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Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 10 – 20 April

The historian Max Hastings relates an anecdote about Winston Churchill. There was once a game shoot at Blenheim Palace, where Churchill attempted an absurdly long shot at an apparently oblivious hare, and duly missed. A youth asked him why he’d wasted a cartridge on it. “Young man,” replied Churchill blithely, “I wished that hare to understand it was taking part in these proceedings.” Well, I imagine that hare’s feelings pretty closely match mine as I read the news on the pandemic—so far I seem to be out of range, but I definitely feel part of the proceedings.

The Old Lifeboat House

It’s week four of the lockdown, and I’m delighted to say that I’ve finished the gansey. As I’ve said before, you have to wait till it’s washed and blocked to really see it in all its glory; and very glorious it looks. I do love the Hebridean patterns. Yorkshire has my heart, Caithness my loyalty, but as Lady Macbeth once eulogised her own Hebrides gansey: “Others abide our question, thou art free”. I plan to knit a few more of them before I hang up my needles (to quote the great Bob Dylan, “Mama take these needles off of me/ I can’t see too good any more/ it’s getting dark, too dark to knit/ feel like I’m dropping’ stitches galore…”).

Tower of St Fergus’ through the hawthorns

It’s a double-header this week, two for the price of one: Judit has come up trumps again with a very impressive variant on the pattern from The Lizard in Cornwall. This has always been one of my favourites, ever since I first saw it in Mary Wright’s book, so simple and yet so richly textured. Congratulations again to Judit!

Now here’s a thing. I was reading a book about Henry VIII, and it said he had someone executed for treason—well, of course he had loads of people executed for treason; you had to make your own entertainment in those days. But in this particular case, several courtiers attended the execution “disguised as Scotsmen”. And I thought: you what?


I’d always thought of executions as rather sombre affairs, and not so much as fancy-dress parties (“Going to the execution tomorrow?” “Yes, thought I’d go as a pirate. You?” Oh, as a Scotsman.” “Good show!”). But just how would you go about disguising yourself as a Scotsman back then? Leaving aside the jimmy hats so beloved of Edinburgh’s souvenir shops, and passing hastily over Mel Gibson in Braveheart (in which he wears blue woad face paint, which went out of fashion several hundred years earlier, and a kilt, which came into fashion several hundred years later), 16th century Highlanders wore the belted plaid that would later evolve into the kilt—though it’s not exactly what you’d call a disguise, and was hardly national.

Oh well, a mystery it must remain, I suppose. But it’s got me wondering: if I were ever to be executed for treason—the contingency appears remote, but you never know—how would I like the crowd to be dressed? I’m currently going with clowns, preferably copiously provided with buckets of whitewash and ladders; on the grounds that if I’m going to meet my maker, laughing seems as good a way as any.

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 9 – 12 April

This week marked the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of Twin Peaks, and so of course I’ve been thinking about owls. (One of the memorable phrases coined in the show was the enigmatic “The owls are not what they seem”. What they were was never explained, but such was the genius of David Lynch that a slow-motion shot of an owl launching from a branch felt somehow significant, and laden with doom.)

Daffodils and parish church

Owls are all over mythology like a rash. To the Greeks and Romans, they were associated with Athena/ Minerva, the goddess of wisdom—hence the “wise old owl” of folklore. But my favourite is the dark Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd. It’s your typical hackneyed boy-meets- girl-made-of-flowers story: girl’s lover tries to murder boy, boy turns into an eagle and then kills the lover, girl is turned into an owl (community service not apparently being an option at the time).

Creels at harbourside

The German philosopher Hegel famously observed, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk”—and then wondered why no one invited him to racy cocktail parties. What he meant, of course, is that we never truly understand events until they’re over, that wisdom always comes too late. But really when it comes to wisdom, I’m with Yeats: “Wisdom is a butterfly/ And not a gloomy bird of prey…”

Well, with no pretence to wisdom I’ve spent this last week on holiday; and with nowhere to go but up, I’ve been knitting, as you do. The second sleeve is almost finished, with the pattern section completed (same number of trees as the body, which was unplanned but nice). With just the end of the sleeve and the cuff to go, this week will see the completed gansey washed and blocked.

