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Scottish Fleet Cardigan: Week 4 – 21 September

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the 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; and a time to realise how much more fun the entire literary canon would be if it had been written by PG Wodehouse. Moby-Dick, for instance, might begin, “Call me Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright”, and go on from there; or Kafka’s Metamorphosis: “As Gussie Fink-Nottle awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous newt”; or even Du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Blandings Castle again”—a brooding, gothic mystery of death and jealousy transformed at a stroke into a search for Lord Emsworth’s missing pig.

Foggy Dew

After Kafka, Dostoevsky and Hardy are probably the writers most in need of cheering up. I’m sure we all feel that what Jude the Obscure needed to snap him out of his gloom was for Sue to paint a pig with phosphorous and release it into his bedroom; no doubt they’d both have had a good laugh, then set out armed with a knitting needle to puncture Alec D’Urbeville’s hot water bottle and jolly well serve him right. Crime and Punishment could have been dispensed with as a short story (“Will you be dining in tonight, sir?” “No Jeeves, I rather fancy popping round and giving that moneylender and her sister the old what-ho with a bally big axe. After which I’ll probably go to the Drones Club for a bread roll fight.” “Very good, sir, I shall press the creases out of the rubber apron directly”).

In gansey news, I continue to make steady, if not spectacular progress: I’m just about to divide for the front and back, the demi-gussets almost complete. And as I wonder with every gansey I knit: why don’t I knit this pattern in this shade all the time? This has been an unusual year in so many ways; curious to relate, I’ve exclusively knit ganseys for family and friends, four of them in fact. Here’s a picture of the last three being heroically modelled by their new owners.

Strange Finds

In other news, I was reading CV Wedgwood’s classic history of the Thirty Years’ War this week and came across this devastating assessment of the Emperor Ferdinand III: “He was too clever to be happy, but not clever enough to be successful.” This was so close to my last annual appraisal as to give me chills; I fear it may end up on my tombstone. So to cheer myself up I’ve been thinking of ways of improving the works of Dostoevsky by combining them with movies. So far I’ve got Band of Brothers Karamazov, in which four brothers are parachuted behind German lines in World War 2 but fail in their mission when they realise God may not exist; Animal House of the Dead, in which a frat party gets out of hand and the students are sent to a Siberian labour camp; and (my current favourite), an exuberant musical of existential despair, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Karamazov, which honestly writes itself…

Scottish Fleet Cardigan: Week 3 – 14 September

There’s a cartoon doing the rounds just now, by the New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress: a couple are walking down the street and she says, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane”. As this is the week when the British Government modelled its approach to international law on the moral philosophy of Edmund Blackadder (“Sir Thomas More for instance, burnt alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say: ‘I recant my Catholicism…'”), I kinda know how she feels. So let us temporarily avert our gaze from the ghastly present, and focus on the distantish past.

Statue at top of Mervyn’s Tower

During lockdown I promised I’d say more about the stone building at Nybster, the rather grandly named Mervyn Tower. There’s an Iron Age broch at Nybster built on a spur of land overlooking the broad sweep of coast between Wick and Duncansby. A few yards back from the broch stands this strange tower. If you risk the rather unsteady steps leading up, you get a superb view over the broch and the bay. The tower was built around 1900, when the site was first excavated by Sir Francis Tress Barry (and is named after his nephew). Barry’s foreman was the local farmer and artist John Nicolson, and he it was who made the tower and carvings using stone spoil from the excavations. (The modern archaeologist might raise an eyebrow at this, though when you consider the German archaeologist Schliemann used dynamite to blow away nine levels of history at Troy to get to the period he was interested in, maybe not.) The tower was originally erected right in the middle of the broch site—in your face, history!—but was relocated to a more respectful distance in the 1980s. One of the statues is of a youth, and stap me vitals if it ain’t a gansey he’s wearing—the classic Staithes pattern, by the look of it—disarmingly appropriate to the time and place.

Autumn colours by the riverside

Speaking of ganseys, I’m making good, steady progress on my latest project. I’m almost to the gussets, in fact: I just need to make sure I’ve got the balance right so the trees finish naturally at the shoulders. (I did my calculations of the number of rows I’d need based on an average of the last few ganseys, but of course each batch of yarn varies in thickness, and you have to account for the actual tension you’re knitting at, wind speed, etc.) I’m very happy with the overall effect; it’s nice to combine two separate patterns and get more than the sum of the parts.

