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Buckie: 3 January 2016

SF160104-1And we’re back from seeing in the new year at my parents’ house in Northamptonshire. I thought the weather there was wild and windy until we got home: the east Siberian wind is driving the sea against the shore, and the spray over everything, so that we could probably scrape our windows and set up a lucrative sea salt business. The wind’s been attacking our house like the ghosts of a thousand exterior decorators, each armed with a chisel and scraping away the mortar, which we find scattered in the flower beds each morning like gritty dew.

It was nice to get away. Given my newly-restricted diet I spent quite a bit of downtime reimagining popular festivals as celebrations of the Brussels sprout. For instance, the traditional Irish festival of Hunting the Wren became Hunting the Sprout, with a bag of Tesco’s Brussels sprouts tied to a pole instead of a small brown bird; boys then parade through the village singing the traditional song:  “The sprout, the sprout, the king of all veg / St Stephen’s Day was caught in the hedge / Although each is little a bagful is great / We pray you good people to lend us a plate”.   (I’ve got more.)


Walking the dogs, Delapre Abbey, Northampton

This is of course the first stage of chocolate deprivation symptoms (or going “cold toblerone”, to use the technical term).

Meanwhile, back in the real world, this being New Year and all, I’ve begun my next gansey project. It’s for one of our regular visitors to the archives, who was also a contributor to the Moray Firth Fishing for Ganseys book (see page 37); he’s from Dunbeath, one of the Caithness fishing villages south of Wick, and although he wasn’t a fisherman himself he comes from a long line of local fishermen.


View from one of the bridges over the Grand Union Canal, Northants.

The pattern, which I’ll post next week, is also taken from the Moray Firth book, and will be (loosely) based on the Buckie sample on page 32.

The gentleman in question is a fund of local stories and folklore. To give just one example: we got onto the subject of witches and he told us the story of the Dunbeath need-fire. (I’ve mentioned need-fires before—this was the ancient Highland custom of a fire lit at Easter; all the fires in the village would first be extinguished and a new fire lit by the men in a special ceremony: the smoke from the bonfire was thought to protect against illness and everyone took away a flame from it to light new fires with at home.)


Stormy Wick Harbour

Well, he said, one year in Dunbeath the men couldn’t light the need-fire: no matter what they tried, it wouldn’t catch. In the end they realised that someone hadn’t extinguished their fire so they made a search and sure enough, it turned out the local witch had kept her fire going, just to spite them. They made her put it out, and so the need-fire could finally be lit. (Isn’t that great? As an archivist I love these tales: on the one hand, records and facts; on the other, human imagination—and I know which I prefer, deep down.)

A Happy New Year to all our readers!

14 comments to Buckie: 3 January 2016

  • Samantha

    I too love the story about the witch. It may have some truth in it though. As “witches” were usually also the local herbalist (and midwife) there may be some benefit to her!

    • Gordon

      Hi Samantha, good point. Plus it’s cold in Caithness in April and May. I like to think she was just trying to stay warm as long as possible!

  • =Tamar

    Remembering my youth in a house heated by fire, I say: Anyone who made me put the fire out on January first had better give me the first flame to relight it. The heck with first footing, unless you’re carrying in a load of dry firewood.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, first footing usually involved a lump of coal, so I guess they were showing willing—though if they’d included a few firelighters, some kindling and a log it would have been even more welcome!

  • Sharon in Surrey

    Brrrrr – I had a wood heated house & no hot water without that fire for many years too. I would’ve shot any man who put out my fire unless the brass hot water tank had started to boil. Love your folktales Gordon. Looking forward to seeing your new Gansey. All I can knit these days are the ever popular Frankensocks – that’s socks made up of all kinds of colored leftovers.

    • Gordon

      Hello Sharon, I miss having an open fire, but then I don’t miss having to sweep out the grate every morning and relay the fire! As for Frankensocks—I suppose even a monster stitched together from the spare parts of dead people needs to have warm tootsies…

  • =Tamar

    Please tell us more of the Sprout Holiday Songs.

    • Gordon

      Well, it’s almost Twelfth Night, traditionally the time of the apple orchard wassail, when people go out into the orchards and sing songs and fire guns into the branches to ward off evil spirits. The same thing happens with the sprout crop too, but is far less well known. The song they sing goes like this:

      Oh sprout stalk, we’ll wassail thee,
      And hoping thou wilt bear
      Many a sprout to make us stout
      But to be honest it’s up to you as we don’t really care.

      There are some traditional carols about the sprout which deserve to be better known, such as The Holly and the Sprout. Here’s an excerpt:

      The sprout stalk bears a brassica
      As green as any frog,
      As Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
      Who sleepeth like a log.

      And then there is the rich canon of traditional folk song:

      Landlord fill the plate with sprouts
      Until it doth run over
      Landlord fill the plate with sprouts
      And sprinkle some salt over.
      For tonight we’ll merry merry be
      For tonight we’ll merry merry be
      For tonight we’ll merry merry be…
      Tomorrow we’ll need air freshener.

  • Lois

    I think that what the Earth needs to restore peace and harmony is Universal Sprout Day. Gordon will be in charge of writing Sprout Songs for the general wellbeing of the population. And Kermit the Frog will be our mascot, singing “It’s not easy being green”

    I also lived in a house heated by fire, and if anybody had put my fire out on a day like today, -28 C windchill, I would have cast more than a spell on them!

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, I like the idea of Sprout Day. We can sing the popular carol Good King Wenceslas:

      Good King Wenceslas ate sprouts,
      On the feast of Stephen
      He ate them with his pizza which was
      Deep pan, crisp and even…

  • Jane

    Wonderful, the deep history of the sprout, time out of mind, so spiritual!!

    Aren’t the old Brussels supposed to be rather tasty when sliced and stir fried and also when made into soup?! Truly, a veggie for all. Possibly.

    Lovely work, Gordon, and a beautiful colour, quite right that such a nice man should be in line for it!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane,

      Well, Christmas has always been a time for celebration of the humble vegetable:

      God rest you merry, Gentlemen,
      You ought to feel dismay,
      For you’ll have lots of sprouts to eat
      For lunch on Christmas Day;
      Although the taste is bitter
      Like bellybutton fluff,
      You can eat them till you have had enough,
      Had enough,
      You can eat them till you have had enough…

  • =Tamar

    Happy Twelfth Night!

    • Gordon

      And to all!

      And, as Feste (possibly my second-favourite fictional character – the first of course being the wonderful Eugene Wrayburn from Dickens’ Our Mutual Frend) says in the play of that name, and which I can’t help identifying with: “I am indeed not her fool, but her corrupter of words…”

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