Finally, here’s an extract from another of my favourite poems. It’s by the Scottish poet George MacBeth, and is simply called Owl. It’s well worth reading in full, but I love it especially for the ending. The owls may not be what they seem—who among us ever is?—but their seeming is enough, and more than enough. Am an owl…

                        Owl lives
by the claws of his brain. On the branch
in the sever of the hand’s
twigs owl is a backward look.
Flown wind in the skin. Fine
Rain in the bones. Owl breaks
Like the day. Am an owl, am an owl.

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 8 – 6 April

In times of stress we naturally cleave to what is familiar and comfortable; and so I’ve found myself recently working through my extensive back catalogue of classic pop albums. But it wasn’t until Led Zeppelin IV that doubts began to creep in. If you recall, towards the end of side one they sing of a lady who’s buying a stairway to heaven (clearly a very wealthy lady, as the cost of the stair rods alone would seem prohibitive); who if, when she gets there, the stores are all closed, “with a word she can get what she came for”. Well, I thought, she’s lucky she’s shopping in heaven and not, say, looking for toilet roll in Tesco’s in Wick just now.

Yes, it’s week three of the coronavirus lockdown and I’m starting to view reality as something small and distant, like the earth seen in the rearview mirror of a spaceship. I’m rewriting old song lyrics to suit our troubled times: “We all self-isolate in a yellow submarine”, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair/ Well don’t bother/ ‘Cos it’s shut”, and the Dylan classic, “Stuck inside of Mobile with the social-distancing blues again”. (The late, great Bill Withers classic, “Stand By Me”, actually works fine, so long as you replace “by” with “about six feet away from”.)

Folk songs, of course, are ideal:

One misty, moisty morning,
When cloudy was the weather
I met a withered old man
A-clothed all in leather,
He was clothed all in leather
With a cap beneath his chin,
Singing, “Keep at least two metres away
And bugger off home again”.

View from the end of the riverside path

In gansey news, I’ve finished the first sleeve and made a start on the second, viz.: I’ve picked up the stitches around the armhole and laid the foundation row. As is my custom these days, I’ve made the cuff six inches long so it can be folded back to suit. (Sleeves can be tricky to judge correctly in my experience, and this adds an element of flexibility.) Another fortnight should hopefully see it finished.

It’s been a pretty intense few weeks—so much so that I’m actually taking this coming week as holiday, absurd though that may seem. It’s Easter week, always a special time for me: I’m not religious as such, being more of a floating voter, so to speak but, like Christmas, this is the closest I get. A time of reflection, for feeling thankful and making one’s peace with whatever might be out there, for listening to Parsifal and the St Matthew Passion, for eating far too much chocolate and nice things tasting of cinnamon; and for knitting: ‘cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to stay indoors…

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 7 – 30 March

In troubled times they say it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. (To which I always think, hey, I can multitask: surely I can do both?) But the current darkness goes well beyond my abilities to curse—old man shouts at cloud, as The Simpsons neatly put it—and while calling anyone who comes within six feet a “whoreson caterpillar, a bacon-fed knave” has its attractions, it is less effective against a virus, I find. So instead let us focus our attention on lighting candles.

The Winds of Change

I’m working from home now. Amazingly, it turns out I can write reports and videoconference just as effectively in my slippers—who knew? It takes a bit of getting used to, though. I dialled into one conference last week only to hear someone say, “Just a minute—we seem to have our wires crossed with a nature documentary. What is that? It looks like a naked mole rat’s burrow. No, wait: it’s Gordon’s nostril. Gordon, can you adjust your camera? We can all see right up your nose…” Too late I also realised that the bookcase facing the camera holds our DVD collection, which prompted the following exchange: “Is that the complete Peppa Pig I can see behind you?” “Hey, don’t tell me how it ends.” “Usually ends in a bacon sandwich, in my experience.”

