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Wick (John Macleod), Week 2: 3 December

Keep your distance, everyone: I’ve caught a cold. Luckily it’s not the dreaded “man flu”, which scientists now recognise as the most deadly ailment mankind can endure ( is a reputable, peer-reviewed science journal, right?); and luckily it’s already getting better. But it’s got into my chest, and I’ve developed a sort of cyclical whooping hack of a cough. On hearing me on the street last week two respectably-dressed ladies pressed shillings into my hand, urging me not to spend it all on drink; I sound like someone letting the water out of a bathtub while tickling a hyperventilating donkey.

On the plus side it’s December, which means that it’s practically compulsory to lose oneself in classic winter’s tales of childhood. My personal favourites include Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow, and John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; even Ratty and Mole getting trapped in the wild wood, and spending Christmas Eve in Mole’s old burrow in The Wind in the Willows; and, of course, the daddy of them all, The Muppet Christmas Carol.

It was rather windy last Wednesday

I’ve only to hear certain phrases—”The wolves are running”, “The Walker is abroad”, or “Why, it’s Fozziwig’s rubber chicken factory!”—and I’m there, in a frozen pagan landscape, stamping my feet in the snow beside the stone circle, waiting for the antlered horseman to appear and the wild hunt to begin. Mind you, there was a time one phrase from The Dark is Rising—“This night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining”—seemed to sum up my situation at work so well I virtually adopted it as a motto.

Ganseys. I’m slowly making my way up the body of the new gansey. My brain seems to be fighting the pattern—blocks of three knit, followed by purl-knit-purl-knit-purl, and repeat—so it’s not coming automatically, and I have to keep counting and stopping and checking. I’m sure some of this is down to the cold, and the general sense that gravity must’ve increased when I wasn’t paying attention. Plus the ribbed effect draws in the stitches on the needles, so I have to work a little harder to move them round as I go. But it’s making a very pleasing effect, I must say: as if I was knitting one of those cakes with sponge fingers laid upright around the sides.

Reflections of Trees

Finally this week, a story that’s cheered me up immeasurably. I read that a few years ago Aberdeen was voted Britain’s most miserable city, or some such, so a national newspaper sent a reporter up to interview the locals. The first person the reporter spoke to was an old man at a bus stop. He asked him what he thought about the story. The old man threw away his cigarette, glared at the reporter and said, “**** off”.

As the old saw goes, It’s not the cough that carries you off/ It’s the coffin they carry you off in…

Wick (John Macleod), Week 1: 26 November

I’ve always been intrigued by the way that words change their meanings over time, slipping from concept to concept wherever there’s a gap in the language, like restless ghosts in search of a new host. One example of this is the word panache, borrowed from the French, which now means a sort of flamboyant confidence. But originally it meant the plume on a cavalryman’s helmet. It seems that because the cavalry were famous for their swagger and dash—think Sergeant Troy in Return of the Native—the word gradually transferred itself away from the thing and onto the behaviour.

Another example is that amazingly useful word for a small object to string on a necklace, bead. Originally in Old English the word gebed meant a prayer or request, and comes from the same root that gives us bid in modern English, and bitte in German. Back in the day, people strung counters together to tell, or count, their prayers, and over time the word shifted from the prayer to the thing. (Which of course makes one wonder: what on earth did they call beads before they were called beads?)

©Wick Heritage Society. Used with permission.

In gansey news, the Morwenstow gansey is washed, blocked and good to go, and I have, naturally, begun the next. This one is in Frangipani sea spray, a suitably light colour for the long, dark winter evenings (and days; this is Wick, after all). As trailed the other week, this gansey is modelled on one of the Johnston Collection of old Caithness fishermen’s photographs: in this case, the one worn by John MacLeod, pictured here. The lower body is interesting: not plain, but blocks of three knit stitches separated by a purl-knit-purl-knit-purl combination (I’ll let you know over the coming weeks how annoying this is to knit for twelve inches…). More information and a pattern chart next week.

Spot the Seal. There are about nine.

