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Hebrides, Week 3: 10 April

About 13 miles north of Caithness lies Nybster broch, another of those round Iron Age drystone towers scattered across Caithness as thickly as currants on a bun. Brochs are unique to Scotland, and Caithness, with some 300 sites, has more than half of them. Their shape always reminds me of a clay pot on the potter’s wheel, smooth and tapering giddily upwards; most are just ruins, with only the foundations remaining (though a few preserved examples can still be found in Orkney and the Western Isles).

Nybster perches on another of those Caithness goes, the narrow promontories jutting out like splinters of rock into the North Sea. We parked in a small car park next to a couple of taciturn men staring intently through binoculars the size of TOW missile launchers for what I supposed were whales or dolphins, but who may just have been looking for Russian submarines.

The distance to the broch is further than it looks, the path twisting like a Tudor maze, but it’s worth the walk: the location is stunning, there are many unexpected goes and stacks of rock to see along the way, and the broch itself is surprisingly extensive. The central chamber is some 23 feet across, but there are the foundations of a number of outbuildings surrounding it; the evacuations were never filled in, so you can make them all out clearly. There are so many of these outbuildings that, seen from above, the site looks rather like a green honeycomb.

What’s that you say?

In gansey news, the Hebridean cardigan is moving right along. I have finished the lower body and am, at time of writing, 2 rows away from finishing the gussets. I’ve just started the yoke pattern, which I’ll say more about next time. I do like this yarn: it’s Frangipani Aran (Natural) yarn, but it has a yellowish cream tint, a shade I associate with (and this tells you how old I am) a milk bottle left too long on the doorstep in the sun. It reminds me of those examples of antique lace you find in museums—almost as if it’s been pre-aged.

Nybster, by the way, also features a bizarre stone monument, “Melvyn’s Tower”, erected by Sir Francis Tress Barry, the Victorian archaeologist who excavated Nybster, in memory of his nephew, and using stone from the site; bizarre not least for the gargoyles that adorn it. It seems an odd approach for an archaeologist to take, but then I suppose we should just be grateful Barry didn’t use dynamite to excavate the site, the way Schliemann did with Troy…


TECHNICAL STUFF (PART TWO)

I opted for a simple diamond pattern for the border—I tend to think the border shouldn’t distract too much from the yoke, which is always where the main action is in a gansey, I feel. It adds to the richness of the overall effect, but make it too busy and it gets a bit overwhelming. It’s nice to get a border more or less lining up so that it breaks exactly in the centre of the gansey, like a perfect crease in the leg of a pair of gentleman’s trousers; but it’s even more so with a cardigan employing a steek.

In this case the pattern repeat was 8 stitches, and as there are 173 stitches on the front side, and the back, we inset the border by 2 stitches either side to give us that perfect centre effect.

14 comments to Hebrides, Week 3: 10 April

  • Lynne

    Beautiful! I love the color and I love Hebridean designs. Who is the lucky recipient?

    • Gordon

      Thanks, Lynne—it’s for one of Margaret’s sisters (and is only three years late…)

      I do occasionally toy with the idea of just knitting Hebridean and Scottish fleet patterns for the twilight of my gansey-knitting career—but then I remember all the wonderful Yorkshire and Cornish patterns I haven’t tried yet either…

  • =Tamar

    Well, it is traditional where I grew up to build stone walls with rocks removed from a field. Also, the monument doesn’t look like a heap of trash nor like an uninvestigated mound, so it spares later archaeologists some disappointment.

    I wish I could visit the brochs without the accompanying need to walk a lot. I really appreciate these posts.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, apparently the monument when first erected covered a couple of external edifices which the initial excavation hadn’t spotted, so it had to be removed and set up again a few metres further away from the site!

