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Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 3 – 12 August

Well, that’s the back of the gansey finished and about two-thirds of the front. Another week would normally see the shoulders joined, but I’m flying down to the Midlands on Monday for my mother’s funeral and my bag is already pretty heavy.

Carvings in Dunnet Forest

To take my mind off things I’ve been listening to music a lot recently. Now that the lyrics of just about every song ever written are posted on the internet, I finally realised that I’ve been mis-hearing songs for decades. I don’t mean the jokey “mis-hearings” which are intentionally, aha, funny. (Does anyone seriously think John Lennon is singing “The girl with colitis goes by”, or Bob Dylan “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind”? On the whole I rather doubt it). No, mine are simply honest mistakes.

Take Paul Simon’s classic song, Fifty Ways To leave Your Lover, the one that goes “You just slip out the back, Jack/ Make a new plan, Stan”, etc. For years I thought Lee was being advised to drop off the quay—to, you know, go down to the harbour, jump in the ocean and swim to freedom. I thought this was a great image. So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that it was the far more mundane, “Drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free”. This particular Lee probably had to wait for a bus. I bet it was running late, too, due to some kind of engine trouble, and he had to stand as all the seats were taken.

Another one is Jethro Tull’s classic track, Jack in the Green. I have no words for how much I love this song, have done ever since I bought the album back in 1977 (the first proper album I ever bought). The Jack in the Green is a traditional English May Day folk tradition; it’s basically someone inside a wicker frame all decked with greenery, looking like a cross between a yeti from Doctor Who and a hedge. It’s a bittersweet song that addresses Jack as an earth spirit who’s threatened by modern life: “Or will these changing times/ Motorways, power lines/ Keep us apart?/ Well I don’t think so/ I saw some grass growing through the pavement today”. Anyway, there’s a line I’ve always heard as “He’s played across, whispers Jack-in-the-Green”. Now, the phrase “to play across” comes from cricket, and it’s when a batsman hits to left or right instead playing the ball back straight ahead of him, in line. It’s very risky, but can bring great rewards. It always struck me as a great line, a perfect image in the context of the song: humanity has put the whole environment at risk for the benefits of modern life, and all nature can do is watch. But no: it turns out the line is, “Each blade of grass whispers Jack-in-the-Green”. Oh. I mean, it’s OK; it’s just not as good as the line I heard in my head.

Sarclet Harbour, near Wick

And, if I’m honest, this is the problem I’m left with. When I listen to these songs now, I try to hear them the way I used to, but I know I’m kidding myself. And while I’d never be so arrogant as to suggest that great songwriters like Paul Simon or Ian Anderson could have anything to learn from me, I’m just saying that I’m open to offers if they ever want to give me a call…

[Apologies again for the quality of the images, Margaret still being away. I know entire movies have been shot using iPhones; just not by me – obviously!]

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 2 – 5 August

As the Preacher said, for everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to ride on the funfair and watch the fireworks, and a time for the funfair to pack up and move on while the rest of us wonder if anyone’s actually going to put out the smouldering embers of the bonfire. Yea, verily I say unto you, it’s barely August, and already it feels as though autumn is just around the corner; the smoke of wood fires drifts on the evening breeze. Shakespeare said that summer’s lease hath all too short a date, but in Caithness summer doesn’t have so much a lease as a weekend holiday rental.

Fireworks at Wick Gala

I think nature realises it’s running out of time. There’s a buddleia up the road which seems to be growing butterflies as well as flowers: the other day as I passed a giddy cloud of erratically dancing butterflies flew up and enveloped me, like an orange snowstorm. (I’m sure butterflies suffer from existential dread as much as the rest of us, but they certainly hide it well.) Our garden hedge is positively boiling with sparrows, everywhere you look there are shiny little black eyes, and heads appearing and disappearing like a vast game of whack-a-mole on speed. One collective noun for butterflies is, delightfully, a kaleidoscope. Another for sparrows is a ubiquity. Sometimes the English language is very pleasing.

Well, in gansey news I am about three-quarters of the way up the back. This has always been one of my favourite patterns: less ornate than some, it just seems like a perfect balance between the panels of chevrons and moss stitch diamonds; but of course it’s the double cables that really make it special, fiddly though they are to knit. The pattern is exactly the same as the last time I knit it.

