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(Navy) Week 3: 12 June

Another short blog, as by the time you read this we shall be back down south for my father’s funeral. (I’m writing this on last Friday, as it were, so there’s not a lot of progress to report, just an inch or so of plain knitting up the body. Think of this as a sort of gansey-related time capsule, a metaphorical message in a bottle from the past.)

It’s been raining a lot

Britain has just held a general election to choose a new government, always a fairly depressing experience. Still, it’s usually enlivened by the fringe candidates, whose main reason for standing is just to inject some fun into the whole exercise. This is something that appears to be sadly lacking in other countries—after all, Barack Obama never had to campaign against Lord Buckethead (a man literally wearing a bucket on his head). And as for the splendidly costumed Mr Fishfinger, well, just imagine Hillary Clinton fighting a presidential campaign against a ridiculous figure in an outsize orange fat suit. (Oh, wait…)

In Scotland, the drop in support for the SNP makes the prospect of another independence referendum in the near future more unlikely. And overall Labour lost but it feels like a victory, partly because of the unexpectedly close result, partly because they ran a campaign based on hope (even if it was partly a hope they wouldn’t have to deliver on everything). Though as John Cleese famously said in the movie Clockwatch, “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand…”

We’ll be back home, and with any luck back to normal next week. Happy knitting!

(Navy) Week 2: 5 June

Summer has come to Caithness, for a given value of summer. As a result everything’s fluffier: the ducklings on the river now resemble little tennis balls with legs, and the hedges and trees and fields are all thicker, lusher, greener, stickier. The sun rises at 4.11 am and sets at 10.11 pm—which means the birds start doing their morning exercises three hours before the alarm goes off, and it’s so light at bedtime it feels like it’s still the middle of the afternoon. Sleep at this time of year, you will have guessed, is very much an optional extra.

Caithness summers are so brief—sometimes barely even an afternoon—that living through one is a little like watching a time-lapse film. At this time of year a sharp east wind still comes in off the sea and it’s amusing to see the world become divided into two camps: the locals, who stroll nonchalantly about in shorts eating ice cream; and the tourists, who wear anoraks and cling drunkenly to flat surfaces like shipwrecked mariners who’ve abandoned hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. You see them at John O’Groats making a dash for the famous signpost, staying just long enough to get a photo and then running back to the car, as though there’d been a radiation leak from Dounreay and they only had 60 seconds before they caught a lethal dose. 

Laid out to dry

One advantage of these light evenings is that I can sit by the window and knit a yarn as dark as navy till 10.00 pm, and still see perfectly well; this explains why I’m zipping along despite being back at work full time. (I should start the yoke pattern in a fortnight’s time, around the summer solstice, i.e., maximum daylight for any fiddly bits. I still haven’t settled on a pattern, though I’ve narrowed it down to a couple of my favourites, both of which I’ve knit previously: one of them—gulp—over 20 years ago.)

Finally, in a week that’s seen precious little to smile about, I’d like to share with you one of my favourite jokes. I’ve seen it in various versions, and applied to various nationalities, but this is the one I learned, and it’s from Finland. Two Finns go into a bar and order two drinks. They sit at their table in silence for a while contemplating their drinks. After an age one of them picks up his and says, “Cheers!” The other one looks at him reproachfully and says, “Hey! Did we come here to talk or did we come here to drink?” [Dedicated to all our Finnish friends—hyvä terveys!]

(Navy) Week 1: 29 May

My father passed away last week, and we went down to be with the family for a few days. Strange how the house I did most of my growing up in, which had seemed smaller each time I visited it, should now feel so much larger again; and, of course, emptier.

Down south we discovered the country was experiencing a heatwave—temperatures 24-28ºc—which caught us out rather: it was a brisk 12º when we left home, so we arrived incongruously dressed in jumpers and scarves. I’d forgotten just how inescapable heat can be, how it comes at you from all sides (when I’d removed all the clothing that decency allowed, plus a little bit extra just to be daring, I found myself starting to dissolve into something resembling a sunburnt strawberry blancmange). On the drive back I noticed all the animals in the fields aligned in geometric rows wherever there was shade from hedges, trees or pylons: I found myself wondering if they shuffled round as the sun moved, like a living farmyard sundial, so balloonists could tell the time.

