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Scotland, Week 2: 21 August

I might, I sometimes think, have made a passable stage actor; but not, with so much importance laid on the perfect take, a television or screen one. This feeling was reinforced when a film crew came to visit on Tuesday (the building I work in has been nominated for several awards, and so a promotional video had to be made). I watched it all with a sort of detached amusement right up to the moment when a mic was pinned to my lapel, a camera the size of an anti-tank gun was pointed squarely at me, and someone started asking me questions.

My first takes are usually pretty eloquent. Phrases such as “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, “April is the cruellest month” and “counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor” simply trip from my tongue, intoxicated as I am by the exuberance of my own verbosity. Then come the dreaded words, “That was great—but can we just do that again? There was someone moving behind you.”

PG Wodehouse memorably described someone who’d received a shock, “whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down express in the small of the back”—and that is the effect those words have on me. My brain empties completely. My mouth just hangs open like the flap on an American letterbox, with a tendency to drool, until the director thoughtfully reaches out and closes it for me; for a time the only sounds I can make resemble someone trying to learn how to play the didgeridoo; and instead of coruscating flashes of lightning wit I hear myself saying, “Er… weeble weeble schlip?”—until someone kindly leads me away and gives me coffee.

Far better to avert our gaze from the tragic spectacle, and focus instead on the new gansey. I’d thought of making it a Wick-Hebrides hybrid, but now I’ve sat down and worked out the pattern(s) I want to include elements from other parts of Scotland too—so I’m just calling it “Scotland”, like the mongrel nation we call home. The Frangipani pistachio colour really brings out the zigzags. The body is adapted from a classic Wick body pattern, distinctive but not so bold that it should detract from the fancy stuff higher up. And in another week it might even be time to think about gussets—not that it’s easy to stop oneself thinking about gussets at the best of times, of course.

Anyway, I’ll have more to say next week about patterns, but for now I have to go: I think they’re ready for my close-up…


As I said, this is a classic Wick pattern for the lower body of a gansey. The zigzags are single stitches, which give a sort of bas-relief texture, while the alternating plain panels add a nice contrast, but also help to give the gansey a flow and drape and softness. The panels can be made larger or smaller depending on the width of the body. The 3-stitch border panels are found in many Scottish patterns, as well as in northern England (e.g., the Mrs Laidler gansey from Whitby I just finished).

Scotland, Week 1: 14 August

I went to the doctor last week as it’s 6 months since I started taking the antidepressant medication. I asked him how much longer I might need to take it.

‘Well, now. Suppose you won the lottery,’ he said, sitting back in his chair and steepling his fingers like Sherlock Homes. ‘Do you think you would still need it then?’ And when I admitted, possibly not, he filled a meerschaum pipe with the tobacco he kept in a lady’s slipper on the desk, lit it and said: ‘Then I think, my dear Watson, that you’ve just answered your own question.’

While I was there I was also going to ask him about this chesty cough I’ve got, but as he said there was a countess waiting to see him concerning the theft of some diamonds I thought I’d better come back another time. (Anyway, I’d got those lottery tickets to buy.)

Meanwhile, the Whitby gansey has been washed and blocked and is drying gently on its boards. What a wonderful pattern it is! And how well navy as a colour suits it. Now I’m impatient to try it on. And my new project, a Wick-Hebrides hybrid in Frangipani pistachio for a friend, is starting to grow nicely on the needles. I’ll post details of the patterns anon, but for now it’s just fun to knit.

Edinburgh: tourists flock to the coffee house where Harry Potter was ‘born’

And suddenly it’s the end of school summer holidays in Scotland and the football season has started. How on earth did this happen? The last time I looked it was July, and everyone was wearing shorts (yes, I know: even here). Mind you, this is how I feel looking in a mirror and staring 60 in the face, and it’s my own face staring back. Still, there’s one good thing about autumn—if ever there was a time to wear a gansey, this is it. Jeeves advised Bertie Wooster to don evening dress when his morale needed a boost; and this is what ganseys mean to me. I’ve said before how therapeutic knitting has been for me in recent months, but it’s more than that—every gansey I knit now is a statement, an act of defiance, two fingers stuck up against my illness.

As so often, Dylan Thomas said it best, in a little-known early draft of his famous poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night/ Knit, knit against the dying of the light/ But make sure you use a bulb that’s bright/ Preferably one of those ones that simulate daylight…” Can’t think why he changed it, really.

Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 11: 7 August

It’s the height of summer and the hatchling gulls have lost their infant charm and grown into hulking waddling ugly lumps of menace. Down by the harbour Wick seems to be recreating the early scenes of The Birds—every time I turn around more gulls, chicks and adults, are lurking menacingly behind me. Once I thought I caught one working out in the dust how many gulls it would take to overpower me, but before I could get my phone out for a picture it scuffed out the marks with a webbed foot and sauntered off whistling with an air of studied nonchalance.

I only found out recently that there’s no such thing as a seagull, just different species of gulls (ours are mostly herring gulls). It’s also illegal to kill them—or any wild birds. It’s obvious they’ve found this out, hence their swaggering “Yeah? Whatcha gonna do about it, copper?” body language any time they snatch a dripping ice cream cone and guzzle it in front of you on the pavement. They know, all right. It’s only a matter of time now before I’m up before the Bench and pleading guilty to gullslaughter, swearing it was self defence, while a row of gull-shaped heads peer in through the open window, sniggering.

