As I look out my window fog is blowing in like cannon smoke, obliterating distance and mercifully blocking the view of Tescos. It’s the sea fret, or haar—a word it’s almost impossible to say aloud without sounding like Ahab on the Pequod, or the Sea Captain from the Simpsons, or some other salty dog (“What’s that dank, chilly mist that rolls in from the sea, Captain Silver?” “Haar, Jim lad”).
Like the balancing mechanism of a clock, this is Caithness’s way of ensuring we don’t all get sunstroke: any time the sun shines for more about 20 minutes, in rolls the haar. Sometimes living up here is the nearest thing to a nuclear winter outside a Stephen King novel—I was going to say, without the cannibalism; but as I don’t go down the meat aisle in Tescos all that often, who knows?
We drove down to look at Sarclet, an abandoned harbour a few miles south of Wick, in the fog. Usually I stand on the cliffs and gaze longingly out to sea as if I was modelling an exotic aftershave, Guano Pour Homme. But the haar was swirling in and so we watched the seabirds instead, wheeling around the cove from their nests below us, appearing out of the mist and disappearing again as though Caithness had evolved a new species of gull, one with its own cloaking device.
Sarclet is a wonderfully atmospheric place, the past almost close enough to touch. The buildings have fallen into ruin but the harbour, known as The Haven, endures. Shards of splintered rock rising from the ocean, churning white foam at the base; nesting gulls, a cliff face dappled with primroses and, if you’re lucky, an occasional passing seal. It’s a haven in more senses than one.
Meanwhile, in gansey news, I’ve finished the first sleeve, and am well embarked on the second. Maybe I’ll finish it this week, if I put in the hard yards, maybe not. Here’s a chart of the sleeve pattern again, a slight simplification from the original, but close enough for jazz.
Incidentally, thinking of Captain Ahab, I wonder if anyone has ever tried turning Moby-Dick into a Christmas pantomime? It’s just that I’ve been reading the book recently and can’t get this image of the ending out of my mind: Ahab calls to the audience, “Hast seen the White Whale?” and the audience cries back, “It’s behind you!”
Funny thing, getting old. I’m observing myself age, like a scientific experiment, monitoring the changes year by year: observing the gradual emergence of my scalp in the barber’s mirror, shining pinkly like a Japanese mountaintop fringed in cloud; not being able to see my toes past my stomach in much the same way that I can’t see Australia owing to the curvature of the Earth; and of course, wondering why no one writes music with really good tunes any more, dammit.
All these symptoms, however disappointing, are hardly unexpected. (As Philip Larkin, contender for Britain’s Least Optimistic Poet, once put it, “This is the first thing / I have understood / Time is the echo of an axe / Within a wood.”) But then there’s the whole mind thing, which is a little unsettling.
Last week I took a bath, towelled myself off and, after footling about a bit in the bedroom, started downstairs. I was vaguely aware that something wasn’t quite right—a sort of airiness around those parts of my anatomy that aren’t normally exposed to playful breezes—until, on looking down, I discovered that I had absent-mindedly neglected to get dressed.
Now, I know I’m not alone here: the great Archimedes, upon discovering the principle of displacement, had a similar bath time experience: and he gets his own Wikipedia page. All the same, when I get to the stage where I have to remember to check I’m wearing pants before leaving the bedroom, I fear a line has been crossed.
Ah, well, I have at least been making progress on the gansey (or “emergency modesty blanket” as I now like to think of it). The pattern on the first sleeve is completed and I’m well underway on the plain section to the cuff, decreasing two stitches every 7th row. This sleeve should be finished by next week’s blog.
In parish notices, the ganseys come thick and fast. This week Karen has sent me a picture of a very natty gansey based on Gladys Thompson’s Whitby patterns, with an elegantly shaped neck and a really pleasing combination of cables and diamonds and moss. (What did I say? Yorkshire ganseys—they’re the cat’s pyjamas, as Bertie Wooster would say.) Many congratulations to her.