The Hebrides cardigan has necessarily had to be put on hold—hopefully we’ll get to it this week. I took a cone of Frangipani navy yarn with me though, and cast on the stitches for another gansey. This one will be for me, so it has the regulation 336 stitch welt, increasing by 32 to 368 stitches for the body. It will have a plain body, but I honestly don’t know what the yoke pattern will be yet—I can’t make my mind up between four or five patterns. At least I’ll have a few weeks’ plain knitting before I have to choose one.

Finally this week I’d like to share with you some of my favourite lines written by Philip Larkin:

The first day after a death, the new absence   
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind   
While there is still time.
(In memoriam George Reid, 1926-2017)

Hebrides, Week 9: 22 May

Hi everyone. I’m afraid there won’t be a regular blog this week owing to a family bereavement, which means that we’re away south for a few days.

You’ll see from the photo that I have (just) finished the knitting of the Hebrides cardigan; though all the washing, blocking, un-steekening and zipperydoodahing will also perforce have to wait, pro tem.

Also, Judit has turned up trumps again with another gansey, a really effective combination of different diamond designs shown off to great effect in a light colour.  

Finally, I’d like to leave you with one of my favourite poems. I’ve always had a deep love for ancient Chinese verse, in which words are deployed as skilfully as brush strokes, like one of those paintings which seem to come to life as you look at it. This one’s by Li Po, “Taking Leave of a Friend”, freely translated with great skill by Ezra Pound:

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.

Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance,
Our horses neigh to each other
as we are departing.




Hebrides, Week 8: 15 May

By way of variety this week I thought I’d share with you an extract from Iain Sutherland’s book on the Fishing Industry of Caithness (2005). It’s about ganseys, of course, and I think it’s interesting because it’s written from the perspective of a historian, not a knitter:

The visiting fishermen all wore ganseys, which varied from area to area, with the Highland fishermen the most distinctive of all. They wore the Highland bonnet, which was similar to a Tam o’ Shanter, and their dress ganseys had a distinctive pattern knitted into them. Every fisherman had at least two kinds of gansey, one for working in and the other was a dress gansey for any social event, including the kirk.

Nybster Harbour in fog

“The work ganseys were knitted round with thick wool, very plainly, and had no buttons on which a net could catch. The sleeves were knitted short and stopped in mid-forearm with deep cuffs down to just above the wrist to keep in the warmth and to prevent the chafing if the sleeves got wet. Similarly there was a deep midriff to grip the area around the kidneys and to keep their backs warm. The dress ganseys were where their wives really showed what they could do with knitting needles, and nearly every port had its own patterns which usually involved the Horn of Plenty, cable stitch, an anchorage, the shore, all knitted round on needles so fine that the knitting looked like weaving.

Mervyn’s Tower at Nybster – a gansey in stone?

“They also had certain button arrangements, grouped on the shoulder, which could be undone to stop the neck from stretching when the gansey was being taken off or on. Most Highland fishermen wore horn buttons, which appeared white, and fishermen from the east coast wore their buttons in groups of up to four on either shoulder. Wick fishermen usually had four evenly spaced on the left shoulder while others could have groups of two, three and one, so that the home port of most fishermen could be identified at a glance if they were wearing their buttons. The buttons on their ganseys could sometimes identify the origins of a drowned fisherman.” [Sutherland, p.103]

I hadn’t come across the information on buttons before, and, leaving aside the water-muddying reference to identifying drowned fishermen (let’s all agree not to go there), even if was only in part a “rule”, it shows that there’s always something more to gansey lore than one may think.

With regard to the gansey cardigan, we had friends up for the weekend so I wasn’t quite able to get it finished: just a few more inches to go. The first step will be to get it washed and blocked, and after that—coming soon—the be-steekening!