up Kildonan Strath. Now there’s tourists, and gorse, and light: as brilliant as if the world were a vast cathedral and the sea and sky its stained-glass windows.

Old Bridge and Clocktower in Helmsdale

In gansey news the first Scarborough sleeve is almost finished, just the cuff to finish off. And I’ve laid the foundations of the Wick pattern, which I must say the Frangipani cornish fudge yarn shows off very clearly. Note the “print o’ the hoof” horseshoe cables, too: a bit of a bugger to knit, but a very effective detail. I’ll hopefully post the pattern charts next week.

View up the strath from the old bridge

Helmsdale was a Viking settlement back in the day (the name comes from Old Norse for “valley of the helmet”). One famous former resident was the 12th century Vikingess Frakkok, wife of Liot the Renegade. (I do love Viking nicknames: Eystein Foul-Fart and Kolbeinn Butter-Penis being the clear winners in a crowded field.) Well, the Orkneyinga Saga records that she helped her sister create a poison shirt sewn with gold intended for her nephew, Earl Paul. But Harald, her other nephew, saw it and was jealous, and insisted on having it. His mother and aunt explained “that if he put on the garment his life would be at risk”, but he put it on anyway, and “his flesh started to quiver and he began to suffer terrible agony”, until he took to his bed and died. The moral? Always listen to your mother, kids, especially—and I can’t stress this enough—if she’s a Viking.

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 8 – 13 May

Here’s a useful tip for all spectacle wearers. If you’re suffering from, as it might be, a touch of migraine, and you wish to freshen up with a hearty splash of water to the eyes, don’t forget to remove your glasses first. Trust me on this. You’ll thank me later.

We have some records from Thurso poorhouse in our archive, and a researcher brought to my attention an extraordinary series of letters written by the overseer to the chairman in the 1880s, concerning the matron. He writes, “the Mischieff arises wholly from the Matron’s dissipated habits when in Liquor. She rails upon them, the inmates retaliate & tell her of her drunkenness and it follows then that she has little control over them”.

Still standing . . .

A month later matters reach a crisis. “I am sorry to inform you that the Matron was outrageously drunk at dinner hour to day, it took the Porter & 3 of the women (inmates) to force her out of the dining hall while the inmates were at dinner, her language was horrible. I sent the Porter for the Policeman who was not at home & now she is ranging through the house striking the doors with violence.”

Unsurprisingly a new Matron was appointed, and in another letter the overseer says he made her predecessor open her suitcases before she left, only to find “4 pairs of blankets with house mark, 2 pairs of sheets, 3 pillow cases, 1 pillow, 6 yards of scouring cloth, 2 dozen patent firewood and 4 cravats” belonging to the poorhouse. (Which makes me think, hang on a minute: firewood?) Honestly, where’s Charles Dickens when you need him?

Spotted in a charity shop

Meanwhile in the wonderful world of ganseys I have at last finished the body of the Wick pattern and am just embarked on the yoke. (This must be what it’s like to have children, putting up with unremitting toil in the hopes that one day they’ll become interesting.) The original gansey has a diamond border separating the yoke from the body, but the whole garment is too finely knit to be replicated by me, even with Frangipani’s fine yarn. So I’m omitting the border (not all Wick ganseys had them) as I want to focus here on replicating the yoke pattern. And the Scarborough gansey grows apace, with back and front finished, shoulders joined, collar completed and the first sleeve begun.

Snow & Gorse on the way to Inverness

Finally I thought I’d share with you a joke. (I understand it’s an old joke, and applies to many cultures, but I was told it this week by a Highlander.) There was a Highland fisherman who returned home from his day’s fishing and unloaded his catch on the harbour quay. A bucket was filled with crabs, and one of them was climbing up the inside until it nearly reached the top. A tourist who was nearby alerted the fisherman to the fact that one of his catch was on the verge of escaping. “Oh, don’t worry,” said the fisherman, “these are Highland crabs: as soon as it looks like one of them might escape all the others will grab hold of him and drag him back down…”

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 7 – 6 May

I’ve been immersing myself in the world of Charles Dickens—not only his novels, but Peter Ackroyd’s biography. And the more I read, the more I feel he inhabited language the way Mozart did music. Here’s just one example: in a letter home from his trip to America in 1842 he described the constant flashes of spittle from the railway carriage windows expectorated by his fellow-travellers, “as though they were ripping open feather-beds inside, and letting the wind dispose of the feathers”. Isn’t that great (if gross)?

Dickens has a wonderful sense of the absurd, too, and in Martin Chuzzlewit this reaches something of a high point. The landlady of a boarding house for single gentlemen describes how wearing the life can be: “The gravy alone is enough to add twenty years to one’s age, I do assure you.” Elsewhere two women have a loud quarrel and the landlord, who owns the pet shop downstairs, complains: “You were pelting away, hammer and tongs! It’ll be the death of the little bullfinch in the shop, that draws his own water. In his fright, he’s been a-straining himself all to bits, drawing more water than he could drink in a twelvemonth. He must have thought it was Fire!” (From this to Monty Python isn’t really so very far.)

The Soldiers’ Tower, with Wick in the distance

There’s not much to relate in gansey news this week, except progress. I’ve finished the back of the Scarborough gansey and am something over halfway up the front. And the Wick gansey continues to grow as just over an inch a week: it’ll soon be time to think of the yoke pattern. Meanwhile, for someone who makes as many little mistakes as I do, and has to go back and have them corrected (sometimes two or three inches), it’s a relief to be knitting patterns that (a) are simple and repetitive, and (b) instantly show up any mistakes.

