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Wick (Donald Murray): Week 12 – 10 June

There was one stunningly beautiful day last week when the clouds parted and the sun came out, the whole world looking as if the wrapping had just come off, everything was shiny and fresh and new. So we went up to Dunnet Head, the most northerly tip of mainland Britain. The parking area was heaving with camper vans and cars—curse you, North Coast 500—but up the hill the viewing point was comparatively deserted. It was glorious on the summit, all the kingdoms of the world laid before us, so that I kept expecting Satan to pop up and make me an offer; but he was probably too busy dealing with the aftermath of the Peterborough by-election and Trump’s state visit. It couldn’t last, of course, and next day the clouds rolled back—but just for a moment there it felt as though I’d found the missing piece in the jigsaw of the world.

Distant Mountains – looking towards Cape Wrath

Dunnet Head was a military installation in World War Two, keeping a bleak watch over the Pentland Firth and the northern approaches. This week of course marked the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, with commemorative events in Britain and France. I had to stop listening to some of the accounts that were read out, they were so moving. But I’ve been reading up on the war, and I’d like to share with you a couple of stories from the summer of 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain. It’s well-known that many Polish pilots fought on the British side. Well, in one dogfight one of these Polish airmen had his plane shot down, and he bailed out. He came down in the middle of a tennis club. So with a certain amount of style he telephoned the RAF to let them know where he was and while he was waiting the club loaned him some whites and a racquet, and he whiled away the time thrashing the locals at tennis until a truck came to take him back to barracks.

Iris in Dunnet Forest

On another occasion, another Polish pilot also had to bail out. But as he landed in some rural spot his parachute snagged in a tree, leaving him hanging there. A hostile crowd of locals soon gathered, many brandishing pitchforks, assuming he was German. Someone produced a shotgun and shouted in German, “Hände hoch!” (hands up). In desperation the Pole shouted back some of the few English words he knew: “Fuck off!” As soon as they heard this the crowd relaxed and went away smiling, saying, “It’s all right, he’s one of ours!”

Yoke side chart


With the Scarborough gansey completed, it’s time for Donald Murray’s pattern to shine. The gansey has my standard stitch count of 336 stitches for the welt, increasing to 368 for the body. The body has the typical Wick ribbing; in this case, panels of 7 plain stitches alternating with a ribbing of purl-knit-purl-knit-purl-knit-purl. The purpose was doubtless to pull the gansey tighter in to the body, but I must admit I don’t enjoy knitting it: I can never get it to flow naturally—it feels like being kept in after school to do lines, somehow.

Yoke centre chart

The original has a central border panel to separate the body from the yoke, a diamond trellis (not shown). But the original is knit for a much smaller frame than mine, with finer yarn on smaller needles; I just don’t have enough rows to fit everything in, or the gansey would come down to my knees. But by losing that central panel the number of rows for the yoke pattern on the original is a pretty exact match for the number of rows I need to fit me—about 140 rows from the start of the yoke to the start of the shoulder. For the width, I had to make a small increase in the number of stitches (the original number would have been too tight); but by expanding the moss stitch side panels and widening one of the horseshoe cables, I was able to get it to add up without resorting to a calculator. And how stunning these Caithness patterns are, a sort of missing link between, say, the ganseys of Yorkshire and those of the Hebrides. Even by manipulating the scale like this, I’d count them among the most impressive I’ve knit, and they really do deserve to be better known.

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 11 – 3 June

Just when I think I have Caithness figured out, I always discover something new—an unexpected crink of coast, perhaps, or a hidden bay—and now, it turns out, a castle. I’m still taking this in: after living here for eight—count them, eight—years I’ve just come across an actual ruined castle I’d never heard of. The ruins are what’s left of Forse Castle, just 17 miles south of Wick. It’s another of those wonderful castles-perched-on-a-narrow-promontory-jutting-out-into-the-sea, with which Caithness abounds. It’s a mile or so off the main road, not signposted, and you’d never know it was there.

There’s not a lot of it left, to be honest—just part of the keep and a few crumbling walls. Nor does it have much of a recorded history: there’s been a castle there since 1200, apparently, but the current ruins date from the 14th/ 15th centuries. It was abandoned around 1660 in favour of a mansion house a few miles inland. (This probably wasn’t a tough decision: on the one hand, a cramped and exposed castlette; on the other, indoor plumbing.) But you’d surely miss that view—the wide glittering ocean, the broad sweep of bay and nothing between you and God’s heaven but a few vague streaks of cloud. 

