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Inverallochy, Week 4: 22 January

Did you know that there’s an Archangel in charge of weather? Uriel, his (or her, or its) name is. And this is jolly useful information, because it’s always good to know who to blame. We’ve had a week of snow and ice, temperatures at or below freezing, and lethal, ungritted roads; then, just when some normality would have been nice for a change, the thaw arrived in the shape of gale-force winds and driving rain. I can’t help feeling that somewhere in heaven an archangel is sniggering nastily, like a seraphic version of Muttley.

When I was ill last year—exactly a year ago, as it happens—I found salvation in knitting: it gave me a focus and a creative outlet and a chance to sweat the poison gradually out of my system. It was a habit that’s been hard to break. But I’m knitting a little less intently now and finding time for other activities: and one of these is exploring the history of Caithness.

For instance, the name Caithness comes from the Old Norse Katanes, and means the Ness (or headland) of the Cats (named after the Pictish tribe who lived here before the Vikings, the Catti or Cat People). The Gaelic name is Gallaibh, which means the People Who Wear Sunglasses and Listen to Freestyle Jazz. (No, not really: the truth is rather sadder. It means, “Among the strangers”, i.e., the Norse—a whole history of dispossession captured in a single wistful name.) 

The name of Wick derives from the Norse word for a bay or inlet, vik—as in viking (“a frequenter of inlets”). This is why “Wick Bay” alway gives me such pleasure, as it’s what’s called a redundant place name. These are names, usually in two or more languages, where all parts mean the same thing. My favourite is probably Bredon Hill (“Hill hill Hill”); but there are hundreds around the world. Loch Watten, just up the road from us, means “Lake Lake” (vatn is Norse for a lake); and of course there’s the classic River Avon (“River River”). Place names seem to accrue like sedimentary layers of rock, each one rich in history, myth and misunderstanding; just like people, really.

Sky at Night: Sirius and Orion over Wick

Anyway, as I said, I haven’t been knitting as much, and not just because my hands have been so cold. Still, I’m up to about 12.5 inches above the ribbing. Many thanks to everyone who suggested measurements last week: I think we reached something of a consensus between us, and who knows?—in another week it will be time to think about gussettination; possibly even patterns. Be still my beating heart!

Finally, here’s another quirky wee factette about Caithness, which is (honestly) allegedly true: the first cart (as in horse and cart) ever to be used in the county didn’t arrive till 1785, imported from Fife. Before that they just slung panniers on their horses, those hardy little Highland garrons. Then, within a few years, heavy horses were being used. (Typical Caithness—putting the cart before the horse…)

Sinclair Bay from Reiss Beach

10 comments to Inverallochy, Week 4: 22 January

  • meg macleod

    province of the cat..the book by George Gunn..speaks about the history and the magic of the strangers….the cat people….well worth a read….. …

    regarding the weather angel:do you have an address?perhaps she could influence the council gritters,they seem to think we don’t exist off the main road,i have been practising my ice-dancing skills these last few days. without much success ,more like a hobbled horse than a dancer….rain is a relief

    • Gordon

      Hi Meg, all of which makes me wonder, does it ever rain in heaven? Are there flowers, pollinated by celestial bees? The poem Mahler set to music in the finale of his lovely fourth symphony, all about the heavenly life, contains the line, “Die Englein, die backen das Brot”—but who sows the wheat?

      It’d be a bit of a shock to arrive, ready for paradise, only to find an angel thrusting a bag of grain into your hands and packing you off to the fields to get sowing!

  • =Tamar

    I hadn’t heard about Bredon Hill, but I had heard about Torpenhow Hill, which is another of those names. tor+pen+how+hill

    Language accretion is fascinating.

  • =Tamar

    Oops. I accidentally hit post. Oh well, I wanted to say thanks for the Old Norse language lesson, too.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, another favourite is Sahara Desert, which means “Deserts Desert”.

      A smattering of language can deepen your understanding of place names, and it’s the same up here with Norse. So, for example, knowing that a “brae” is a steep hillside (charmingly from the old Norse word for an eyelid, brá), and quoy means an enclosure, when you see a farm called “Quoybraes” sitting on a hillside you can see exactly how it gained its name!

  • Alas, must not linger but had to add my own double name from across the pond. Story I’m currently working on has an American at its centre so I’m living more than my usual double ness
    Caloosahatchee River in Florida is River River,the name (like the river) overtaken from the people who were there.

  • Lois

    The big news in this parish is that a missel thrush has taken up residence in northern New Brunswick, Canada. The birders say that it is only the second sighting in North America. Evidently the illegal immigrant is doing very well in spite of a bout of bitter cold earlier on, and wild swings in temperature since. And birders from all across the continent have travelled to catch a glimpse.

    The other news is that there are a large number of Arctic snowy owls visiting this year. They seem to arrive on a four year cycle, when food is scarce in the north. Huge impressive birds, with those piercing dark eyes amid a heap of white feathers.

    Though I’m not a birder, I find it comforting that such news makes headlines here in spite of the turmoil in the world.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lois, that is very cool! It’s always a privilege to be visited by unusual birds and animals, and a mistle thrush and snowy owls definitely deserve to make headlines. I used to enjoy seeing the wildfowl down on the river on my daily walk to work, but now my daily commute takes me through a housing estate and it’s just not the same!

      And talk of the missel thrush gives me a shameless excuse to link to the splendid track “Jack-in-the-Green” by Jethro Tull, from their entirely wonderful folk-influenced album “Songs From The Wood” – the bird is name-checked in the penultimate line of the song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggc-ZBKAxdQ

  • Eve

    With regard to knitting as therapy, it’s been my stay over the past few years only in retrospect do I realise just how soothing and restorative it is. In my early twenties it was ther rhythmic rattle of a lace pillow that did a similar job, counting to four and sticking pins in cardboard patterns that got me through. My grandmother’s tatting shuttle provided no such respite however all I ever learnt from that was how far and fast it could fly across the room! Interestingly an article in this week’s (tabloid!) Guardian covers almost the exact same topic, who knew we do it for the serotonin? https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/22/i-baked-fairy-cakes-and-it-dialled-down-the-horror-a-little?CMP=share_btn_link

    • Gordon

      Hello Eve, I saw that article (yes, liberal pinko Guardian reader here!).

      I think the role arts and crafts plays in combating depression is an idea whose time has come. In my own case, it was partly having something to do that was the point, instead go sitting at home in a dark, cold Caithness winter brooding on my wrongs. Actively knitting, alternating with some long, hard walks round Wick come rain or shine, stopped me collapsing in on myself like matter into a black hole. (Though i don’t know how soothing it would be for a bystander, since instead of a lace pillow or tattling shuttle, the main sounds were some very intense, imaginative cussing! But your way is probably best…)

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