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Filey IV, Week 4: 13 March

And we’re off. By the time you read this we shall be 600 miles away, down south—bearing in mind, of course, that given where we live this covers just about anywhere, short of a borrowing a rowboat or a very large kite—visiting my family in the Midlands. (I’m writing this on the Friday before, so it’s really only half a week’s progress.)

I’m four weeks into the antidepressant medication, and I feel as if it’s gradually starting to have an effect; though the coming of spring and the lighter, longer days probably help too. These particular pills come with a sedative, giving me the best nights’ sleep I’ve had in decades; the only downside—other than the technicolour dreams—is struggling to wake up the following morning, when I am as groggy  (or “zombified”, as the doctor put it, using the correct medical term) as if I was coming round from a general anaesthetic.

Yellow Iris Spring growth

Meanwhile spring has come to Caithness—or, to be scrupulously honest, it doesn’t feel like it’s actually arrived just yet, but has at least phoned ahead to make sure it’s OK to visit. The snowdrops are out and the hedgerows are budding, and the birds certainly make an infernal racket in the mornings: but the daffodils are mere clumps of green shoots, and there’s a sharp, bitter edge to the wind. The sheep have their winter coats while the ducks snuggle under the eiderdown. Winter still holds on up here, like those soldiers who never heard that the war was over, and fought on, long after hostilities had ended elsewhere.

A Sleeve for Venus

I am now well embarked on the sleeves of the gansey. I had a small quantity of yarn left over from the body so, as I sometimes do, I made a start on one sleeve and then put it on a holder and started the other. This is partly because I don’t particularly enjoy picking up stitches round the armholes, so I like to get it over in one go. But it’s also because I’ll be away for over a week, and won’t be taking this gansey with me (too dark and heavy). It’ll be much easier to finish it off when I get back, having started it—otherwise it’s a drag coming back and having to pick up stitches, and count stitches, and try to remember how the pattern went. (Mind you, as it stands, it does rather look as though I’m knitting a gansey for the Venus de Milo…)

In parish news, Jenny has sent me pictures of a splendid wee gansey she’s knitted for her granddaughter. It’s the classic Scarborough pattern in navy, and it just goes to show how scalable the old patterns are. Many congratulations to Jenny (and, of course, to the lucky recipient of the ganseyette)!

As we’re away without easy access to the internet, I’m sorry that I shan’t be able to respond to any comments below. This also means there won’t be a blog next week. The next posting will be on Monday 27 March, raising the question of which will happen first—the daffodils opening or the gansey being finished? Tune in then to find out…

Rainbow over Wick

Filey IV, Week 3: 6 March

What, I hear you ask, is the most annoying thing about BBC weather forecasts for the far north of Scotland? Is it the way the presenters airily refer to 60-70 mph winds up here as “a bit breezy”, but when England and Wales are affected they adopt the tone of grief counsellors and warn of “severe winds causing possible structural damage“?

Or is it the fact that they’ve devised a weather map based on the curvature of the Earth, only exaggerated, so that London and Cornwall are huge but Caithness disappears over the horizon in such a vanished perspective it’s essentially two-dimensional? (Honestly, the only way I can even see our forecast these days is to stand on a chair and tilt my head so that one ear rests on my shoulder.)

The Castle from the seaward side

No, it’s neither of these. Instead, it’s the fiendishly misleading BBC weather app on my phone, which is so inaccurate the only explanation I can think of is that it’s managed by a disgruntled imp inside the device, like one of Terry Pratchett’s disorganisers. Locals of course just laugh when you point this out, and tell you that the only reliable way to tell the weather up here is to stick your head out the window; but I keep falling for it, like a mark who’s bet the mortgage money that the ball must lie under the last cup.

So it was that when the app forecast a fine, sunny day last week and we decided to revisit the ruined castle of Old Wick, jutting out into the North Sea on another of the distinctive local promontories, or goes, we got soaked in a brutal shower of sleet and hail. You approach the castle along a track near the cliff edge. This is boggy country and the ground absorbs water like a sponge; it’s like walking on a sponge, too, dark water oozing up over your boots and bubbles of mud swelling and popping with an asthmatic sigh with every step, like a hyperborean Rotorua.

Not the Old Man of Wick

The castle dates back to the 12th century, when Caithness was under Norse rule and (he says smugly) is one of the oldest castles in Scotland. Only the base of the Tower House remains, though once it would have been four storeys high. Any other buildings that would have covered the promontory have disappeared, so that the tower juts up from the land like a broken tooth; so distinctive that fishermen used it as a landmark, and called it The Old Man of Wick (a soubriquet I feel I am not far from myself).

