With less than a month till Christmas, Caithness is sliding inexorably into midwinter darkness: already the sun is rising at 8.30am and setting at 3.30pm. Mind you, the sunrises and sunsets have been stunning, enough red skies at both ends of the day to alarm and then delight any bipolar shepherds or sailors.
We’ve had a week of sharp frosts, the pavements slick with ice, so that I’ve been going out each morning dressed like a member of the Captain Scott Re-enactment Society who’s just discovered that walking on thin ice isn’t only a metaphor. If we have a really bad winter my current plan is to set up a dog-walking business and sneakily train the canines to pull a sled, so I can still get to work.
Sheep at sunrise, near Clyth
There was something of a thaw on Saturday—judging by the forecasts this will be known as the 2016 Caithness Interglacial Warm Period—so we went for a stroll out to the south head of Wick Bay, past the old quarry, which I remembered as a lovely spot with picnic benches and artistically recreated standing stones. Well, we were in for a shock.
The scene is now a store yard for the council apparently, a muddy basin filled with muddy pools and dirty mounds of tarmac, grit and builders’ supplies. It reminded me of the Scouring of the Shire, the epilogue to the Lord of the Rings when the hobbits return home to find it transformed into an ugly industrialised wasteland. I expected any minute to be beset by marauding orcs with whips and forced to go work in the salt mines (or, as I think of it, “Monday morning”).
Oh, well: we could still turn our faces to the clean horizons of the ocean, which has yet to be tarmacked. And I daresay people a hundred years ago felt much the same as we when the quarry was being worked. But that passed, in time, allowing nature to reclaim it; and so, I guess, will this.
Where’s the next gansey at?
The Matt Cammish gansey has now, as you can see, been taken for a test drive and it holds up pretty well. The body has settled back to a comfortable 47 inches in the round, but the purl stitches act like ribbing so it can stretch a bit if it has to. All in all, a modest success.
Sunset, Coghill Bridge, Wick
The new gansey will be another Wick pattern inspired by a photograph in the marvellous Johnston Collection. We haven’t charted it out fully yet—there’s still a fortnight at least before I have to worry about the yoke—but it resembles Fergus Ferguson’s in general style, without being quite so ornate (what I’m coming to think of as a typical Wick pattern, in fact). By way of a change I’m knitting it in Wendy’s aran Guernsey 5-ply yarn (they had a sale). I cast on 336 stitches and increased to 372 stitches after a welt of 3.75 inches.
Meanwhile Judit has sent me this nifty idea for a Christmas gift which she’s devised. The patterns are tree of life, Betty Martin panelling and diamonds and the overall effect is rather splendid. (It looks like it could also be adapted into stylish knitwear for the dalek in your life…) It should serve as inspiration, too, if any is needed—so what are you waiting for?
Well, we’re back in Wick after our 1200-mile round trip for my father’s 90th birthday. Cold weather descended on the Highlands for our return: all the moisture was frozen out of the air, the moon rose like the pale ghost of itself and the sky had the thin, clear look a balloonist might observe round about the point when he wished he’d brought more ballast, or failing that an oxygen mask. The A9 twists among the Cairngorm mountains and the peaks had a light dusting of snow through which patches of soil showed brown, so that they looked like the cracked crusts of so many artisan loaves.
It’s still rather cold here, at or below freezing. We had to evict several spiders and a nervous starling when we got home, driving them out into the icy night like villains in a Victorian melodrama foreclosing a mortgage (the reproachful look one spider gave me as I shut the door behind it lies heavily on my conscience still). Now all we have to do is find a way to make the house warmer on the inside than the outside…
We stopped off in Edinburgh en route for a little light shopping and a concert of music by Dvorak and Shostakovich. Alas, the concert was marred, on the one hand, by a man sitting on my right who breathed through his nose with an audible whistling, like someone trying to pump up a bicycle tire with a hole in it.
Then there was the woman diagonally to my left who kept switching on her mobile phone to check emails and take photos of the concert, causing the darkened hall to be illuminated with a sudden brilliance as though she was signalling to an alien spaceship. (I am a man of peace, which is why I merely had a quiet word with her during the interval, and why her midriff does not now light up like a flashlight every time she receives an incoming call.)
With just the cuff to go I laid the Matt Cammish gansey aside and started a new project on the trip (another Wick gansey in cream, about which more next week). I finished the cuff on the Sunday after we got back and darned in the ends. Now the gansey is washed and blocked and drying on its frame. As you can see, the pattern opens out amazingly—it’s no surprise this pattern is so popular, is it? And the Frangipani pewter yarn really shows it off.
