Britain has been basking in a heatwave this weekend, which means that in Caithness the temperatures have reached a giddy 20°C and I celebrated by taking my pullover off and—feeling rather rakish—unbuttoned my shirt’s top button. Even the wind was warm, like holding your face up close to a rapidly panting dog (fortunately without the meaty dog food smell).
So we decided to get out of the house and take in some scenery. It’s puffin season, so on Saturday we went up to Dunnet Head, the jutting-out bit that is the northernmost tip of mainland Britain, and watched the puffins nesting in the cliffs, with Orkney almost close enough to touch.
Puffins really are absurd birds, they’re like penguins who ran away to join the circus and got taken on as clowns. Their wings are so small it’s as if they’re propelled by continually expelling trapped gas. And yet in flight they’re as graceful in their own way as swallows, albeit chubby swallows with a weakness for doughnuts. It’s always windy up on Dunnet Head, even when the sea is calm, and it was pretty gusty on Saturday, as though the ghosts of Viking invaders were constantly jostling us, trying to reclaim their lost kingdom. My baseball cap was snatched off my head and sent bowling along the gravel track by the wind—unless it was the Vikings, Yankees fans to a man, harbouring bitter thoughts against the Red Sox.
Then on Sunday we drove out to the Grey Cairns of Camster, about half an hour away. These are a couple of Neolithic structures dating from c.3,000 BC, presumably burial mounds, whose walls and roofs have been partially reconstructed, but whose inner chambers are still intact. (You can unbolt the grilles that cover the entrance passageways and squeeze inside, if you feel like crawling on hands and knees: a puffin that’s been on a strict diet could probably do it easily, but we decided to pass.)
The cairns are on a lonely hillside, surrounded by forestry plantations and acres of moorland, miles from anywhere. It was hot and still when we were there and utterly silent except for the birds, and a lost sheep which seemed to be facing an existential crisis (its constant bleating far more annoying than a car alarm). It feels like a special place—but is it? Did they build the cairns here for some special property of the landscape, or does the landscape feel special because it is graced by their presence?
The great Philip Larkin, as ever, said it best, in his poem “Church Going”:
“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.”
I’ve started working my way down the first sleeve. It’s about 9.5 inches from gusset to shoulder join, and I cast on 168 stitches, decreasing (once I got past the gusset) 2 stitches every 7 rows, to coincide with the cable rows. As you’ll see, I’ve reverted to my usual double-pointed needles after experimenting with 2 circular needles, which felt a bit like trying to knit a pattern by Escher: the problem was mine entirely, though, and I will have another go with the circulars now it’s been explained to me where I was going wrong!
Finally this week, another splendid gansey has fallen off Judit’s needles, a white one this time and based on patterns from Beth Brown Reinsel’s book. You can see it here (note the initials just above the welt): it really shows how effective banded patterns can be – congratulations to her once again.