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Hebrides, Week 5: 24 April

History, when you come to look at it, isn’t very pretty, is it? Or maybe it’s just historians who can’t come across a disembowelling without experiencing an urge to share it, hoping, like the Fat Boy in Pickwick, to make our flesh creep.

I start my phased return to work as of Monday, and to get myself back in the zone I’ve been swotting up on my Caithness history—and what a bloodthirsty tale it is. A viking lord is slain leaping from his window to escape his pursuers; a bishop is burned in his kitchen for demanding too high a tithe on butter; an earl’s son is imprisoned by his father, starved, then fed salted beef but no water and dies of thirst; a clan chief is treacherously murdered while at prayer in a chapel—honestly, it makes the Sopranos look like Teletubbies (word of advice: never turn your back on Tinky Winky when he’s holding a kitchen knife).

The chronicles, I notice, never include such passages as, “Earl Ronald, seeking to avenge the cruel death of his father, gathered his followers and sought out Harald Skullsplitter in his house where he offered him a fairy cake with pink icing as a peace offering.” Or, “Lachlan ‘Vicious Bastard’ Gunn, lusting after the wife of his neighbour, the Fair Helen of Tarool, decided instead to move to London where he changed his name to Lionel and became a celebrated interior decorator.”

If only the Vikings had turned their energies into more creative pursuits how much nicer history might have been (though I can picture in my mind’s eye the final seconds of anyone who suggested to a Viking they should “bury the hatchet”, realising just too late that murderous pirates probably have a limited understanding of metaphor). I mean, if he’d taken up knitting, Erik Bloodaxe might now be known to us as Erik Cableneedle.

It snowed Monday morning

Well, as last week was my final week of freedom, I chose to spend much of it knitting. I’ve finished the front—note the steek running all the way bottom to top—and joined the shoulders, and knit the collar. I’ve picked up stitches round the armhole and started on the first sleeve, essentially the same pattern as the yoke without the side ladders. Now I’m back at work of course progress from now on will be a lot slower: but I managed to complete 3.5 ganseys while I was ill, so I shall definitely have happy thoughts of the last few months to go with all the bad stuff I’ve been dealing with.

And here’s a final thought: we are all creating the history of our times, every day, all the time. It’s up to us to make sure that our story, when it comes to be written, is a good one. For my part, despite pretty strong temptation, so far today (it’s 8.00 pm) I haven’t burned a bishop, or murdered a clan chief, or slain an enemy in battle. So there you are: I’ve done my bit. One day down, the rest of my life to go…

Hebrides, Week 4: 17 April

Just a short blog this time, as it’s Easter weekend—and, let’s be honest, if we’ve done this properly we should all be far too full of chocolate to read a whole bunch of words and stuff. Anyway, it’s spring—the daffodils are expiring in a riot of yellow; the gorse has picked up the idea and run with it, as if God, looking over His paintbox after finishing the world, realised He had loads of cadmium yellow left over and decided to splash it all across the Highlands for a laugh; and out in the fields the lambs are—to use one of my favourite Scots words—friskling (in the sense of, leaping or frolicking: these are not Special Branch plain clothes lambs patting down other sheep for concealed weapons).

And now for the good news. Easter was ever the time of renewal and hope, and so it has proved for me: this week I received the All Clear from the doctors and am now preparing to return to work after my long illness. I’m not out of the woods yet—and I have to stick with the meds till the autumn just to make sure my serotonin levels come back up to strength—but compared with how I felt in December, this will do nicely. I don’t have a date to go back yet, but soon.

Of course it’s helped having something creative to keep me occupied these last few months, and I suppose three ganseys isn’t a bad return, not counting this one. I’ve finished the back and started the front, and hopefully I’ll get that done this week. As ever, this sort of pattern forces you to pay attention; it’s not the kind of thing I can do while watching television, for example. But the results are so stunning I start to wonder why I knit anything else.

In parish news, Judit has sent us this splendid picture of her brother wearing a gansey in cream. It’s the classic Filey lifeboat design, but for the whole gansey, not just the yoke, and perfectly realised, as ever. Many congratulations to Judit on an excellent gansey and excellent photograph.

Happy Easter everyone, and a happy Patriots Day weekend to all our friends in Massachusetts!


TECHNICAL STUFF (PART 3)

And so we come to the yoke. The classic Hebridean arrangement is three bands each on three pattern “squares”, making a total of nine squares. They don’t have to be, of course, but in this case all the squares are all the same size—it makes them interchangeable, and it’s easier to do the maths, too. My reasons for choosing these particular patterns was as follows.

I knew beforehand that I wanted to include the tree of life—it’s a strong design which looks good in cream, and is symmetrical so can be broken into two equal halves by the steek. This I decided to use to anchor the corners and be the centre. (Also, living in Caithness, we need all the trees we can get.)

Again, the diamond is an effective design and can be split in two by the steek (which is why they’re in the centre column), but it’s also quite a plain pattern. The overall design of this gansey is very busy, and I wanted to balance some of that busy-ness with plainer patterns, or it just gets too much, I feel.

