Support Gansey Nation -

Buy Gordon a cuppa!

Many, many thanks to those of you who have already contributed!

Wick (John Macleod), Week 4: 17 December

The far north of Scotland’s been battered by storms this week, winds gusting up to 70 mph while the rest of the country suffered a shedload of ice and snow. The strongest gales started Friday night, carried on all through Saturday and only ended on Sunday morning; the sort of thing that in bygone days would’ve had any Old Testament prophet worth his manna calling for national repentance in fasting and prayer, but which in our fallen times saw instead the Strictly Come Dancing finals on television. I’m not altogether sure this counts as progress.

After the Storm, Nybster

We awoke to an eerie silence on Sunday, as though we’d accidentally slept through the apocalypse and it was just us and the zombies left to fight it out in the frozen food aisle in Tesco’s. (Incidentally, what exactly do the vegetarian undead eat? Perhaps there’s an untapped zombie market for Quorn textured vegetable protein brains? Would a vegetarian vampire be satisfied with a fake-blood beetroot burger? Mind you, I used to wonder why people fighting vampires bothered with the whole complicated stake-through-the-heart-thing. Surely easier by far to just knock their front teeth out and then watch them wander around with a straw trying to get their prey to stand still…)

Waves in the Harbour, Wick

I don’t like the wind so strong for such a long time: all you can do is hunker down and wait for it to go away, hoping against hope that the crash you heard outside was just the wheelie bin falling over. After all, it’s one thing for King Lear to cry, “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” when he’s out camping on some blasted heath; but “Blow winds and tear down the trellis the clematis was climbing up so now we have to go out with another piece of string and tie it up again!” is really quite another matter.

Still, one good thing about knitting is you can do it even while you’re hunkering, and the gansey continues to grow. I’ve finished the lower body, the most structurally robust piece of knitting I’ve ever done—honestly, skyscrapers could be built like this—and I’m now embarked on the chevron just below the gussets.

Waves at Ackergill

Progress from here is a little uncertain, as we’re off on our travels this week, to the bright lights of Edinburgh and on to a family Christmas in Northampton. The yoke pattern is, well, if not actually complicated then requiring a certain degree of concentration, so I’m taking a backup project: a new gansey in Wendy yarn with a plain body, so lots of simple plain knitting, which I can do instead. How much of either gets done, if any, remains to be seen. Remember, there’s only eight more sleeps till Christmas (or, if I include nap time, about 24…).

As the poet said:

The wind is merciless,
The plum tree’s taking a beating;
Clouds scud past –
God’s in a hurry today.

Wick (John Macleod), Week 3: 10 December

I’ve been thinking recently about fantasy, or fantasy literature to be precise. I grew up devouring books about, as Tolkien wonderfully put it in The Hobbit, “dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons”. It’s a love that’s never left me, and there’s something about this time of year—drawing the curtains against the long, dark, cold nights and settling down in front of a warm fire with a good book—that makes me want to read fantasy; and children’s fantasy at that.

In the Old High Church churchyard, Inverness

Incidentally, speaking of Tolkien, have you ever noticed how little magic there actually is in his books? Sure, there are magical creatures—elves, dwarves, goblins, trees—but hardly anyone actually does what you’d call magic—in fact, there’s probably more magic in an Indiana Jones film. Gandalf is the main wizard in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and to be frank most of the time you could get better results with a cheap cigarette lighter than he does with his staff.

But one reason why Tolkien’s works have survived, and which is overlooked by most of his successors, is that the magic isn’t really the point; ultimately the best fantasy, like the best of any genre, takes you back to yourself. G.K. Chesterton said it best: Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

Waves & Wind: sand and water at Dunnet Beach

Meanwhile, in gansey news, I’m making good progress up the body. The ribs pull it in, though, so it’s still hard to see the pattern at this stage (I hope the final blocking sorts this out or I’ll have to see how far I can get by only breathing in, as exhaling is unlikely to be an option). Sometime this week I should move on to the border panel; for this gansey is unusual in having the border positioned below the gussets, instead of roughly adjacent.

Inside St Fergus’ Church: the Christmas Tree Festival

And now I’m going to cheat and end with a quote by Terry Pratchett—I was going to say a great quote, but that’s a tautology as far as he’s concerned: “Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong”.

Actually, I was going to end it there; but then I came across this, another gem from Terry, which stopped me in my tracks: “If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.” (Hmm. Hope it’s got a happy ending…)

Wick (John Macleod), Week 2: 3 December

Keep your distance, everyone: I’ve caught a cold. Luckily it’s not the dreaded “man flu”, which scientists now recognise as the most deadly ailment mankind can endure ( is a reputable, peer-reviewed science journal, right?); and luckily it’s already getting better. But it’s got into my chest, and I’ve developed a sort of cyclical whooping hack of a cough. On hearing me on the street last week two respectably-dressed ladies pressed shillings into my hand, urging me not to spend it all on drink; I sound like someone letting the water out of a bathtub while tickling a hyperventilating donkey.

On the plus side it’s December, which means that it’s practically compulsory to lose oneself in classic winter’s tales of childhood. My personal favourites include Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow, and John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; even Ratty and Mole getting trapped in the wild wood, and spending Christmas Eve in Mole’s old burrow in The Wind in the Willows; and, of course, the daddy of them all, The Muppet Christmas Carol.

It was rather windy last Wednesday

I’ve only to hear certain phrases—”The wolves are running”, “The Walker is abroad”, or “Why, it’s Fozziwig’s rubber chicken factory!”—and I’m there, in a frozen pagan landscape, stamping my feet in the snow beside the stone circle, waiting for the antlered horseman to appear and the wild hunt to begin. Mind you, there was a time one phrase from The Dark is Rising—“This night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining”—seemed to sum up my situation at work so well I virtually adopted it as a motto.