      Brochs are very cool, aren’t they? And, as there are some 300 in Caithness, you can expect further bulletins to follow…

  • Jenny

    Lovely pattern, Gordon. I’m envious at the speed you turn out ganseys. I wished I had the time to make even two a year. Glad to see that you are employing a steek on this cardi. As I have never attempted it on a gansey, would you be most kind to include your algorithm in your techniques for knitting, please? I don’t see it as a sub-category on the drop down menu. Am I correct that the 20 stitches for the steek, when divided in 2, form the facing of the front of the cardi? Do you add an interfacing on one side to anchor the buttons more securely? Yes, the frangipani “aran” has that creamy look like clotted cream and the patterns show so well like a decorated wedding cake.

    • Gordon

      Hi Jenny, my enforced rest period is coming to an end, so I shall be slowing down dramatically soon.

      As for the steek, yes the 20 stitch steek is cut in half—but after that it’s a bit of a mystery to me as Margaret takes it away and does things to it in secret; I remain downstairs, pacing backwards and forwards anxiously, like an old-fashioned father-to-be in a Victorian farce, while distant screams echo from upstairs; eventually Margaret reappears and lo! The deed is done; the cardigan is achieved.

      I will publish more details this time, promise!

  • Jane Callaghan

    I was looking at the unblownup version of your border chart just now, and mistook the bottom of the border for k1 p1 etc for the first row followed by p1 k1 etc for the next.When I looked at the close-up it became clear that the offset effect was due to the numbers. However, I shall try my mistake as a definition line next time – I think it’s rather attractive. Thanks

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, well, yes—you and me both! I hadn’t noticed but copied and pasted the squares and numbers into a new sheet on the spreadsheet for the yoke pattens, only to discover several rows in that the various halves didn’t match… oops. But maybe knitting, like cooking and science in general, makes some of its best discoveries by error more than trial?

  • Lois

    Great colour, it reminds me of the shade of pages in antique books.

    I did the dreaded steeks a few years ago in a Fair Isle vest, and found it much easier than I had been led to believe. Never thought of trying it on a gansey, don’t know why. Hmmmmm ………

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, we’ve done steeking a couple of times before, though it is obviously more fiddly than just a good old tubular gansey. And, speaking as the knitter, it’s hard sometimes not to start to resent those extra 20 stitches and how much they add to the overall time, cumulatively, as it were (“if this was a regular gansey I’d be on the back by now…”) But it’s worth it at the end, always.

      And yes, I agree, there is a creamy parchment look about the yarn (though the stomach, not the skin side, of course!).

  • Jane

    Gorgeous colour and lovely, lovely work, the Hebridean patterns are wonderful. Isn’t Nybster a fascinating place, so many layers of people passing through.

    A year or so ago, I cardiganificated a friend’s jumper at her request. With the aid of some protecting crochet stitches either side to create a cutting area, I just cut it up the centre. I was amazed and impressed, it did not move apart at all. Some turning back and ribbon, and I thought it worked out quite well! Quite remarkable. By the way, last time, not yoga clothes, but yoda jackets, oh the joys of predictive text. Take care!

  • Gordon

    Hi Jane, yes, you really can’t go wrong with Hebrides patterns (except when you make mistakes, as I seem to be doing regularly just now, dammit).

    Indeed, keep your eyes peeled over the next year as I hope to explore Wick-Hebrides hybrids, combining my favourite elements of each style into a sort of Wickbredes or Hebness fusion. (Don’t tell anyone, though, as I shall of course run the risk of being caught by the Gansey Police—and then, to the beat of the drum, at the centre of a hollow square, having my needles ceremoniously broken and my silver buttons snipped off, and then forced into a bitter and lonely exile to think about what I’ve done and try to expiate my sins, probably by knitting sofa cushions for missionaries in Polynesia. (Mind you, I could be overthinking this…)

  • Lois

    Not a word from this quarter, Gordon! I’ve been in a running battle with the quilt police for years. It all started when I (shhh, don’t tell anyone) had the audacity to sew quilts completely by machine years ago. Now I include all sorts of weird things, like knitting, in my art pieces, and am probably in danger of the firing squad at dawn, if caught.

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