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Hebrides, Week 7: 8 May

The battle of Altimarlach took place on 13 July 1680, just a couple of miles up river from where we live. It’s been described as the last clan battle in Scotland, although, Highlanders being the loveable wee scamps that they are, this seems unlikely. I’d read about the battle but never seen the site, so last week as the sun was shining we decided to pay it a visit. 

The battle came about because the previous Earl of Caithness had sold the title in 1675 to Lord Glenorchy, a Campbell (also known to history as “Slippery John” just in case you’re wondering who to root for in this story). But George Sinclair, a local man, claimed the earldom by inheritance and, when a lawsuit failed, took to armed resistance. In 1680 Glenorchy invaded Caithness with 700 or so Highlanders, mostly Campbells; George Sinclair summoned an army of Caithnessians, and the two sides met where the burn of Altimarlach joins Wick River.

The Cross. A windfarm with Morven peeping above the horizon at the right.

Somehow I find it more moving to walk over a battlefield where hundreds fought, than thousands: it’s easier to imagine what it must have been like, just standing where they stood. The Altimarlach Burn joins the river at a right angle, cutting a deep cleft through the grassy meadows overlooking the river and marshland below. The main force of Campbells were drawn up on the hill, but Slippery John had some hidden out of sight, down in the burn. Well, the two armies clashed, the Sinclairs were driven back and then the Highlanders rushed out of hiding and hit them in the flank—and that was pretty much that.

Gordon photos the gorse. In the distance, the airport on the left and St Fergus on the right.

The battle was over in minutes (or about four hours if Peter Jackson ever decides to make the movie). So many Sinclairs were cut down trying to escape over the river that it’s said the Campbells could walk across without getting their feet wet. And like many battles it was all pointless anyway: within a few years a court had ruled that George Sinclair was the rightful earl after all and Glenorchy was awarded the consolation title of Earl of Breadalbane (he was later implicated in the infamous Massacre of Glencoe).

There’s two kind of history, I find: the history of kings and queens and faraway places; and the kind that happened on your doorstep, involving people who might almost be your neighbours. The local stuff may be smaller, but it feels more real, somehow.

By the way, the story goes that the famous tune “The Campbells are Coming” is said to have been composed by Glenorchy’s piper Finlay MacIvor to celebrate the victory; apparently for many years it was considered an insult to play it in Wick. Well, they say the devil has all the best tunes…

Lower sleeve pattern

In gansey news I have finished the first sleeve, which ends in a 6-inch cuff so the wearer can roll it back to fit; and am embarked on the second. I would normally expect to finish it this week, but as we have guests coming next weekend I might not make it. (As usual, my biggest challenge is remembering what I did just last week.)

The pattern for the lower sleeve is almost identical to the one on the lower body—the wave and seed stitch border are the same—the only change I made was to make the starfish slightly smaller. It’s a strong pattern, and as I said last week, because it’s on the forearm and bound to be noticed more, I didn’t want it to dominate the rest of the gansey.

6 comments to Hebrides, Week 7: 8 May

  • Lois

    That is a lovely piece of work, Gordon, and I’m anxious to see it steekivated (sorta like activated).

    In parish news here, we survived our grandson’s wedding on the weekend, in spite of torrential downpours and wind. So they are well and truly launched, and everybody else is recuperating. Whew!

    I may have to break down and knit him a gansey someday, but considering the race of giants we have produced, I need to get my wind back first.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, my advice would be to wait until they’ve stopped growing first! Well done on the wedding. Just bear in mind that ganseys can take so long to knit the bairns may’ve outgrown them and produced children of their own by the time they’re finished…

  • =Tamar

    I have to assume that there was at least one surviving Sinclair to continue and eventually win the lawsuit. Loud cheers for that one, proving the value of persistence in life as in knitting.

    The gansey looks especially appealing now that we’ve gone from 70 degrees Farenheit to the mid-30s (short-sleeve weather to almost freezing point). I’d expect it in April, but not in May, not here in Maryland. I do recall snow in May twice when I lived 400 miles farther north, in the 1960s.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, John Sinclair at least escaped as he, being well-to-do, had a horse. And yes, I remember hearing once about a study which showed that successful people aren’t necessarily luckier, or more talented, than other people—it’s just that they didn’t give up, but tried again after failure, whereas most of us stop there. (As the great Samuel Beckett put it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”)

      This weekend we’ve had sunshine, cloud, utter downpour and thick fog, all around 9-12ºC. Keeps you on your toes!

  • Jane

    I have said it before, and I shall say it again, you live in a wondrous place, beautiful and filled with history!

    The gansey, soon to be cardigan, is a lovely, lovely thing. The richness of the pattern is so dramatic, very nice. And isn’t the gorse flower wonderful this year, take care!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, we’ve had friends up for the weekend, so I won’t quite get it finished by tonight but sometime next week. It’s when you’re showing someone round you realise just how much history and landscape there is to show: a weekend doesn’t do more than scratch the surface. (I keep saying, there’s so much spare history here lying around you trip over it if you’re not careful!)

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