Ganseys. I’m slowly making my way up the body of the new gansey. My brain seems to be fighting the pattern—blocks of three knit, followed by purl-knit-purl-knit-purl, and repeat—so it’s not coming automatically, and I have to keep counting and stopping and checking. I’m sure some of this is down to the cold, and the general sense that gravity must’ve increased when I wasn’t paying attention. Plus the ribbed effect draws in the stitches on the needles, so I have to work a little harder to move them round as I go. But it’s making a very pleasing effect, I must say: as if I was knitting one of those cakes with sponge fingers laid upright around the sides.

Reflections of Trees

Finally this week, a story that’s cheered me up immeasurably. I read that a few years ago Aberdeen was voted Britain’s most miserable city, or some such, so a national newspaper sent a reporter up to interview the locals. The first person the reporter spoke to was an old man at a bus stop. He asked him what he thought about the story. The old man threw away his cigarette, glared at the reporter and said, “**** off”.

As the old saw goes, It’s not the cough that carries you off/ It’s the coffin they carry you off in…

Wick (John Macleod), Week 1: 26 November

I’ve always been intrigued by the way that words change their meanings over time, slipping from concept to concept wherever there’s a gap in the language, like restless ghosts in search of a new host. One example of this is the word panache, borrowed from the French, which now means a sort of flamboyant confidence. But originally it meant the plume on a cavalryman’s helmet. It seems that because the cavalry were famous for their swagger and dash—think Sergeant Troy in Return of the Native—the word gradually transferred itself away from the thing and onto the behaviour.

Another example is that amazingly useful word for a small object to string on a necklace, bead. Originally in Old English the word gebed meant a prayer or request, and comes from the same root that gives us bid in modern English, and bitte in German. Back in the day, people strung counters together to tell, or count, their prayers, and over time the word shifted from the prayer to the thing. (Which of course makes one wonder: what on earth did they call beads before they were called beads?)

©Wick Heritage Society. Used with permission.

In gansey news, the Morwenstow gansey is washed, blocked and good to go, and I have, naturally, begun the next. This one is in Frangipani sea spray, a suitably light colour for the long, dark winter evenings (and days; this is Wick, after all). As trailed the other week, this gansey is modelled on one of the Johnston Collection of old Caithness fishermen’s photographs: in this case, the one worn by John MacLeod, pictured here. The lower body is interesting: not plain, but blocks of three knit stitches separated by a purl-knit-purl-knit-purl combination (I’ll let you know over the coming weeks how annoying this is to knit for twelve inches…). More information and a pattern chart next week.

Spot the Seal. There are about nine.

Finally this week—and yes, I know it’s a bit random but bear with me, I’ve got a cold—I came across this splendid incident of royal ‘barberism’ in the Penguin History of Scotland. The Scots King James IV married the English Princess Margaret in 1503, and apparently his beard at the time was, to quote a contemporary, “somthynge long” (hence his winning the coveted “Monarch Most Resembling a Badger” award five years running). The Countess of Surrey and her daughter, Lady Grey, had accompanied the new bride to Scotland for the wedding; and judging by the king’s household accounts they seem to have taken mattersliterallyinto their own hands:

Item, the ix day of August, eftir the marriage, for xv elne [ells] claith of gold to the Countess of Surry of England, when scho and hir dochter Lady Gray clippit the King is berd…”

Navy Gansey, Week 10: 19 November

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day, as Gerald Manley Hopkins said during his spell as a Caithness weatherman. Yes, it’s that gloomy time of year again: sunrise at 08:10, sunset at 15.45, the window of daylight shrinking day by day. Farmers plough the sodden fields and are mobbed by flocks of seagulls, which has the bonus at least of keeping the little perishers off the streets (the seagulls, that is, not the farmers).

Now, many years ago I read a book about the French and Indian Wars, the conflict between Britain and France in the middle of the eighteenth century for dominance in North America (think The Last of the Mohicans, but with less Daniel Day-Lewis). It was a nasty little war, and I’ve forgotten most of it now, but one incident has always stayed with me.

A View of St Fergus’

There was a battle in some woods somewhere, in which the British and their colonial allies squared up to a French force with their Native American allies. At once the colonials ran for cover and started blazing away at the French. Whereupon the British, naturally assuming that anyone so sneaky as to hide in these circumstances must therefore be untrustworthy, at once opened fire on their American allies instead of on the actual, you know, enemy.

For nearly twenty years this has been my benchmark for absolute stupidity. Every time I come across some eye-watering asininity—and I’ve worked in local government most of my life, remember—I think, well, that’s bloody brainless, but at least it’s not as bad as deliberately shooting your own side. I honestly never expected it to be matched in my lifetime.

Dunnet Forest

But enough about Brexit. Meanwhile, another gansey rolls off the production line; all it needs now is licence plates and that special new car smell (or failing that, washing and blocking) and it’ll be street-legal. I’ve tried it on and, bearing in mind that trying on an unblocked gansey is like attempting to wear clothes you last saw when you were eighteen—to bystanders you look like Goldfinger being sucked out of the plane window, or a film of a calf being born played backwards—it seems to be more or less the right size. I’ve even come to terms with the uneven Wendy yarn; though I’ve never regretted Frangipani’s cones so much as when I contemplated all those dangling ends waiting to be darned in, like alien entrails, or a plate of navy blue spaghetti.

Stone – Sand – Sea

Next week we strike out into uncharted territory, viz. the Johnston Collection of old photographs of Caithness fishermen, with a gansey originally worn by one John Macleod. It’s going to be an interesting journey, at any rate. Overhead, vultures are already circling; unless it’s just more of those blasted seagulls, which are basically vultures without the latter’s innate sense of decency…