Blowing in the wind

And as for Sir Thomas More, there’s a great quote from A Man for All Seasons that’s been in my mind this week. In the play Sir Thomas says he’d give the Devil himself the benefit of law. Indignantly his son-in-law, William Roper, declares that he’d cut down every law in England to get at the Devil. And More devastatingly replies, “Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?” For without the rule of law, to once more quote Edmund Blackadder, “We’re in the stickiest situation since Sticky the Stick Insect got stuck on a sticky bun…”

Scottish Fleet Cardigan: Week 2 – 7 September

Some 35 minutes’ drive south of Wick, just inside the Caithness-Sutherland border, lies the small village of Berriedale. You can’t miss it: the road, which has till then been footling along the clifftops overlooking the German Ocean, suddenly plunges down into a deep gorge where the Berriedale and Langwell rivers meet before merging their waters with the sea. Indeed, “Berriedale Braes” has been a notorious black spot for many years, especially in winter, with hairpin bends and precipitous inclines. I was once trapped there for nearly an hour some years back while a huge articulated lorry, which had got itself stuck, defied the laws of physics inch by painful inch around the sharpest bend; an experience not at all improved by the burning summer heat and the overpowering smell emanating from the meat wagon parked ahead of me.

Berriedale beach & one of the Candles

It’s a beautiful spot. Apart from a church at the very top of the brae—what fun Sunday mornings must have been, back in the day—there are just a few houses down in the gorge, a studio and the River Bothy cafe. To be honest, forget the scenery: it’s worth going there just for the cakes. (In The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel the elf-queen laments leaving the beauties of middle earth for the afterlife, “But if there are mallorn-trees beyond the Great Sea, none have reported it”; I feel much the same about mars bar tray bakes.) After stocking up on essentials to keep your blood sugar and spirits high, you cross the river and the road and follow the path down past the Wellbeck Estate offices to the harbour.

The latest ganseys modelled by their recipients

The harbour is sheltered by a projecting spur of land which curves out into the sea like a one-armed crab’s pincer. There’s nothing left of it now, but in medieval times there was a castle built on top of this spur, commanding both the seaward and landward approaches to Caithness. There’s a suspension footbridge leading to the north side of the river, where you will find the pebble beach, some old fishermen’s cottages, a handful of caves hollowed out under the cliffs, and the ocean. The footbridge is sturdy but has a noticeable wobble, designed by an engineer who clearly wanted to combine a bridge with a bouncy castle. There are two crenellated turrets perched high on the cliffs, originally built by the Duke of Portland for lights to guide fishermen to the river mouth and known, rather delightfully, as the Duke’s Candlesticks.

We slithered along the beach, peered into the only cave accessible at highish tide, stared man- and womanfully out to sea, and then it was time to go back across the only footbridge I know that suffers from turbulence. Luckily we’d parked the car at the cafe, and—what’s that you say? Another tray bake for the road? Well, now you mention it, maybe just a quick one…



This gansey is being knit in Frangipani Moonlight yarn. The chest size is 22 inches, which equates to c. 359 stitches in the round, plus 20 for the steek of the cardigan. I cast on 336 + 20 = 356 stitches for the welt and steek and increased by 23 for the body pattern. On each side, front and back, there are 3 tree panels @ 33 stitches wide, alternating with four cable bands @ 20 stitches wide. The central tree panel on the front is broken down the middle for the steek.

Autumn colour in the marsh

I only made one slight alteration to the tree pattern. In the original, the flags on either side of each tree are seven stitches deep. Now, the tree panels, which were 33 stitches wide, fit my required number of stitches perfectly. But the cable panels always start and end with a purl stitch: If I just fit the two patterns together as they were, I’d have had the cable purl stitches running up against the tree panels’ flag purl stitches. I felt that this would be messy, and wouldn’t give me the clean edges I felt these patterns required. So I converted the first and last purl stitches of the tree panels’ flags into knit stitches, which gave me a nice, sharp knit column to separate the trees and cables. In order to keep the flag pattern looking similar to the original, I adjusted each flag so that it still abutted the ones above and below, to reflect the fact that they are now six stitches wide, not seven.

Scottish Fleet Cardigan: Week 1 – 31 August

When I am listed in Who’s Who—and, like me, you may be wondering why it’s taking so long—I shall include among my hobbies coming up with ideas for novels I will never write. (To quote Futurama: what do I look like, a guy who’s not lazy?) Some of these ideas have been in my mind so long I’m surprised no one else has snapped them up yet—disappointed, too, as I keep hoping I could sue them for plagiarising my subconscious. Anyway, here’s one example. We all know the many-worlds theory of quantum wossnames, the idea that every time you make a choice a new universe buds off from our own, a new timeline; in other words, there are millions of universes in which everything that could possibly happen, happens.