We didn’t linger—the hail was painful, like three or four devils flicking their sharp fingernails in your face, and the wind was bitter—but the weather held long enough for us to catch our breath and pace the ruins. We’re so used to the great castles of the later middle ages it’s always a shock to realise how small most early castles were (a historian once described the early Norman castles of mid Wales as being more like tipis than castles). In fact, when I think of a castle, I think of something like Gormenghast: not something smaller than my house.


“One of the best Filey patterns” – Gladys Thompson

The pattern is from Gladys Thompson, page 33, “Filey X”. The chest is 46 inches in the round, so I cast on 336 stitches for the welt ribbing, increased after 3.5 inches to 368 for the body, which is plain until the yoke. That gives my standard 183 stitches per side, plus 2 seam stitches.

To make the pattern fit the number of stitches usually involves some finessing of the various panels, but this pattern was a very close match. I knew I wanted a central chevron (or herringbone as Gladys calls it), so it was a question of working out from there. I left the cables and moss stitch panels alone, not least because moss stitch is a fiddly pattern and I didn’t want more of that than I could help; but I found that by making the chevron panel 17 stitches wide instead of the original 13 I had a total of 185 stitches per side. I therefore increased each side by 2 stitches at the start of the pattern to give me the right number.

I decided to open the chevrons out from the original. This was partly practical, as the start of the next chevron comes on the last row of the one before, so it’s easy to keep track of; but it’s also aesthetic,  as it think it fits the wider chevrons better.

Filey IV, Week 2: 27 February

I was chatting to God the other day over afternoon tea, and I happened to ask Him about our Caithness weather: to wit, why it was so unpredictable. He smiled in an ineffable sort of way and brushed away a few crumbs from his beard—angel cakes with pink icing—and by way of answer pulled out a pack of greasy cards from inside his robe. When I turned them over I saw that each depicted a particular type of weather. Most showed heavy clouds, or rain, or gale force winds; a few showed all three. But some—perhaps one in a dozen—showed blue, cloudless skies and more or less unbroken sunshine.

Well, on Monday He shuffled the deck again and dealt us one of these. It was a bright, clear day, not much wind—for Caithness—and you could see for miles. Much too nice to stay indoors. So we jumped in the car and drove to Bay of Sannick, on the far northeast tip between John O’Groats and Duncansby Head. The bay sweeps round between those two points, all rocks and sand and sheep-cropped grass, and is as secluded as you could wish, with the land at your back and nothing before you but the open sea and the islands of Stroma and Orkney.

It was high tide, and the waves came rolling in, as regular as the grooves in a long-playing record, breaking on the rocks and exploding in a chorus line of spray all along the curve of the bay. Apparently seals sometimes come up onto the beach to laze about and bask in the sun, but there were none today; only flocks of seabirds riding the heaving swell. We’re pretty used to the sounds of the sea, the suck and sigh of the tide, but here another sound underlay it: the clatter of stones being rolled to and fro as the tide withdrew, rocks being ground down over time to tiny pebbles.

As you’ll see from the photos, I’ve now reached the yoke in the current gansey. The gussets are almost finished (at my standard rate of an increase of two stitches every fourth row), and in half an inch or so I’ll divide for front and back. But I’ve started the pattern, which will slow me down (all those purl stitches). This is a pattern I’ve always wanted to knit up. It comes from Gladys Thompson, page 33, and is her “Filey Pattern X”. She calls it “one of the best Filey patterns”—and I rather agree. It seems perfectly suited to the colour, too. (I’ll have more to say about the pattern next week, and will post a chart.)

Meanwhile in parish news, we have not one but two new ganseys to celebrate. The first is from Julie, in denim colour, and is a combination of patterns of her own devising. The second is from Judit, in cream, and realises the Filey lifeboatman’s pattern as a full-body design. They are quite different and each is splendid, and again go to show the infinite variety of ganseys and their patterns. Congratulations to Julie and Judit!

And outside the sun is still shining; but the wind has got up, and there are suggestions of some angry clouds on the far horizon. If I listen very carefully I fancy I can detect, just on the very edge of hearing, the faintest sound of a deck of cards being shuffled…

Filey IV, Week 1: 20 February

The sun happening to shine one day last week we packed up our troubles in our old kit bag, took it down to the river, filled it with a choice selection of heavy stones and threw it in. After waiting several minutes for the bubbles to subside—for if you’re going to drown your sorrows it’s as well to do it thoroughly—we went for a stroll over the ruined Castle of Sinclair Girnigoe.