Actually in the UK you can kill certain species of gull under special licence. Grey squirrels too, apparently, as a non-native invasive species (aka “illegal immigrants”, coming over here, stealing our acorns). I can’t help thinking that someone should tell the gulls, thus killing two, as it were, birds with one license…

Well, I have, as predicted, (just) finished the gansey. The washing and blocking will have to wait another week till Margaret gets back from her travels, but you get the idea. It’s still my favourite pattern, the gansey I’d take into the afterlife to keep me warm, even as a yoke-only pattern. (This style of shoulder strap was something of a Caithness feature, too, though not with cables, and of course it can be adapted to any pattern you like.) I started my next project on my ill-fated trip to London recently, so that’s all ready to go—it’s for a friend and is in Frangipani pistachio.

Finally this week I paid a visit to Caithness Horizons, the splendid museum in Thurso, where I found a set of animal costumes. Ostensibly for children, it seems that it’s adults mostly who’ve been trying them on. Well, I thought, if that’s your custom it would be rude not to…

Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 10: 31 July

On Saturday night at ten o’clock Wick Gala week ended, as is customary, with an ooh-and-aah-inducing 15-minute firework display. This effectively takes place at the bottom of our garden, down by the riverside, so, although this is normally way past my bedtime, I make the effort to pull on a pair of shoes and go and skulk with our neighbours about halfway down the lane leading to the river. Not this year: I already had something of a migraine, the effect of which is like a sort of internal fireworks display of the brain, and that, together with a sudden downpour at 9.55pm, persuaded me to watch from my bedroom window.

Well, not only could I see all the fireworks but I also noticed little dark shapes flitting past, black as crows but faster and with broader wings—of course they were bats. Lit up against the giant star jellyfish firework explosions they looked like RAF pathfinders dodging flak on their way to bomb German dams, swooping and wheeling before the flashes and smoke which probably gave them the equivalent of bat migraines, playing merry hell with their echo location.

As for the migraine—Terry Pratchett once had the brilliant conceit of an Oh God of hangovers—the idea being that other people, like Bacchus, drink gallons of wine without suffering any ill effects but the oh god ends up with all the hangovers. I sometimes feel like that about migraines, encountering people who’ve never had one in their lives and I think, bugger, that means I’m probably getting yours on top of my own. (As Thomas Paine observed, up like a rocket, down like the stick; is it worth it? Surprisingly, sometimes, yes.)

Wick River – the Gala bonfire still smouldering…

In gansey news, I have, as it were rocketed down the second sleeve, and should wrap this one up next week. Just as well, really—the nights are definitely drawing in, and I find navy hard to knit in the twilight. Looking into the tealeaves in the bottom of my cup (the bag burst), I see pastel colours in my future; also I should fear death by water, and not economise by buying Tesco “everyday value” teabags…

[Apologies for the poor quality of the pictures this week—Margaret has followed the sun to the south of England, so it’s just me and my iPhone. Normal service will resume eventually.]

Whitby, Mrs Laidler Week 9: 24 July

I am not, let’s be honest, one of nature’s travellers. I get carsick, seasick and airsick, and even going up in an elevator leaves me shaken like a cocktail. (When I read that the sailors on the Mayflower called the pilgrims “pukestockings” I felt a stab of fellow-feeling—you and me both, Miles, I thought grimly.) And yet I managed a new low last week on the train from Birmingham to Northampton.

Sunday was a hot, sticky day—well, hot for Caithness, around 25ºc—and I’d flown down from Inverness. I was stupidly dehydrated to start with, then the plane was delayed so I had to dash to catch my train, which was also hot and sticky, and pretty crowded. After a while sitting there I began to feel a little faint, then I realised with alarm that I was about to actually black out. I leaned forward to rest my forehead on the seat back in front of me, and tried hard to stay conscious. I began to sweat profusely, my whole body apparently curious to see what would happen if the 97% of me that is water was on the outside of my skin for a change. In a sort of stupor I watched station after station glide past, until it dawned on me that there was a chance I’d be unable to get up from my seat when my time came.

Well, luckily after 20 minutes or so I was able to sit up, and finally stagger off the train, though God knows what I must have looked like: I was so sodden by this time I could have wrung out my socks and saved myself the price of a bottle of mineral water. I admit I am occasionally—just occasionally—guilty of exaggerating slightly for effect; when on a management course some years back we took a personality test, while others were rated “completer-finisher”, say, or “debater”, mine came back “drama queen”. But this really was pretty ghastly. The moral of the story is, I think, to drink lots of water when I travel in future: no, scratch that: the moral is, don’t travel.

Sarclet Harbour

In gansey news, as I mentioned last week I didn’t take my navy gansey down with me, but I managed to finish the first sleeve once I got back. Hopefully another fortnight will see the whole thing done: already the nights are drawing in and I need a light to knit after about 9pm. The nights, alas, are drawing in, and it’s not even August: I would say the leaves will soon be falling from the trees, but it’s been so windy most of the trees have been stripped bare already. Oh, well—soon be Christmas…


I picked up 68 stitches along one side of the armhole, then the 24 stitches of the shoulder strap with its cable (which I cabled on the pick-up row) and then another 68 stitches down the other side. I knit the sleeve for 18 inches, pick-up row to cuff, and decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every 5 rows. My row gauge was 11.44 rows per inch. The cuff consists of 92 stitches in a knit 2/ purl 2 rib, and was knit for 6 inches so it can be rolled back to suit.