Facing the Sun

Somewhere out there in the multiverse is a me who won the lottery, who didn’t tell that joke during that job interview. Equally, there will be thousands of luckless mes, literally there but for the grace of God; the Salieris to my Mozarts. Well, so what, you ask? This has been a cliche of Star Trek since Captain Kirk first donned a corset. But what, I thought, if none of those choices mattered: what if things fell out so that no matter what choices I made, I still ended up the same me in the same place? What if I won the lottery, but lost the ticket? What if I hadn’t told that joke during the interview and got the job, only to find they were a front for evil satanic chicken-worshippers? In my story, a murder mystery, I’d start off right after the crime with one narrative strand, which a choice would branch into two, then four, and so on until I had a dozen or more alternatives going in alternating chapters, branching off from the main trunk of story like, well, branches… 

Colourful creels

Actually, branches and trees are rather on my mind just now, owing to my current project. I’ll talk more about it next week, when you will hopefully be able to see it more clearly. I’ve called it “Scottish Fleet”, as the patterns are recorded there, but I think of it as my Homophone Gansey: a combination of the trees from Mrs Laidlaw of Eyemouth’s pattern and the ornate cables from Mrs Laidler of Whitby. These are two of my all-time favourites, and by combining them I hope to get the best of both worlds. It’s another cardigan, another gift, and is knit in Frangipani Moonlight (which goes with my hair, what there is left of it…).

In parish notices, it’s time to unveil another project from Judit. This one is uses different colours, and is inspired by the Colourstrings music teaching method for young people, a very worthy cause. Coming to this jumper after living in ganseydom for so long I feel like Dorothy waking up in a technicolour Oz and wondering who I have to kill to get a pair of slippers. Many congratulations once again to Judit, and I now know what to do with all this leftover guernsey yarn I’ve been accumulating.

Waves on the shore

As for my story, I’d resolve it by gradually bringing all the plot strands back together, showing how all roads literally lead to the same present moment. (Or, in the words of TS Eliot, “What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end, which is always present.”) The murderer would still be caught. In the end, in every universe, I am always me, which is both a source of discouragement and consolation. We are all where we’re supposed to be. And, having gone to all this trouble of plotting it out, I suppose I could actually write the damn novel; but then, what do I look like (in every version of the multiverse), a guy who’s not lazy…?

Flamborough III(b): Week 6 – 24 August

Odd One Out: Logs in Dunnet Forest

The rowan berries are out in Dunnet Forest, blood-red clusters hanging from the branches like over-excited miniature grapes. I always find rowan trees reassuring, since when I see one I know I’m safe from witches. For, as everybody knows, rowan is said to act as a charm against witches, an important point as forests are traditionally a witch’s natural habitat and you never know when one might pop up unexpectedly out of the underbrush. I grew up listening to the Steeleye Span track The Twelve Witches, which has the comforting refrain: Rowan tree, red thread/ Hold the witches all in dread. This is a variant of the Scottish rhyme, Rowan tree and red threid/ Gar the witches tyne their speed, or as it is most commonly rendered, Rowan tree and red thread/ Put the witches to their speed.

Drifting Fog

And then I thought, what speed exactly? How fast does the average witch travel? Could it be that we’ve got it all wrong, and rather being a charm to ward off witches, perhaps rowan acts on them like a performance-enhancing drug—that rowan actually makes witches go faster? And what has survived is a folk memory of the time rowan was banned at the 1695 Salem Witch Cross-Country Trials because it gave some of the competitors an unfair advantage. Alas, I fear we will never know.

Meanwhile, back in the real world—for a given value of “real”—the gansey is, as expected, finished. It’s now been washed and blocked and all it has to do is steam quietly in the baking Caithness sun—about a month should do it given current temperatures—and get itself dry. I do like this pattern, simple, effective, a joy to knit and yet perfectly proportioned on a gansey. Strange how this gansey is already receding into the past as thoughts turn to the next project: more about this next week.

Waving Grasses

And returning to folk customs for a minute, I can’t help wondering just how it was established that rowan acts as a witch-repellent? I imagine it was much like medical trials today, with witches offered perhaps 20 groats to come down to the castle and be exposed to a variety of plants to see if any of them produced a response. (“Whortleberry…no reaction. Dandelion… no reaction. Sneezewort… witch sneezed but explained she’d forgotten her antihistamine tablets. Stinking iris… witch denied it was her. Rowan… witch was up and off at about 20 m.p.h. assisted by a light tail wind… By jove, Janet, I think we could be onto something!”) Well, however it came about I’m grateful to our ancestors for establishing the fact, since I can now roam through Dunnet Forest free from the risk of being turned into a toad. Which is lucky, as there’s this gingerbread cottage in a clearing there I’ve had my eye on for a while…