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Dunbeath: Week 6 – 15 March

I read with interest this week a review of a new science fiction novel, Radio Life, set in the sort of post-apocalyptic future that is all the rage just now. Apparently the story features “archive runners”, who are despatched to scavenge artefacts surviving from our destroyed civilisation. The author obviously not only has a highly misleading idea of the general standards of archival fitness—most of us, far from running, in reality struggle to climb more than one flight of stairs without oxygen—but of what archivists actually do. But then, he wouldn’t be the first SF writer to get us wrong. David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas famously has an archivist whose role is interviewing human clones in what is also, and I honestly didn’t see this coming, a dystopian future, before they’re executed.

Signs of Spring

Mitchell’s archivist records the clones on an “egg-shaped device”—another schoolboy blunder, since the only eggs most archivists I know are interested in come wrapped in tinfoil and are filled with chocolate buttons. The problem is, novelists always assume that archivists are concerned with the truth; whereas in reality Pontius Pilate is our patron saint, and we approach history not so much like detectives faced with a crime scene, collecting witness statements in the hope of one day bringing a prosecution, but more like stamp collectors. Still, I suppose we should count our blessings: when it comes to fictional portrayals we get off lightly compared with poor old librarians. (I was originally going to be a librarian, but I failed that bit in the practical exam where a handsome man takes off your glasses, loosens your hair, and proceeds to dance a tango with you; I never could master the tango.)

Abstract Willow

I haven’t quite finished the Dunbeath gansey, but am within a gnat’s whisker of doing so, having reached the final cuff. I’ve mentioned before that the only picture we had to go on for the pattern was the small, blurry image in the Moray Firth Gansey Project book. So even if you couldn’t honestly say that this was an exact replica, you couldn’t honestly say it wasn’t. I’m really pleased with it, yarn and pattern both, so much so that I’m going to start saving to buy the yarn to make one for myself. Next week, the start of the long-awaited Wick gansey pattern in Frangipani Cordova yarn.

Roosting Fulmar

And I note that it’s almost a year since the UK first went into lockdown. On Saturday Margaret and I had our first doses of the Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine. Both of us had some mild side effects (headache, tiredness, a bit like having a mild cold) but they soon pass. Now I feel rather like a prisoner, who’s been imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, on hearing the governor plans to issue a pardon—not free yet, but feeling that freedom, almost for the first time, is imaginable. Outside spring is impatiently ringing the doorbell, calling us to come and play; and while I may never become an archive runner, I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to walking rather briskly into whatever the future holds…

Dunbeath: Week 5 – 8 March

I’m in mourning this week. Not, let me hasten to add, for anything serious: but I just discovered that Groucho Marx never actually said “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana”, and a little part of me died. And it got me thinking (again) about time, and what it truly is. I mean, I know that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity proved that time is money, and they both get spent really fast; but that doesn’t get me very far.

Pendant raindrops

The ancient Greeks had a more nuanced view of time than we do, with two words for it, chronos and kairos. Chronos time is our sort of time, the passing of seconds and minutes and hours, clock time; what the poet Waters meant by “Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day/ You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way”. Kairos time, on the other hand, is special time, the right time, the time when choosing to act can change the course of your life. This is the sort of time Ecclesiastes is referring to when he says that to every thing there is a season, a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted, etc. Kairos time is deep time, numinous time, the opportune moment, and it’s not measured on any clock. I can’t help thinking it says something about us that we don’t seem to feel the lack of a word for it. (Mind you, the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for leg-spin bowling so I’m not saying there weren’t things they couldn’t learn from us too.)

Snowdrop Galaxy

Well, somewhere between chronos and kairos for me is knitting ganseys, an activity that rather takes me outside time. In fact, it’s possible that I have replaced the clock as a measure of the passing of time with ganseys. Howsobeit, the current project is well on the way to completion, with the shoulders joined, the collar completed and the first sleeve well underway (ah, the joys of 3-hour Zoom meetings with the camera and microphone switched off). You’ll note, by the way, that the sleeve pattern band is deeper than any of the yoke panels; but as this was the case in the original I’m following, I feel it’s OK.