I wonder what the collective noun for ganseys would be? (A botheration? A finick? A lifetime?) We all know about parliaments of owls, unkindnesses of ravens and murders of crows. My favourite collective noun is a shrewdness of apes, which seems about right. The weirdest one I found in the “terms of venery”, the old English hunting terminology, was a smack of jellyfish. This raises several questions. Do jellyfish smack, or do they not rather squelch, flop, or sting? If you inhale them, are they in fact mind-alteringly addictive?  And—most pressing of all—you mean they used to hunt jellyfish…?

The butterfly bush

[Apologies for the quality of images this week. Margaret’s off on her travels again so I’m afraid it’s back to me and my iPhone]

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 1 – 29 July

I’m very sorry to say that my mother passed away last week. Ruth lived to see her 90th birthday, had a good life and was cared for lovingly until the end, and there’s nothing to regret except the fact that she’s no longer with us; which, of course, is everything.

A few years back I was staying at the family home, and there had been a small, sharp disagreement, the kind of trivial thing that happens when people share a house and a life over several decades. There was just my mother, my father and me. My mother got up and went out and my father watched her go. Unexpectedly he smiled and said, “You know, when I first met your mother she was the kindest person I’d ever met.” He looked at me. “She still is.” Which pretty much sums up how I feel about her too, a feeling shared by just about everyone who knew her.

‘Spirit of Wick’

Well, it’s time to unmask my batteries and reveal—let’s be honest, no one’s surprised—that I’ve been working secretly on another gansey these last few weeks, when I felt like taking a break from the Wick pattern. (Sometimes it’s nice to unclamp the fingers after so much fine work and just relax with some plain knitting.) This is another revisit of a favourite old pattern, the celebrated Skipper Donald Thomson of Thurso, from Rae Compton’s book. I’ll say more about it next week.

Summer Grasses

I’m knitting it in Wendy’s navy yarn—part of my now-dwindling stash. As many of you will know, Wendy’s has discontinued its range of guernsey 5-ply, and when existing stocks have gone that will be that. Frangipani, blessings be upon their name, now stand alone as the last major supplier. (So long as no one reports them to the monopolies commission we’re probably OK…)

Laid out to dry – net by the harbour

And when I look at the old, black and white photographs of my parents I’m struck by how much fun they seem to be having; they’re always laughing. It’s salutary to remember that many of our parents’ best years didn’t involve us at all. (As Paul Simon said: “Well, that was your mother/ And that was your father/ Before you was born, dude/ When life was great…”)

In my memory it’s always the height of summer, the house is filled with soft, golden light and she’s just laid aside her magazine to share a funny story with us. Whenever I think of her, my mother is laughing still.

[We’ve turned off the comments for obvious reasons. Normal service will hopefully be resumed next week.]

Wick (Donald Murray): Week 18 – 22 July

Courtesy Wick Heritage Society

So that’s the Wick gansey finished, cast off, washed and blocked—and very splendid it looks, too, pinned out to dry like this. The body ribbing may be a pain to knit, but it looks fine; it features in quite a few of these old Caithness ganseys, and I’m sure it was designed to keep the jumper tight close to the body. (Those of us with ballooning midriffs, such as could lead to us being placed on our sides and rolled downhill like a barrel, have of course little need of such assistance.) This is the first time I’ve seen the pattern properly, and it’s a really impressive combination. I’ve said before that these Caithness ganseys represent for me the missing link between the patterns of, say, Yorkshire and the Hebrides, and this one is no exception. It’s promised to Wick Museum, to complement the original photo that inspired it. (Next week… something else.)

It was the County Show this weekend. In the field across the road from us great white marquees sprang up, so that glimpsed through the trees they looked like giant spiders’ webs, as though Miller Avenue had turned into Mirkwood overnight. At least this year was dry: the last time they held it here it had poured for several days, turning the show into what felt like great recreation of the Battle of the Somme. I’m not really much of a lad for agricultural shows, as a rule—in the event of a bovine mugging I’d struggle to identify individual cows from a lineup—and it doesn’t help to find barricades erected across the end of one’s street, in what I assumed at first was preparation for a no-deal Brexit. And now, as I write, it’s all coming down; only without the comical whoopee cushion noises my imagination is supplying as the giant tents softly deflate. Still, I’m glad the sun shone, and the wind dropped for a change.