Finally, the recipient has a connection with the sea so I wanted another nautical connection, hence the anchor. I didn’t have a pattern that exactly fit the size I needed, so I more or less made up my own based on the examples in Michael Pearson and Rae Compton’s books.

The cables and yarn over triangley pattern thingeys are more or less self explanatory, though I’ll just note that I’m flanking the cables with a 3-stitch seed stitch on each side. I don’t think I’ve done this before—I usually opt for 2 purl stitches either side of a cable—but this is, apparently a feature of the north of Scotland ganseys, and, although a wee bit fiddly, it does look effective. The ladders at either side of the body are a great regulating mechanism, and can be made as large or small as you like to fit the number of stitches required.

Hebrides, Week 3: 10 April

About 13 miles north of Caithness lies Nybster broch, another of those round Iron Age drystone towers scattered across Caithness as thickly as currants on a bun. Brochs are unique to Scotland, and Caithness, with some 300 sites, has more than half of them. Their shape always reminds me of a clay pot on the potter’s wheel, smooth and tapering giddily upwards; most are just ruins, with only the foundations remaining (though a few preserved examples can still be found in Orkney and the Western Isles).

Nybster perches on another of those Caithness goes, the narrow promontories jutting out like splinters of rock into the North Sea. We parked in a small car park next to a couple of taciturn men staring intently through binoculars the size of TOW missile launchers for what I supposed were whales or dolphins, but who may just have been looking for Russian submarines.

The distance to the broch is further than it looks, the path twisting like a Tudor maze, but it’s worth the walk: the location is stunning, there are many unexpected goes and stacks of rock to see along the way, and the broch itself is surprisingly extensive. The central chamber is some 23 feet across, but there are the foundations of a number of outbuildings surrounding it; the evacuations were never filled in, so you can make them all out clearly. There are so many of these outbuildings that, seen from above, the site looks rather like a green honeycomb.

What’s that you say?

In gansey news, the Hebridean cardigan is moving right along. I have finished the lower body and am, at time of writing, 2 rows away from finishing the gussets. I’ve just started the yoke pattern, which I’ll say more about next time. I do like this yarn: it’s Frangipani Aran (Natural) yarn, but it has a yellowish cream tint, a shade I associate with (and this tells you how old I am) a milk bottle left too long on the doorstep in the sun. It reminds me of those examples of antique lace you find in museums—almost as if it’s been pre-aged.

Nybster, by the way, also features a bizarre stone monument, “Melvyn’s Tower”, erected by Sir Francis Tress Barry, the Victorian archaeologist who excavated Nybster, in memory of his nephew, and using stone from the site; bizarre not least for the gargoyles that adorn it. It seems an odd approach for an archaeologist to take, but then I suppose we should just be grateful Barry didn’t use dynamite to excavate the site, the way Schliemann did with Troy…


TECHNICAL STUFF (PART TWO)

I opted for a simple diamond pattern for the border—I tend to think the border shouldn’t distract too much from the yoke, which is always where the main action is in a gansey, I feel. It adds to the richness of the overall effect, but make it too busy and it gets a bit overwhelming. It’s nice to get a border more or less lining up so that it breaks exactly in the centre of the gansey, like a perfect crease in the leg of a pair of gentleman’s trousers; but it’s even more so with a cardigan employing a steek.

In this case the pattern repeat was 8 stitches, and as there are 173 stitches on the front side, and the back, we inset the border by 2 stitches either side to give us that perfect centre effect.

Hebrides, Weeks 1-2: 3 April

While we were away, spring finally arrived in Caithness, as tentatively as a nocturnal mammal in a nature documentary poking its whiskery nose out of its burrow—so far so good, but ready to withdraw at the first sign of trouble. Daffodils, tulips and primroses abound, buds are erupting on every branch like arboreal acne and there have even been rumours—hotly disputed—of the sun.

I’ve been immersing myself in Norse mythology recently and I’m glad to report that the arrival of spring means that Fimbulwinter has been averted for another year. This is the great winter that lasts three years and puts an end to life on earth, closely followed by Ragnarök, the downfall of the gods and destruction of the cosmos: altogether a bit of a downer, really. (Mind you, having just survived a Caithness winter, there are times when I can’t help feeling that Fimbulwinter and Ragnarök might not be so bad after all…)

Gavin likes his new gansey
(Photo courtesy of Davena)

Of all the batshit crazy aspects of the Norse end of days, possibly the most bizarre is the Naglfar, the “Nail Ship”, a boat made entirely out of the finger- and toenails of the dead, piloted by Loki, and carrying the armies of hell to the final battle with the gods. Isn’t that fantastic? People were even encouraged to ensure that dead people had short nails before their funerals, so as to delay Ragnarök for as long as possible. (I wish I’d known about this as a lad—I was forever being told off for biting my nails; what an excuse that would have been.)

Anyway, while we were away in parts south I started my next project, a Hebrides cardigan in Frangipani “aran” yarn. I’ve been working on the body, and am about ten inches to the good. Progress is naturally a little slower as the full body pattern means I have to concentrate—see below for why.