The Castle and its pebble-shored bay

Well, in gansey news I’ve finished the Scarborough jumper, and it’s washed and blocked and drying in the patches of sunlight that glide across the living room floor. (For reasons I won’t go into here I set myself the target of using up my stash of one particular dye lot of Wendy navy this summer, three ganseys’ worth: that’s two down, one to go.) Now that the Scarborough is out the way, the Wick gansey’s going to take precedence for a while; at least until the complex yoke pattern is completed. I have a bunch of pattern charts to share with you, but I think I’ll leave them to next week when you should be able to see the completed back in all its glory.

Another view of the cove

Incidentally, when I was researching the castle I learned it originally had a “barmkin”.  This splendid Scots word was new to me. It means – not a diminutive simpleton, as I’d hoped, but a lowish wall enclosing a small castle or other fortified places. (Apparently there’s a hill fort in Aberdeenshire with the outstanding name of The Barmekin of Echt. Isn’t that great?) “Forse” itself is from Old Norse for a waterfall. I haven’t seen any sign of a waterfall round there yet; but this being Caithness I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 10 – 27 May

As others have pointed out, some of the most evocative words in the English language are Over the hills and far away. They conjure up images of exotic, distant places, coupled with a subtle yearning, like the faint tang of the sea on the breeze. Far away could be anywhere; and anything could happen there, anything at all. It’s the restless mood of the jaded Water Rat in the Wind in the Willows, when he meets the wayfarer rat who spins him alluring and seductive tales of mediterranean adventure.

There’s a wonderful equivalent in a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson called “A Mile and a Bittock“. It’s written in Scots, and the opening couplet sets the scene perfectly:

A mile an’ a bittock, a mile or twa,
Abune the burn, ayont the law,

Flowers of the Forest – bluebells in Dunnet Forest

Isn’t that great? In modern English it means, “A mile and a little bit, a mile or two / Above the stream, beyond the hill” but of course you lose so much in translation. (Actually the spellcheck on my computer keeps trying to change “bittock” to “buttock”, but that is, I fear, a rather different poem altogether…) I first came across the poem set to music by the Scottish folk group the Battlefield Band, on their 1982 album There’s a Buzz. (They added a chorus and called it “Shining Clear”, and I’d strongly urge you to track it down if you can.) It’s full of memorable lines: for instance, every time I hear the dawn chorus I think: An’ the birds they yammert on stick an’ stane, / An’ the müne was shinin’ clearly!

Well, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, and a non-metaphorical deep depression has settled in on Wick: it’s 7ºC outside, cold, windy and wet. We need the rain; even if the tourists look like they wish they’d kept the receipt and could ask for their money back. So I’ve had a few days indoors to indulge myself, listening to Scottish folk music and knitting. As a result, the Scarborough gansey is now just a few days’ short of completion, which will happen sometime this week. The Wick gansey is also settling into its pattern, now that the gussets are perhaps 3/4 done. I’m also getting the hang of the horseshoe cables (by which I mean I no longer bend my cable needle into a horseshoe trying to force the twists…).

And while Stevenson’s poem is ostensibly an ode to moonlight drinking in the countryside, it’s really a celebration of good fellowship and friendship. Here’s the last stanza, enough to make me wish I was up there with them: over the hills and far away. (How far? Not very. Just a mile and a bittock, a mile or twa’…):

A mile and a bittock – Stroma & Orkney from Warth Hill, Caithness

O years ayont, O years awa’,
My lads, ye’ll mind whateter befa’ –
My lads, ye’ll mind on the beild o’ the law,
When the mune was shinin’ clearly.

[yammert = clamoured; ayont = beyond, beild = shelter, mune = moon; but you knew that already, didn’t you?]

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 9 – 20 May

The gorse is out, which means it’s time to visit Helmsdale again. There’s a steep hill covered in bright yellow gorse rising high above the town and when, as now, the sun shines down from a brilliant blue sky, the sea glitters with reflected light and the gorse is full bloom, it’s as if God’s decided to paint the world in primary colours after a long, dreary, monochrome winter.