Sheep at the Show

Ah, yes, the wind. I keep forgetting that it’s all that protects us up here from the midges and flies, in much the same way that the Earth’s magnetic field shields us from solar radiation. On the rare occasions the wind drops when we’re out walking the conversation usually goes like this:
Self: “Ah, what a stunning view. Shame about the wind, though.”
(Wind drops. Every orifice and inch of exposed skin is suddenly assailed by clouds of midges and flies, so that one resembles a victim of tarring and feathering, only they’d run out of feathers and decided to use currants instead; all the while jerking convulsively, as though someone had slipped a fairly frisky octopus down one’s trousers.)
Self: “Arg arg arg arg arg, gettemoff gettemoff gettemoff!”
(A fresh breeze springs up.)Self (pausing to expectorate several times): “Ah, what a stunning view. Thank God for the wind!”

No Wind at Forse Castle

Wick (Donald Murray): Week 17 – 15 July

Sinclair’s Bay is part of a broad crescent sweeping 20 miles or so from Noss Head near Wick all the way up to Duncansby in the far northeast. Some 2,000 years of coastal defences can be traced in the monuments scattered along the bay. There are the remains of Iron Age brochs, those great round stone edifices that once towered above the cliffs. Debate still rages as to why they were built—whether defensive structures, manor houses or (my personal theory) the ventilation towers of a vast Iron Age underground railway—but Caithness has more ruined brochs than any other part of Britain, many of them strategically placed overlooking the sea.

A foggy day in Wick

Then there are the castles. Sinclair’s Bay has three: Girnigoe in the south, Ackergill Tower in the middle and Keiss (pronounced to rhyme with fleece) to the north. Seen from the sea, Keiss towers dramatically on the cliffs—as impressive in its way as, say, Harlech or Edinburgh castles. It’s only when you view it from the landward side that you realise it’s all a front, that it has breadth and height but hardly any depth, like the mockup Western town in Blazing Saddles. (As I get older I tend to look at medieval castles with a different perspective; I can’t help wondering how they managed all those steeply winding turret staircases in an age without knee replacements or stairlifts.)

Old Keiss Castle and a pillbox

We were over by Girnigoe Castle on Sunday, and I was surprised (and quietly delighted) to find a lone piper playing there. It was a blustery day, though, and the wind whipped the skirl o’ the pipes around so that it sounded from where we were as though someone had trapped an an angry wasp in a jam jar. Perhaps it’s a new initiative by the Scottish Tourist Board, and when you rent a camper van in Inverness you’re also issued with a free piper to enhance the experience as you travel round?

Well. In gansey news I’m getting on for halfway down the second sleeve (in terms of knitting, if not distance) and the end is in sight. If I can keep up this rate I might even finish it next weekend. Of course, we won’t be able to see it at its best until its been washed and blocked, but already it feels like a classic.

Another foggy day in Wick

The third age represented along the Caithness coast is of course the Second World War. After the German invasion of Norway in 1940 Caithness was very much on the front line and Keiss, with its long flat beach, was heavily fortified. Most of the defences have been cleared since, but you can still see numerous pillboxes (machine-gun emplacements) as well as examples of “dragons’ teeth” (concrete anti-tank defences shaped like huge toblerones) above Keiss beach. The beach was mined, reportedly Britain’s longest minefield, and there was even a “flame barrage” (in the event of an invasion, the beach could have been flooded with a petrol-oil mixture and set alight). Impossible to imagine on a peaceful July day in 2019, when there was nothing out to sea save a couple of fishing boats bobbing placidly on the swell, nothing in the air but predatory herring gulls. It probably says something about us that these are the monuments that endure; Philip Larkin once memorably wrote that “what will survive of us is love”—he didn’t go on to add, “and castles and pillboxes”, but maybe he should have.

[Apologies for the late posting – internet gremlins.  Margaret]