Lookout on the Lighthouse

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”, Shakespeare’s Richard II laments after his deposition, as he waits to be executed. (One of the main reasons I chose archivist as a profession as opposed to, say, monarch, was that the chance of another archivist landing at Milford Haven with an army of mercenaries to overthrow me was, I always felt, slim.) And when I look back on my life, ganseys aside, the words time and waste do seem to seem to cover most of it (it’s actually very similar now, only with the word nuclear replacing time). But then, to quote Pink Floyd’s Time again, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the Anglo-Scottish-Kiwi way/ The time is gone, the blog is over, thought I’d something more to say…”

Dunbeath: Week 4 – 1 March

Did you know that we archivists have our own patron saint? She’s St Catherine, the Great Martyr; although, as there are only so many saints to go around, we have to share her with a whole bunch of freeloaders such as librarians and teachers and knife grinders. (This probably explains why she never answers my prayers: “You have reached the number of St Catherine of Alexandria, I’m too busy to come to the shrine right now so please leave a message after the world-weary sigh, honestly how hard is it to keep an edge on a blade—”; but by then I’ve usually hung up.) St Catherine’s qualities are said to be beauty, fearlessness, virginity and intelligence, and if that’s not a perfect description of an archivist then I don’t know what is.

Nets on the quay

Catherine is supposed to have lived around 300 AD. She was a famous intellectual (the sort of person our current Prime Minister would probably characterise as a “girly swot”; I’d always thought of the Billy Bunter books as a series of children’s public school stories, instead of, as it turns out, Cabinet Office papers). One time the Emperor Maximian gathered some fifty pagan philosophers to dispute with her. She not only won the argument, she even converted several of them to Christianity (Maximian, a textbook bad loser, promptly had them executed). She was going to be martyred on a burning wheel, but when it shattered at her touch she was beheaded instead. Now she spends her afterlife rushing about helping, among others, potters, hat-makers, theologians, tanners, haberdashers and Greece. And archivists. No wonder my records contain so many mistakes. I can’t help feeling the church needs more saints.

Wick on a sunny day

I was shocked to learn that there isn’t a patron saint of gansey knitters, probably because several centuries of picking up dropped stitches in other people’s knitting would try the patience of—well, of a saint. (Dare I propose St Gladys of Thompson?) Still, even without divine assistance, the body of my gansey is coming along nicely, just the collar and sleeves to go. Incidentally, if you want to see the original pattern we’ve based this gansey on, you can find the photograph on the Wick Society’s Johnston Collection website.

In parish notices, Nigel has sent us pictures of a very splendid gansey he’s made. The yarn is Frangipani Helford blue, with edging in paler blue merino wool. The pattern is Matt Cammish, an absolute classic, and Nigel’s done it full justice here. Many congratulations to him!

Snowdrops catching the sun

And if St Catherine is one of the busiest, which saints have the strangest responsibilities? Could it be St Columbanus, patron saint of motorcyclists? Or perhaps St Balthasar, one of the three wise men, who looks after playing card manufacturers? The saint with the most challenging caseload is probably St Rita, patron saint of the impossible. Then there’s St Drogo, who has charge of unattractive people and, er, coffee houses (still, it’s good to see Frodo Baggins’s father gainfully employed). In fact, I imagine St Catherine saying to St Polycarp of Smyrna, “Look, you take earaches, I’ve got my hands full with all these by-our-lady archivists complaining their pencils need sharpening (and no, St Fotino and St Hypatius of Gangra, and how many times must I say this, that is not a euphemism!)…”

Dunbeath: Week 3 – 22 February

What a difference a week makes! Last weekend it was winter, we were being hammered by gale-force winds and rain was washing away the ice and snow. The winds blew hard enough to crack the brackets attaching our satellite dish to the wall, turning it, as the repairman observed, from an aerial into a weathervane. For three anxious days we were deprived of television news, only to discover when we were reconnected that not a lot had changed. There may be a lesson in that.

Heron fishing

And now suddenly it’s spring. Everything is blues and greens instead of greys and, well, more greys. God’s got His attic conversion done, and the sky now extends all the way up to the ozone layer. Snow has been replaced with snowdrops. The trees and hedges look thicker somehow, as though, despite it being too early for blossom, they’re getting ready to bud, like athletes limbering up before a race. Children were actually playing in the play area and, what’s more, even seemed to be having fun; the last few months the handful I’ve seen down there shuffled about sullenly like prisoners being forced to exercise in the yard. Walking by the river the other day I saw a heron on the island raise its beak like a periscope out of the long grass and survey the waters, before mysteriously submerging again.