Helmsdale’s just over the border into Sutherland, some 35 miles south of Wick. It’s a lovely place, in the way that Wick, bless it’s dear old heart, really isn’t. It even used to have a castle, but—I believe the word I’m groping for here is “facepalm”—the remains were demolished in the 1970s to make way for a—sigh—bypass. Like so much of the Highlands, it’s a story of used-to-be’s. There used to be a crofting community in the uplands, but that went with the Clearances. There used to be a fishing industry, but that went with the fish. There even used to be a gold rush, when in 1869 some 600 prospectors descended on the hills up Kildonan Strath. Now there’s tourists, and gorse, and light: as brilliant as if the world were a vast cathedral and the sea and sky its stained-glass windows.

Old Bridge and Clocktower in Helmsdale

In gansey news the first Scarborough sleeve is almost finished, just the cuff to finish off. And I’ve laid the foundations of the Wick pattern, which I must say the Frangipani cornish fudge yarn shows off very clearly. Note the “print o’ the hoof” horseshoe cables, too: a bit of a bugger to knit, but a very effective detail. I’ll hopefully post the pattern charts next week.

View up the strath from the old bridge

Helmsdale was a Viking settlement back in the day (the name comes from Old Norse for “valley of the helmet”). One famous former resident was the 12th century Vikingess Frakkok, wife of Liot the Renegade. (I do love Viking nicknames: Eystein Foul-Fart and Kolbeinn Butter-Penis being the clear winners in a crowded field.) Well, the Orkneyinga Saga records that she helped her sister create a poison shirt sewn with gold intended for her nephew, Earl Paul. But Harald, her other nephew, saw it and was jealous, and insisted on having it. His mother and aunt explained “that if he put on the garment his life would be at risk”, but he put it on anyway, and “his flesh started to quiver and he began to suffer terrible agony”, until he took to his bed and died. The moral? Always listen to your mother, kids, especially—and I can’t stress this enough—if she’s a Viking.

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 8 – 13 May

Here’s a useful tip for all spectacle wearers. If you’re suffering from, as it might be, a touch of migraine, and you wish to freshen up with a hearty splash of water to the eyes, don’t forget to remove your glasses first. Trust me on this. You’ll thank me later.

We have some records from Thurso poorhouse in our archive, and a researcher brought to my attention an extraordinary series of letters written by the overseer to the chairman in the 1880s, concerning the matron. He writes, “the Mischieff arises wholly from the Matron’s dissipated habits when in Liquor. She rails upon them, the inmates retaliate & tell her of her drunkenness and it follows then that she has little control over them”.

Still standing . . .

A month later matters reach a crisis. “I am sorry to inform you that the Matron was outrageously drunk at dinner hour to day, it took the Porter & 3 of the women (inmates) to force her out of the dining hall while the inmates were at dinner, her language was horrible. I sent the Porter for the Policeman who was not at home & now she is ranging through the house striking the doors with violence.”

Unsurprisingly a new Matron was appointed, and in another letter the overseer says he made her predecessor open her suitcases before she left, only to find “4 pairs of blankets with house mark, 2 pairs of sheets, 3 pillow cases, 1 pillow, 6 yards of scouring cloth, 2 dozen patent firewood and 4 cravats” belonging to the poorhouse. (Which makes me think, hang on a minute: firewood?) Honestly, where’s Charles Dickens when you need him?

Spotted in a charity shop

Meanwhile in the wonderful world of ganseys I have at last finished the body of the Wick pattern and am just embarked on the yoke. (This must be what it’s like to have children, putting up with unremitting toil in the hopes that one day they’ll become interesting.) The original gansey has a diamond border separating the yoke from the body, but the whole garment is too finely knit to be replicated by me, even with Frangipani’s fine yarn. So I’m omitting the border (not all Wick ganseys had them) as I want to focus here on replicating the yoke pattern. And the Scarborough gansey grows apace, with back and front finished, shoulders joined, collar completed and the first sleeve begun.

Snow & Gorse on the way to Inverness

Finally I thought I’d share with you a joke. (I understand it’s an old joke, and applies to many cultures, but I was told it this week by a Highlander.) There was a Highland fisherman who returned home from his day’s fishing and unloaded his catch on the harbour quay. A bucket was filled with crabs, and one of them was climbing up the inside until it nearly reached the top. A tourist who was nearby alerted the fisherman to the fact that one of his catch was on the verge of escaping. “Oh, don’t worry,” said the fisherman, “these are Highland crabs: as soon as it looks like one of them might escape all the others will grab hold of him and drag him back down…”