And as for aging—well, I’m interested to read that some theoretical physicists have questioned whether time actually exists. (Though, as others have pointed out, they’re still suspiciously punctual for meals.) I like the idea that everything that has ever existed, or will exist, will endure simultaneously as long as the universe does, and that our consciousness just rides the rails of time like a runaway train. But if I have to get old, well, at least it’s better than the alternative; which is, to quote Philip “Mr Chuckles” Larkin again, “the only end of age”…
Last weekend we went off to look at something old. (Though it occurs to me now that in future I could achieve the same result just by staying at home and staring at my reflection in the mirror…)
Just up the coast between Thurso and Dounreay lie the ruins of St Mary’s Chapel, set back from cliffs overlooking the Pentland Firth. It’s about a mile’s walk from the road: you go along a track and then slither down a steep path to the valley floor where a river tumbles over rocks before spilling into the sea. You cross the river by a footbridge and clamber up onto the cliffs on the other side. At the top the land falls away and you see the whole vast heaving ocean spread out before you.
It’s a stunning location, and you’d get a real feeling of isolation and atmosphere if someone hadn’t carelessly plonked a bloody great technology park next to it. Still, you can always turn your back on the future and lose yourself in the past—it’s what I do for a living, after all.
It’s the oldest building in the north Highlands, though no one knows how old: maybe 12th century, maybe 9th. Only the nave survives from the original chapel, as it was substantially rebuilt in 1871. In other words, it keeps its mysteries: and that feels entirely appropriate. To walk there now under the burnished sun, hearing the crash of the waves on the rocks far below, gulls riding the wind as through straining to an invisible leash, at the wrong end of God’s microscope, it doesn’t just seem right that there’s a place of worship here: it feels inevitable.
Meanwhile, as you’ll have noticed, the gansey marches on: I have joined the shoulders and knit the collar, leaving a neck width of about a third the width of the jumper, as was traditional. And as I sometimes do, I’ve picked up the stitches round both armholes, and left one on some holding yarn while I finish the other sleeve; the shameful reason is simply that I don’t enjoy picking up stitches, and it’s good to get all the bad things out of the way in one go…
In parish notices, the ganseys keep on coming: this week I’ve been sent pictures by Elisabeth of a splendid and unusual gansey featuring cables and a lattice pattern (more photos on her Ravelry project page). Congratulations to Elisabeth on a striking and original design!
Finally this week, I attended a job fair for the nuclear archive and got talking to a gentleman who used to work at Dounreay, the nuclear facility just up the coast from the chapel. He told me a great story. One time, a team of four or five guys were tasked with cleaning out an installation; it was a totally enclosed space, so they had to wear ear protectors, which also served as headphones. One of the guys discovered they could all be hooked up to a walkman, so they could all listen to the same music at the same time. So they put on a tape of Jeff Wayne’s classic album of The War of the Worlds and got to work, singing along.
The supervisor came in unnoticed at the point on the album when the Martian war machines utter their famous war cry, “Ulla! Ulla!”—whereupon the guys all joined in, shouting, “Ulla! Ulla!”—totally freaking out the supervisor, who of course was unable to hear the music. All he saw was a bunch of busy guys suddenly pausing in their work as if at some signal, raising their heads, and shouting this strange cry in unison. And all this in a nuclear research establishment, too; he must have felt he’d stepped straight into an episode of Doctor Who…!
It was Margaret’s turn to have a birthday last week, so we packed up our troubles (that’s the great thing about psychological trauma, it’s portable) and went down to Inverness for the weekend: Inverness being our closest big town not in Scandinavia.
We went for a stroll round the botanical gardens, where we saw some of the strangest plants from across the globe. Strangest of all—and a little disturbing—was the cactus house, which seemed to have be hosting the advance guard for an alien invasion of earth. (Indeed, I set about explaining this to an attendant, but from her glassy-eyed stare as I developed my thesis over the course of an hour I can only suppose that they’d already gotten to her.)