Finally this week—and yes, I know it’s a bit random but bear with me, I’ve got a cold—I came across this splendid incident of royal ‘barberism’ in the Penguin History of Scotland. The Scots King James IV married the English Princess Margaret in 1503, and apparently his beard at the time was, to quote a contemporary, “somthynge long” (hence his winning the coveted “Monarch Most Resembling a Badger” award five years running). The Countess of Surrey and her daughter, Lady Grey, had accompanied the new bride to Scotland for the wedding; and judging by the king’s household accounts they seem to have taken mattersliterallyinto their own hands:

Item, the ix day of August, eftir the marriage, for xv elne [ells] claith of gold to the Countess of Surry of England, when scho and hir dochter Lady Gray clippit the King is berd…”

Navy Gansey, Week 10: 19 November

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day, as Gerald Manley Hopkins said during his spell as a Caithness weatherman. Yes, it’s that gloomy time of year again: sunrise at 08:10, sunset at 15.45, the window of daylight shrinking day by day. Farmers plough the sodden fields and are mobbed by flocks of seagulls, which has the bonus at least of keeping the little perishers off the streets (the seagulls, that is, not the farmers).

Now, many years ago I read a book about the French and Indian Wars, the conflict between Britain and France in the middle of the eighteenth century for dominance in North America (think The Last of the Mohicans, but with less Daniel Day-Lewis). It was a nasty little war, and I’ve forgotten most of it now, but one incident has always stayed with me.

A View of St Fergus’

There was a battle in some woods somewhere, in which the British and their colonial allies squared up to a French force with their Native American allies. At once the colonials ran for cover and started blazing away at the French. Whereupon the British, naturally assuming that anyone so sneaky as to hide in these circumstances must therefore be untrustworthy, at once opened fire on their American allies instead of on the actual, you know, enemy.

For nearly twenty years this has been my benchmark for absolute stupidity. Every time I come across some eye-watering asininity—and I’ve worked in local government most of my life, remember—I think, well, that’s bloody brainless, but at least it’s not as bad as deliberately shooting your own side. I honestly never expected it to be matched in my lifetime.

Dunnet Forest

But enough about Brexit. Meanwhile, another gansey rolls off the production line; all it needs now is licence plates and that special new car smell (or failing that, washing and blocking) and it’ll be street-legal. I’ve tried it on and, bearing in mind that trying on an unblocked gansey is like attempting to wear clothes you last saw when you were eighteen—to bystanders you look like Goldfinger being sucked out of the plane window, or a film of a calf being born played backwards—it seems to be more or less the right size. I’ve even come to terms with the uneven Wendy yarn; though I’ve never regretted Frangipani’s cones so much as when I contemplated all those dangling ends waiting to be darned in, like alien entrails, or a plate of navy blue spaghetti.

Stone – Sand – Sea

Next week we strike out into uncharted territory, viz. the Johnston Collection of old photographs of Caithness fishermen, with a gansey originally worn by one John Macleod. It’s going to be an interesting journey, at any rate. Overhead, vultures are already circling; unless it’s just more of those blasted seagulls, which are basically vultures without the latter’s innate sense of decency…

Navy Gansey, Week 9: 12 November

We were walking along the cliffs at Noss Head, the spiked promontory just north of Wick, when we heard the urgent barking of a dog. There was a curious echo, and we realised we were hearing the sound of two dogs coming from one of the narrow inlets somewhere below us, out of sight. It was high tide, and we wondered if they had been cut off; or else—the thought arose courtesy of a childhood devoted to watching Skippy the Kangaroo on tv—there had been an accident, and the faithful dogs were calling for assistance.

Sinclair Bay and Castle Sinclair Girnigoe from Noss Head

Well, it was nothing so dramatic. When we looked over the edge we saw the dogs and their master on a narrow strip of beach: the dogs advancing on the incoming waves, barking furiously and wagging their silly tails, skipping back when a surge sent water spilling over their feet then returning to the charge; while all the time their owner looked on indulgently from the safety of the rocks. It was as if King Canute had been reincarnated as a pair of dogs. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two creatures so happy—the last time I had that much fun must’ve been sometime around 1975—and it was curiously uplifting. Wise men have sought for a meaning to life for many centuries, and have variously turned to religion, philosophy and chemicals, all in vain; when it turns out all you need is a couple of tame wolves and an ocean.