Finally, as has become something of a spring ritual for me, I’d like to quote some lines from one of my favourite poems by Ted Hughes, ‘March Morning Unlike Others’:

The earth invalid, dropsied, bruised, wheeled
Out into the sun
After the frightful operation
She lies back, wounds undressed to the sun
To be healed…
While we sit, and smile, and wait, and know
She is not going to die.


TECHNICAL STUFF

Cardigans are always a little tricky, as you have to calculate not only the patterns for the gansey itself, but also the steek, and how the patterns will fit around the steek. I’m sure there’s an easier way of doing this—if so, please don’t tell me now! Here goes.

The required body width is 21.5 inches. At 8 stitches to the inch, that translates to 172 stitches from seam to seam, or 344 stitches in the round. The preference is for it not to be too tight around the hips, so I decided to cast on 364 stitches for the welt (comprising 86 ribs of 2 knit and 2 purl stitches each), i.e. more or less the same as the body. For the same reason I opted to make the welt just 2 inches long, enough to show but not enough to really draw it in tightly.

Because it’s going to be a cardigan, it has a steek up the middle of the front. This is a panel 20 stitches wide which will, at the end, be cut right along its length with a pair of scissors and folded back and sewn down on the reverse side of the gansey, so that a zip or some other fastening can be attached, (The 20 stitches consist of 16 central knit stitches, i.e., 2 inches, flanked by a purl stitch on either side and another knit stitch—the purl stitches to serve as hinges enabling the central knit panel when cut to fold back more easily. Will this work? I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks.)

So in my calculations I have 344 stitches for the ribbing, + 20 stitches for the steek = 364 stitches cast on.

The body pattern is simple enough and required almost no modifications. The actual patterns are taken from Rae Compton’s book. There are 5 panels of starfish (@ 19 stitches each), 4 panels of the wave (@13 stitches each) and 8 seed stitch border panels between them (@3 stitches each). Add two plain stitches, one next to each seam, to serve as a border, and you have a total of 173 stitches for the back.

But what, I hear you ask, about the front, with its pernicious steek? And yes, this is where you have to be careful. You see, the idea is that the central starfish should break evenly either side of the steek. But the starfish is 19 stitches across—either you have 10 stitches on one side and 9 on the other, which would make it slightly out of kilter, or you have to have an equal number of stitches on either side—10 on each. I’ve gone with the latter, to keep it symmetrical. So in fact the front has to not 20 stitches wider than the back, but 21.

Well. When I finished the welt and started the body I increased by 5 stitches to 369—i.e., 2 seam stitches, 173 on the back, and 194 on the front to take account of the steek. I’m eight inches into the pattern and so far so good…

Filey IV, Weeks 5-6: 26 March

When I was at university, round about the time Queen Victoria was celebrating her diamond jubilee, I went out for a time with a girl who was a devout Christian. One evening at her flat, when the question arose as to what two young people of mixed gender without a television set might profitably do to pass the time, she proposed we try the sortes Biblicae, the exercise of opening the Bible at random to seek divine guidance. Now, this was not exactly what I’d had in mind, especially as I knew the chances of striking one of the riper passages in the Song of Solomon were fairly remote; but her mind was made up and she went first.

Drying in the sun

I can’t remember exactly which passage she hit upon: one of St Paul’s, I think, about it being a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Then she pushed the book over to me. ‘Your turn,’ she said. I didn’t give it a lot of thought, but opened it about halfway through at Isaiah chapter 13, verse 15, and to my horror read aloud: ‘Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword.’

Unsurprisingly the relationship didn’t last. And ever since I’ve taken the message to heart, determined not to be found, moving from place to place like a latter-day Job (but profiting by his example and staying on dry land; though I did have some anxious moments at Seaworld a few years back). But always secretly hoping for a sign of forgiveness.

Violets on the canal bank

Well, I’m delighted to say that last week it finally arrived. We were in the Milton Keynes shopping mall—as good a place as any to receive a missive from the Other Side, it being a near-death experience in itself—and I bought a couple of greetings cards. I didn’t think any more about it, and used the receipt as a bookmark. Happening to glance at it a few days later I received a sudden shock: for on the receipt were printed the words: Stay Positive. We Need You To Do Stuff.

Now, a cynic might suggest that all this means is that the receipt showed an abbreviated version of the text on the cards; but I absolutely reject this: I think it’s a sign. It may have taken almost 40 years, but I think my celestial amnesty has finally come through. 

I expect some of the stuff they need me to do is to knit ganseys, and another one has just rolled off the production line, gleaming with polish and ready to be taken for a test drive. (I did take it with me to my parents’ after all, and got a whole sleeve done.) Seeing it whole, blocked out to size, it really is a splendid pattern, one of the very best, and the deep colour of the yarn sets off the pattern beautifully. By the way, I made the cuffs 6 inches long, instead of the usual 3, so that the recipient can roll up and adjust the cuffs to achieve his desired sleeve length. I have, inevitably, already started my next gansey, but I’ll say more about that next week.

In the meantime I am, of course, staying positive: well, it would be flying in the face of providence not to.