Ackergill Tower

Oh, and shall I tell you another reason I love Dickens? In Oliver Twist he created Fagin, the evil, almost supernatural villain, who was Jewish. To Dickens, Fagin’s race and religion was incidental—as he pointed out, all the other villains in the book were English Christians. But Fagin is such a powerful creation, and the evil and the Jewishness of his character were so indelibly presented, that a lasting connection was made. Well, years later Dickens became friends with a Jewish couple and the wife, Mrs Eliza Davis, pointed out to him that to her Fagin represented “a great wrong”.

Dickens came to see her point of view, and was mortified. So in his next book, Our Mutual Friend, he created a wholly beneficent Jew, Mr Riah, who is used by another character—a wholly repellant Englishman—as the public face of a moneylenders’ business. The Englishman squeezes the customers ruthlessly and lets the Jew take the blame, trading on the stereotype of Jews and finance, until the wrong is righted and justice prevails. In this and in other ways, Dickens tried to make amends. Of course, everyone knows Fagin and hardly anyone remembers Mr Riah, but perhaps this says more about us and the superficial glamour of evil than it does about Dickens.

And so, as Tiny Tim observed in A Christmas Carol, “Mother always taught me: never eat singing food”—no, wait, that’s the Muppets. Here we are: “God bless us, every one!”

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 6 – 29 April

I turned 59 last week, which was a bit of a shock. Not the fact of the birthday as such, which I’ve rather got the hang of by now; but the total. I seem to have lost a decade along the way somewhere, as though my memory has done the equivalent of plastic surgery on my life, to tidy it up—a nip here, say, or a tuck there. And yet, if I add up the years they’re all accounted for; at least they are if I involve a couple of friends, and we all take our shoes and socks off.

Of course, the symptoms of ageing are universal, and every generation has to go through them. (One of Jefferson’s early drafts of the Declaration of Independence began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that modern music sucks and no one writes proper tunes any more, and the edgy new sitcoms of today just aren’t funny, fact.”) I just can’t help feeling I made a crucial mistake in my pact with Mephistopheles all those years ago: and somewhere there’s a youthful painting of me in an attic that isn’t ageing at all, while here I am in real life…

Primroses at Nybster

In gansey news, I am almost to the shoulders of the back of the Scarborough gansey. I think one of the reasons I’ve always liked this pattern is because it’s essentially one block of one pattern. So many gansey patterns rely on detail for their effect—and very effective it is too, of course. But there’s still a lot to be said for simplicity. Meanwhile I’m still inching (centimetring?) my way up the body of the Wick gansey. The yoke pattern will be the polar opposite of the Scarborough one, and we should reach it in another month or so.

. . . and Primroses at Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

Finally, as it’s May this week, and even in Caithness Spring has definitely sprung, I thought I’d share with you two of my own poems. This time last year I was possessed by the spirit of a Chinese zen poet, albeit one remarkably fluent in contemporary English, and found myself writing a bunch of poems in the old style. Here are two of my favourites:

Hawthorns heavy with blossom,

Shaggy as sheep—
Waiting for the wind to shear them.


Full moon in spring—
Only a dog’s solitary bark
Tells me I’m alive.

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 5 – 22 April

It rained last night: just a few light showers, but still worth celebrating. You see, it’s been such a dry spring so far, barring the odd downpour, that the fields are parched. The word “dustbowl” comes to mind: farmers ploughing on their tractors are surrounded by billowing clouds of topsoil like the drifting smoke from fires; while along the hedgerows huddle groups of discontented crows, coughing and looking murderous. There’ve been moorland wildfires in Caithness too, no mean achievement in a landscape that’s basically a saturated peat bog. 

Rocks at Scarfskerry, with Dunnet Head in the distance

It still being fine this Easter weekend we betook ourselves to Scarfskerry, a little hamlet which has the distinction of being the most northerly settlement in mainland Scotland. It lies on a little peninsula between Thurso and John O’Groats. The name comes from Old Norse skarfr (a cormorant) and sker (rocky island); though even on sunny days a scarf is also recommended. (I do like the name. I keep wanting to work it into a limerick.) There were no cormorants when we were there, just a fisherman having a quiet smoke, a pier leading nowhere in particular, and a general air of desuetude. All in all, we felt, it could have been worse.

Waves at the Trinkie, Wick

In gansey news, we keep on keeping on. I’ve finished the half-gussets up the body of the Scarborough pattern and have divided for front and back. Usually I situate the stitch markers at the fake seam stitches separating the front and back; on this one I’ve been placing them at the point where the pattern changes from double moss stitch to the cable and ladder sections: I found I was so getting into the rhythm of knit two/ purl two that I kept missing the pattern change and having to unpick stitches. The Wick pattern is still growing slowly too; but I can tell I’m making progress because it’s getting harder to stand it upright, like a house of cards in danger of overbalancing.

Ackergill shore and Tower

Finally this week—oh, all right then. A limerick, you said? Well, if you insist:

There once was a young man called Terry,
Who ran for the Scarfskerry ferry—
But he’d drunk so much beer
That he fell off the pier,
So they’ll bury poor Terry in Scarfskerry.