I get up at the same time as I used to, but now I start each day on the sofa with a Haydn symphony, which is about as long as my commute to work used to be, and which is enough time for me to knit a standard row. But I’m so busy with work stuff that I don’t have a lot of free time in the day, so my knitting is still mostly confined to evenings and weekends. I’m making good progress, though, and am about halfway down the first sleeve (in length; obviously it gets narrower as you work down the sleeve, so you do speed up as you go). I usually knit Hebridean patterns in cream or natural white; it’s fascinating to see how well this one knits up in another colour. (Hmm. It’s lucky this gansey is being knit for someone rather smaller than I am; otherwise I don’t think I’d have found it easy to let it go at the end…)

The Winding Path Ahead

So now we all adjust to the new normal: staying in, going for one walk a day, the odd trip to the shops. (Very odd: my only consolation is that the world can’t currently go to hell in a handcart because all the carts have already been nabbed by people panic buying toilet rolls.) Town is so empty it feels like the zombie apocalypse has been and gone (in other words, much like a typical Sunday from my youth). In my walks up the riverside path I pass people stopping to chat; they each carefully observe the six-foot distancing rules, but of course you have to walk between them at a distance of less than three feet either side. My only consolation is, the wind is so strong they’re more in danger of infecting someone in Norway if they cough, than me.

Oh, well. That’s one week down. To all our readers, stay inside, stay safe, keep well and happy knitting. Now where did that dratted mole rat get to…?

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 6 – 23 March

Like John Lennon, I read the news today; but “oh boy” hardly seems an adequate response under the circumstances. As regular readers will know, anxiety sits on my shoulder like Jiminy Cricket’s manic depressive cousin (but being Scottish his advice is to “give a little thistle”, instead of a whistle, and I’m not sure that I should “always let pure nonsense” be my guide). But as the loose thread that binds the modern world unravels, I’m beginning to suspect anxiety may be the least of my problems.

Misery, they say, loves company; and so, taking a line from the late, great Ian Drury and the Blockheads, let’s cast it aside and focus instead on some random reasons to be cheerful. First up is the wonderful Star Wars/ Withnail and I mashup, in which some genius has synched Richard E Grant’s drunken, expletive-filled dialogue onto C-3PO, and it’s one of the most joyous things I’ve ever seen. The prissy robot swaggering into the cantina bar and demanding the finest wines known to humanity, then screaming abuse when he’s refused, keeps me warm during the long winter evenings.

What else? Oh, yes. There are millions of animal videos on the internet, but this is one of my favourites. It’s only 10 seconds long, and if your mood isn’t better by at least the third of them I guarantee your money back (and it’s free).

Statue at Nybster – a gansey in stone?

And thirdly—you’re way ahead of me, I collect—the joy of having something to do, in this case knitting. The way I deal with anxiety is to get my head down and knit. I listen to music or audiobooks—Wagner and Dorothy Dunnett’s novel of Macbeth at the moment—more or less obsessively, and just focus on getting the rows done. It may not get rid of the underlying causes, but I do at least finish a lot of jumpers. Speaking of which, there have been significant developments this week: the front and back are now complete, and joined at the shoulders. With the collar almost finished, that just leaves the sleeves; we’re two-thirds of the way there, and another month should see it pinned and formulated, as TS Eliot described his own completed knitting projects.

Signs of Spring

Finally this week, one of the chief bonuses to living in Caithness is that it almost comprises social distancing in itself: it’s easy to find a stretch of beach, a cliffside path, an abandoned harbour, or a river strath to explore, away from other people. (In fact, that’s pretty much the only bonus—Ed.) Happiness after all is where you find it, and I find it there, among other places. To return to John Lennon—one of the few people to write an ode to a takeaway curry in his classic song Instant Korma: he once said: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Reasons to be cheerful, part four…