Fishing Boats in the Harbour

In gansey news, I am on the home straight: getting on for a third of the way down the second sleeve. As I said last week, I’m decreasing every fifth row down the sleeve. Because I started with fewer stitches around the armhole, owing to the thicker texture of the yarn (136 stitches in this case, as opposed to my more usual 145) I reached my requisite number of stitches for the cuff sooner than I usually do. By just over two inches, in fact. So I decreased down to 88 stitches and then knit straight for the last couple of inches, without decreasing further. This gansey was always going to be a trial—I still have two ganseys’ worth of this yarn to use—so next time I will decrease by two stitches every sixth row, and it should come out more or less right.

Bonfire Night Fireworks

I’m writing this on the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War: and I’d like to bring two sound clips to your attention, each of which, in their different ways, have moved me deeply this week. The first is the folk song, No Man’s Land/ The Flowers of the Forest, written by Eric Bogle and sung here by June Tabor. If you don’t know it, I can’t recommend it highly enough: the words and music perfectly suited, June’s voice soaring effortlessly, then segueing into the Scots lament The Flowers of the Forest—originally written to commemorate the fallen at Flodden Field in 1513 and now used in services to remember all war dead.

The other clip is quite astonishing. The Imperial War Museum commissioned a company to recreate the moment the guns fell silent at 11am on 11 November 1918, based on archive footage of the time. As you listen you can hear guns gradually falling silent; then the sound of the wind; and finally, tentatively, hesitantly, a solitary bird starts to sing…

Navy Gansey, Week 8: 5 November

Sandside Bay lies some 32 miles northwest of Wick, along the coast road, out past the Dounreay nuclear power facility. It’s the last sandy beach this side of Sutherland, and despite—or perhaps because of—the unrivalled views of the nuclear complex, it’s rather lovely. We were there the other day, taking advantage a lull between a couple of ex-tropical-storms, which always stagger across Britain at this time of year like disappointed marathon runners finally breasting the tape.

The bay is a bite-sized rectangle chomped out of the coast; the village of Reay and the beach run along the south side and there’s a harbour on the western edge, facing east. Incidentally, I was delighted to discover that there’s no agreement on the origin of the name of Reay: suggestions include Gaelic words, as in Reidh (a flat place) or Ratha (a fort or enclosure); and Old Norse, as in Ra (a boundary marker) or Vra (a nook or corner). But it seems to me you might just as well go for Ra (an Egyptian sun god) and admit you haven’t a clue.

We saw dog walkers and bird watchers (at least I assume they were watching birds; their binoculars were trained across the bay towards Dounreay, and they packed up hastily and drove away when we pulled in next to them. Hmm) and strolled along the beach. I misjudged an incoming wave (oh wait, you mean the tide comes in as well as out?) which dumped about a pint of seawater in each shoe. It was cold. There was a lady walking a dog nearby, so I strove to keep my dignity; and rather than squealing like an electrocuted ostrich and leaping six feet in the air, which was my initial impulse, I pretended it had all been deliberate. From the sniggers of the lady—and I grieve to say, her dog—I fear my innocent deception may have been seen through.

But who needs dignity if you have a gansey, I hear you ask? Moving on hastily, I’ve knuckled down this week and am a few inches from completing the first sleeve. I knit the pattern for 5 inches from the armhole, and am decreasing at my standard rate of two stitches every fifth row. A couple of weeks might see it finished, and no one will be more surprised than I. I’m currently on my eighth 100g-ball of Wendy’s navy yarn: it’s as uneven as ever, but I hardly notice the bobbles now; and it is pleasingly chunky.

Finally this week, one of my favourite poems, by one of my favourite poets, Li Bai, also known as Li Po. As regular readers will know, I’m very fond of Chinese poetry. After much reading I have discovered these poems tend to fall into three key subjects: (1) I am far from home and very homesick, (2) Life is short and all things must pass, and (3) Let’s drink! And then there’s this:

The birds have vanished from the sky.
Now the last cloud evaporates.

We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.