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Cedar Gansey, Week 6: 20 August

There are ten parishes in Caithness, and of these Olrig is the odd one out. All the others have a settlement—a village or town—from which the parish takes its name. So there’s a Wick in Wick parish, a Thurso in Thurso, and so on. But there’s no settlement in Caithness called Olrig; it’s just lines on a map. Not only that, but the principal village is called Castletown, which is something of a misnomer as it’s not really a town and has never had a castle.

What it does have is a stunningly beautiful harbour, called Castlehill, albeit one noticeably short on castles or hills. Castletown and Castlehill were once home to the celebrated Caithness flagstone industry, shipping stone all over the world. It’s mostly abandoned now, the Caithness landscape a palimpsest of lost industries, ecologies and people. (Maybe it’s time we borrowed the slogan from that military academy in the Simpsons: “A tradition of heritage”).

“Take a seat . . .”

Castlehill lies on the north coast, in the glorious sweep of Dunnet Bay. It’s bounded on the east by Dunnet Head and on the west by Holborn Head, with Orkney off somewhere to the north. The harbour is unusual, much of it built using rows of flagstones laid on their ends, like stacks of mahjong tiles stood upright (flagga, in old norse, means a “slice”, or of course a flag). We went up there on Saturday and it was deserted, apart from a family of ducks out for a swim, so we just stood for a time and watched the waves. The motion of the tides is as relaxing as stroking a cat; with the added advantage that you don’t have to clean out its litter tray later.

Looking towards Dunnet Beach

Meanwhile we enter the gansey endgame, also known as the sleeves. The yoke suffered a sort of elephantiasis—it’s a risk with this sort of pattern—and expanded to almost an inch wider than the body. Usually I’m on top of this, and decrease by a few stitches at the yoke (or increase by a few when there are cables to pull it in). But even Homer nods, and this time I just didn’t think of it. To compensate I shall make each sleeve half an inch shorter and will decrease by two stitches every fourth row, instead of every fifth. No, as they say, biggie.

Olrig is thought to derive from “the son of Erik” in old norse, and to date from the time of the Vikings. It contains one of my favourite place names, Murkle, which always sounds to me like the sort of place an heiress in a Victorian novel would go to live with her murderous uncle; or possibly one of the lesser-known Muppets with a troubled past. In fact it’s even cooler than that and derives from “Morthill”, meaning field of death, supposedly the site of an ancient battle. Come to think of it, I’m not surprised they named the village Castletown. Imagine the meeting with the marketing department: “We can’t call it Castletown, there isn’t a castle. Now, I like this other idea, what was it, Mortown? Reminds me of Detroit, somehow. What’s it mean?” “Let me see: Town of Death.” “Ah, right. Castletown it is, then…”

2 comments to Cedar Gansey, Week 6: 20 August

  • =Tamar

    Murkle should be in a novel. She sounds like a governess to me, but I suppose she could be a companion or housekeeper.
    I wonder whether instead of a physical castle there may have been an association with someone named Castle – such as Sir John de Montgomery Castlys, whose place was called Cassillis.
    “Morthill” sounds like someone trying to disguise “mortal”.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, yes, Mrs Murkle is the sinister housekeeper who greets our heroine, Honeysuckle Meadowsweet, when she first arrives at the dark, remote and brooding house known as “Dunevisceratin”, at the far end of Decapitation Lane. She never should have accepted the invitation of her estranged uncle, Ebenezer Goatstrangler…

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