Then we took a scenic drive all the way round Loch Ness. It’s some 23 miles long, not as big in terms of surface water as Loch Lomond but deeper, and—fun fact ahead—contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. It’s most famous of course for the elusive monster; despite keeping a close lookout, alas, we didn’t see any sign of it (in person, that is: not that I’m entirely convinced that the portraits we saw on numerous tea towels in Fort Augustus were actually drawn from life…)
Most of the tourist traffic goes down the main road along the north side of the loch, whereas the south road meanders into pine woods and the stunningly beautiful uplands and is far less busy. We stopped the car at one point to stand upon the pinnacle of creation, all the kingdoms of the world at our feet, so that if the devil had appeared to tempt us with lordship of them I shouldn’t have been altogether surprised (luckily he’s otherwise engaged just now meddling with US politics). It’s every bit as lovely as the Scottish Tourist Board would have you believe: as the poet Burns so memorably said, my heart’s in the Highlands… (Unfortunately it’s also suffering from fatty degeneration after all that tablet; but that’s a small price to pay, I feel.)
Just a minute – I thought he said he wasn’t going to do this again…
Wrenching our gaze from the choppy waters of the loch for a moment, we notice that I’ve almost finished the front of the gansey. All that remains to do to complete the body is to divide for the shoulders, knit and join them, and then do the collar. If I apply myself I should get that done this week.
Finally this week, parish notices: no less than two ganseys to share with you, each of them very impressive. First of all, Jenny has completed a version of Gladys Thompson’s Hebridean gansey: the body is I believe pretty much as Gladys describes, but Jenny’s been creative with the welt and sleeves—it’s a stunner. Secondly Julie’s designed her own jacket using gansey techniques but her own patterns, with a steeked zip front fastening. These two garments show I think the vitality of the gansey tradition: the one shows how much life there is still in traditional patterns, the other how versatile the gansey can be as a garment. Congratulations to both!
I celebrated my 56th birthday last week—though now I come to think about it, perhaps “celebrated” isn’t exactly the word. (Commiserated? Maudlined? Whining-self-pitied?) Anyway, as a treat, Margaret offered to bake me a cake of my choosing.
After detailed internet searches involving algorithms, spreadsheets and an army of trained field mice (it’s great—they work for crumbs), I finally came up with the chocolate cake of my dreams, a platonic ideal of an ur-cake, so dark and rich and moist we’ve already been approached by several Texans asking if they can sink an exploratory well. It’s dense enough to have its own event horizon, and it’s possible that we may have discovered simultaneously both dark matter and the fact that it goes nicely with chocolate frosting.
Even a small quantity can be lethal. We’re eating it in centimetre cubes, and even then it sort of sinks to the bottom of your stomach where it slowly expands. (In my darker moments I’ve sometimes wondered what it must feel like to have the creature from Alien gestating inside you; now I have a pretty good idea.)
Under these circumstances any kind of activity, such as standing up, is out of the question, so it’s lucky that knitting is the kind of hobby that one can do while paralysed from the stomach downwards. Reader, I have finished the back, and you can now see the pattern in all its damson glory.
Fergus Ferguson (detail)
from the Johnston Collection
Couple of things to note: first of all, as in the original, there aren’t shoulder straps as such—the pattern just goes all the way to the top of the shoulder, where front and back will be joined. This wasn’t common practice, as far as I can tell, but it’s not unknown—the photos in Gladys Thompson for the Patrington & Withernsea gansey, for example, are similar.
I’d hoped that the Johnston Collection (to which the original photo belongs) would be back online by now, but I understand that might take a while yet. And as the whole point of doing this pattern was so you could see how our re-creation matches the original, it’s a bit frustrating! Now, no one respects copyright law more than I—it’s my job, after all—but under the circumstances I hope no one will mind if we show a partial image of the original yoke here for comparison. (And as soon as the collection is back online I’ll post a link to it.)
Spring finally arrives
As I said last week, we can’t match the original exactly—the stitch and row gauge on that were far too fine—but on the whole we’re rather pleased with it.
Returning to the question of being old: for my birthday last week, not only did I get a cake, I got my biennial bowel screening test kit from NHS Scotland. Reading the instructions, I’m glad to see that it’s moving with the times. Whereas two years ago the advice was to try to catch enough matter to use as a sample as it exited the body (on a bad day not unlike grouse shooting on the Scottish moors in a blizzard); now one is advised to place a container in the bottom of the toilet bowl and aim in its general direction, like the crew of a Lancaster bomber trying to destroy a dam in the Ruhr.
As for me, I’ve decided to adopt the technique recommended by Sigourney Weaver in Aliens when faced with a similar situation: “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure…”