Snowdrops by the riverside

And while I’m sure winter hasn’t done with us quite yet, this will do to be going on with. As I write this it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining and the sky is filled with seagulls making cries like the laser cannons in Star Wars. It’s windy, of course, but you expect that. Hmm: I wonder what’s on tv…?



As I mentioned last week, this gansey is being knit using blister (or coin) stitch. On the pattern row, which is every sixth row, you knit 3 plain stitches, then insert the needle through the next stitch four rows down, loop a new knit stitch over your needle, draw it back through the stitch, then, with a gentle tug of the yarn, allow the rows above the stitch you’ve just made to drop. Then you knit the next 3 stitches as before, and repeat the process. (The diamond in the chart shows where to knit the blister stitch.)

It takes a bit of getting used to, this business of actively dropping stitches, but you soon get used to it. It’s both very easy—five rows of plain knitting is always a joy—and slightly stressful. You do have to concentrate: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve, er, lost count, and cheerfully dropped four rows on a stitch, only to find it was the wrong stitch, and had to go back and pick them all up again. Plus inserting the needle through a stitch four rows down is a bit like trying to vaccinate someone while you’re wearing a blindfold.

I don’t really understand how it all works—it seems like the sort of thing that would’ve got you burned at the stake a few hundred years’ ago—but it makes for a very neat, unusual effect. I’m more than halfway up the front (or back; this gansey won’t have a shaped neckline) and should finish it sometime this week, before we do it all again on the other side.

Dunbeath: Week 2 – 15 February

According to the Met Office it’s been the coldest start to a year for over a decade, with an average UK temperature of 2.2ºc. And I can’t help thinking: 2.2º? (Wait, let me say that in italics: 2.2º?) Bah, luxury! It’s been so cold for so long that even a temperature of 0º would’ve been an improvement. Last week Wick fell overnight to -9º, with daytime temperatures around -3º to -1º. Half the river was frozen over, confusing the heck out of the ducks—I checked in case the penguins from The Muppet Christmas Carol were holding their annual skating party, but alas not—while moody seagulls scratched rude words in the ice and waited for spring, and the sun, and tourists careless where they put down their sandwiches.

Ice in the river

The rainwater in the barrel froze, then it snowed on top, then that froze too. If we were pirates, our timbers would be well and truly shivered. I’ve taken to wearing a huge, black, fuzzy Russian hat around the house, leading one work colleague on a Zoom call to wonder how I managed to persuade a baby panda to go to sleep on my head. Even the brass monkeys are resorting to thermal underwear. (Did I mention it’s been cold?)

Last week’s snow

Meanwhile, in gansey news I’ve reached the pattern and the yoke. I’m trying to recreate the pattern on Graeme Bethune’s—whose sheep the yarn comes from—great-grandfather’s gansey, based on the photo in the Moray Firth Gansey Project book. Trouble is, the photo is about the size of a postage stamp, and blurry withal, so it’s impossible to see much actual detail. It could be one of a number of patterns, all similar. So we’ve turned to a photograph in the Johnston Collection of Victorian fishermen for a pattern, one that should give Graeme a distinctive and slightly unusual gansey that’s still pretty close to the original. It involves seed stitch panels, alternating with panels in a stitch that’s new to me: blister, or coin stitch. (“Blister” is the mot juste, as it creates little swellings or pockets, just like the bubble-effect of a blister.)

How pleasing that there are still new things to learn! For I was starting to feel a bit like Ecclesiastes, the Eeyore of the Old Testament: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Also, don’t blame me if it rains.” I’ll post the chart next week. It’s early days, and it’ll show more clearly next time, but it involves five rows of plain knitting: then on the sixth, on every fourth stitch along, you go back four rows and pick up a stitch, then let the stitches above this drop, before carrying on. (You’d think a stitch that has dropping stitches built into it would be right up my alley, but evidently not; I’m only a natural if I don’t do it on purpose.) As ever, I’m indebted to Margaret for this, as she’s charted out the pattern and shown me how to knit it.

Wigeon on the ice

And now, as I write this on Sunday evening, the rain is lashing against the windows, blown by winds of over fifty miles per hour, which I guess counts as a thaw. But then, we do live in the far north of the Scotland, and Thurso, just a few miles up the road, is on the same latitude (59º) as Juneau, Alaska, so the odd bad winter does rather go with the territory. As the soldiers used to say in the First World War: you shouldn’t have joined if you can’t take a joke…