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Flamborough III: Week 3 – 7 June

Each May we make a point of driving the 36 miles south to Helmsdale, a picturesque village just over the border in Sutherland, to see the gorse in bloom. We couldn’t go last year, with the pandemic roaming unchecked like the Big Bad Wolf, so this year we were determined to make up for lost time (or temps perdu, for French literary readers). We tried visiting the other week but were defeated by the haar. The coast road wound merrily along the clifftops, bathed in sunshine, and periodically dropping to ground zero every time it reached the point where a river joined the sea, and these infernal places were uniformly obliterated by fog. It was as if God had taken all the harbours along the east coast offline for essential maintenance, a sort of Existentialist Vista upgrade. Sure enough, when we reached the descent to the village we were met with a blank wall of mist, and an angel with a flaming sword advising us to come back when Helmsdale had finished rebooting.

Creels at Helmsdale Harbour

Helmsdale was originally a Viking settlement called Hjalmundal, meaning Dale of the Helmet, presumably because they only had one helmet between them and had to take turns wearing it. It was a herring fishing harbour, but only after 1814 when, like Wick, the modern village was built to give employment to families displaced by the infamous Highland Clearances. In 1760 Bishop Richard Pockocke passed through: “We soon after got to Hemsdale, where there is a salmon fishery. Here the tyde being in, we crossed in a coble in the shape of a boat cut in two”—though whether the cut was lengthways or amidships he doesn’t say. Hopefully an enterprising experimental archaeologist with a wetsuit will find out.


In parish notices, we have another splendid gansey from Judit to celebrate. It’s a fern pattern taken from Rae Compton’s book (page 68) in a very festive—it’s going to be a Christmas present for one lucky person—red. As ever, many congratulations to Judit for continuing to bring these excellent old patterns to life.

Meanwhile I continue to make slow but steady progress on my own project. The pattern is starting to emerge more clearly, and it’s the kind of pattern that really shines the more of it you do. As the gansey’s for someone else, I chose the pattern because the diamonds are small enough to give me a lot of flexibility when it comes to height (depending on my row gauge) and width, as the seed stitch draws the gansey in, concertina-ing it with a pleat-like effect, so it can hopefully be contracted or expanded to suit.

Catch of the Day

As for Helmsdale, we tried again on Saturday and this time our perseverance was rewarded: the sun shone, the wind dropped and the gorse (just starting to go over) still had enough blossom to turn the hillsides bright yellow. (Gorse in bloom has a rich, creamy coconut scent, so I’m always reminded in a Proustian rush of shampoo and sunscreen.) So encouraging was this that we scarcely noticed the potholes in the road, which are so bad the Council’s roads maintenance department now has its very own spelunking division. We parked above the river and walked down through the town to the harbour, which was full of tourist camper vans. As we passed one with the door open, we heard a querulous (Yorkshire) voice inside ask, “Where is this again?”; only for another (even more Yorkshire) voice to reply, “It’s ‘elmsdale ‘arbour!”

11 comments to Flamborough III: Week 3 – 7 June

  • =Tamar

    It’s a handsome gansey, and that color gets better every time I see it.
    I think the coble was probably pointed at one end and flat at the other, like a canoe my father bought at auction that had had one end broken, so it was cut off and a flat patch made (very neatly, too). At least, that was what he told us. We used to paddle it around the town pond.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, I’m used to the Welsh coble, which is a sort of floating wooden bowl with a shallow draft. I do though have an image of the carpenters being told to cut the boat in half, and one half being the top and the other the bottom horizontally…

      • =Tamar

        We need to find out what Pockocke thought a normal boat shape was. A semicircle doesn’t seem like a helpful shape. A Whitby Coble picture I found online was almost pointed in back, like a canoe with a rudder, but most have a flat back. I wonder if the coble Pockocke saw was more or less rectangular, like a rowboat with the point removed.

  • Meg Macleod

    good to hear of your visit to `elmsdale`..were you not tempted to shout though the door of the campervan .`.sorry mate` ,you must have taken a wrong turning ..this is Ullapoolxx

    • Gordon

      Hi Meg, every time I go up to John O’Groats and see the sign to Ullapool (distance 126 miles) I’m awfully tempted to just go there! Ullapool is now alongside “over the hills and far away” in my mind as a mythical destination full of romance and adventure—the reality of course may differ… 🙂

  • Judit Mäkinen

    Many thanks Gordon for mentioning my red gansey. I love to knit the old patterns as each one brings me nearer to the culture of those, who knitted those patterns. This fern pattern is probably one example of “less is more “.

    • Gordon

      Hello Judit, you’re very welcome as ever. I think “elegant simplicity” is a big attraction of ganseys, and proof that you don’t need an elaborate pattern to achieve a stunning gansey.

  • I really admire your knitting Gordon, but I must say I also appreciate your sense of humour and the pictures! Thanks for the LOLS!

  • Ruan

    Did hear that the roads inspector for highlands came to check out caithness and had his car damaged by a pot hole and had to be collected and shipped south complete with roads inspector in tow! Which seems to me to be a perfect storm.

    • Gordon

      Hi Ruan, yes I read that—it’s like the stories you hear about the AA man who was called out to get someone’s keys which he’d locked in his car, only to lock his own keys in the van and have to call another AA man… The state of Caithness roads just now, I think a coble sounds like a better plan!

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