Gordon explores the goe

It’s situated just a mile or so north of Wick, commanding the entire sweep of Sinclair’s Bay in a half circle from the stacks of Duncansby all the way round to the tip of the promontory of Noss. (Noss Head juts out in a narrow spike between Sinclair’s Bay to the north and Wick Bay to the south; with the ocean on three sides and the wind blowing it’s like standing on the bowsprit of HMS Caithness under full sail.)

Sinclair, or Girnigoe Castle is stunningly sited on one of the fingers of land that splay out from the coast in these parts (the name means the green goe, or inlet). Standing on the narrow sliver of rock, looking down at the sea angrily churning away at the base, the weight of centuries concentrated in just a few square yards of floorspace, you can’t help wondering how many men were lost down the centuries when they sleepily got up in the middle of the night and popped out to relieve themselves, never to be heard of again (only the sound of a medieval fly being unzipped, a despairing scream and a distant splash). Quite a lot of the castle survives and it’s obvious that, unable to expand sideways, the only way was up. Now after centuries of conflict the ruins are home to nesting seabirds—which seems appropriate, somehow: visiting a ruined castle is like looking at old school photos; it’s pleasant to be reminded now and then of something you’ve outgrown.

I have meanwhile started my next gansey project, a Filey pattern in Frangipani claret for an old friend. I love this colour: like so many gansey yarns, it changes hue with the prevailing light. Sometimes it resembles red wine spilt on a tablecloth; but then the sun floods the room with sunlight and it glows with a sort of ruddy luminescence, as though I was knitting a wooly cover for the Holy Grail. I have perhaps another week of plain knitting at this rate before I start the yoke.

Finally this week, I’d like to say thank you to everyone who’s been in touch, both below the line or by email, wishing me well in recovering from my present illness. Depression is an isolating feeling, and it means a lot to know that so many people care enough to let me know. So thank you; people can be very kind. And speaking of which, I’ve been thinking a lot about an old Cambridge University anecdote Stephen Fry relates in one of his books: as a philosophy of life it seems pretty good to me right now. It goes like this. One day a new Fellow of the College was being welcomed to the senior common room by the other academics; one took him aside and said, “A word of advice: don’t try to be clever. We’re all clever here. Only try to be kind.”

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

Wick VI – Scottish Flag, Week 5: 13 February

First of all, the good news: I’ve finished the Scottish Flag gansey, darned in the ends and it’s now been washed and is pinned out on the blocking boards to dry. I’ve never knit a gansey in so short a time—I started it on 13 January and finished it yesterday, 12 February; all in all, less than a month.

Dunes at Dunnet

Secondly, the not so good: the reason I’ve been able to knit it so quickly is, of course, because I’m still signed off work. In fact, I’ve now been diagnosed as suffering from a form of depression. This was news to me: but I’ve had to learn that depression comes in many guises and can sneak up on you over a long period of time, dragging you down incrementally. (There’s a theory that if you place a frog in a pan of cold water and heat it up gradually, the frog will never actually realise it’s being boiled to death until too late; this is apparently a myth, but I think it’s a good analogy.)

Signs of Spring

I’m told I should make a full recovery, and to aid that process I’ve just started a course of antidepressants to return my serotonin levels to normal. (Touching wood, I’ve so far avoided the worst of the side effects such as blurred vision and nausea; though I do wake up each morning with a mouth that feels, and tastes, like a week-old cat litter tray, and I’m as tired as if I’ve been shot with an elephant tranquilliser.) But as far as I’m concerned, an illness is an illness—mental or physical—and to quote another doctor, if I’d broken my leg would I feel any differently about it? (And if so, why?)

Sleeve detail

Well. Returning to happier matters, namely ganseys, it was good to see them getting some publicity on the BBC’s Countryfile programme yesterday, even if it was only for a superficial 5 minutes, as John Craven visited Margaret Taylor, gansey knitter of Filey. For UK viewers the programme’s available on iPlayer, and the gansey feature comes right at the end.

Finally, I’ve been speculating on the Scottish Flag pattern of my latest gansey. In a certain light it reminds me of a skyscraper of glass office windows catching the sun; at other times the inside of an egg carton. My favourite idea is that you could also use it as a chess board, so that at quiet times in the fishing the skipper might say, “Fancy a game, Jim? All right, Gordon, lie down on the deck and we’ll get the pieces out…”