By the way, another highlight of our brief stop in Edinburgh was bagging the last unreserved seats at our favourite Mexican restaurant, on Rose Street. The food was, as ever, excellent; and the experience was made all the sweeter as we watched twenty other people being turned away over the next hour and a half—providing a perfect illustration of the truth of Gore Vidal’s celebrated epigram: “It is not enough to succeed—others must fail…”
As I said last week, by the time this appears we will be in Northampton. So this bloguette is something of a message from the Other Side—though in this case I mean the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, as opposed to joining the choir invisible, as it were.
The tower of St Fergus’, Wick
By way of some light relief in turbulent times, I thought I’d share with you my favourite Religious Scotsman joke, from a pretty wide field. (I’ve seen it applied to other peoples, such as the Welsh or Jews, but given the fractal nature of Scottish religious denominations it feels particularly suited to the north Highlands.)
A Scotsman is shipwrecked on a desert island. After many years a passing ship sees his distress signal and stops to rescue him. Before they leave he shows the captain of the ship round his island, the garden he cultivates, the irrigation system he’s put in, and the house he lives in. The captain points to a hill where two buildings stand and asks him what they are. “The one on the left’s the church I built to worship in.” “And the other?” asks the captain. “Oh,’ he says, “that’s the church I don’t go to…”
Margaret’s been busy too
OK. I guess you had to be there.
Now, we’ve always striven to keep politics out of this blog—my father’s house has many mansions, and all that, even if some of the doors are boarded up. So I forebear to comment on the outcome of US presidential election, just as I did on the British Brexit vote, especially as I see there have been calls on all sides for reconciliation and a coming together. It is, therefore, in that same spirit of tolerance and forgiveness that I respectfully offer this linked video clip.
Normal service will be resumed on Monday 21st November. See you then!
We went up to John O’Groats on Saturday, as we often do, for to view the fields and to take the air, as my favourite folk song says. There weren’t many fields but there was a lot of air, barrelling down at us at about 45 mph straight from the arctic circle, so we didn’t linger.
We did stay long enough to see the seal in the harbour, or rather its snout poking up from the icy water like a little whiskery buoy. There were a couple of fishing boats moored there, rocking to the waves and the wind, and the seal kept vanishing underwater to see what it could find beneath them; either that, or it was playing hide-and-seek with the other seals out in the Pentland Firth.
I like seals. Their whiskers give them the air of an elderly geography teacher, a sleek aquatic Einstein. They’re like sensible, grown-up dolphins; you can’t imagine dolphins listening to Radio 4 and appreciating Pink Floyd or test cricket, for example—they haven’t the patience and just want to party. Seals, on the other flipper, always look like they’ve just mislaid their pipe tobacco and slippers. If reincarnation is a thing, then dolphins are a good place to start; but seals are born with old souls.
As for the gansey, I’ve finished the first sleeve and am now embarked on the second. I’m amazed at how small it all looks, how shrivelled, like a dehydrated starfish. This is because of all the purl stitches running the length of the body and sleeves, which draws it in. It actually has more stitches in the round than the green Scarborough gansey I knit recently, but at present is at least six inches narrower round the chest. Blocking will sort this, of course; or if not I just have to find a very thin supermodel in need of chunky knitwear.
In parish news, Judit has sent me pictures of a gansey-inspired project, a slipover or sleeveless jumper with a tasteful Scottish fleet half-flag pattern running up the centre. Many congratulations to Judit once again on the project, and for reminding us just how versatile gansey patterns can be.
Looking towards Duncansby Head
I’ve always loved the Scottish legends of the selkie, the seals who take human form. They say that if you find a selkie’s sealskin you can compel them to marry you (I thought I was in luck the other day down on the beach, but no—it was just a bin liner). But how can you tell if your partner is really a selkie—other than the strong smell of fish, of course? Well, the best way is to throw them a herring: if they catch it on the tip of their nose, toss it up in the air and then swallow it whole, the balance of probabilities is they’re a selkie.
N.B., we’ll be away all next week on a trip down to Northampton to celebrate my father’s birthday, so it’ll just be a short bloguette on Monday. (I won’t quite have finished the gansey, as we’ll be travelling most of next weekend.) Normal service will be resumed in a fortnight. See you then!
Monday night is Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve. It’s also the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, or Summer’s End, the end of the harvest season and the onset of winter. Traditionally in Scotland this was the night when the boundaries between worlds became thin and porous, allowing the spirits of the dead to cross over from the other side and walk the earth.
I used to think this was as creepy as hell, and sinister, but these days I’m not so sure. After all, if I ever go back to a place I used to live I don’t threaten the people who occupy it now, or try to scare them by walking through walls or uttering unearthly shrieks; and I don’t see why the dead should either, other than for a bit of light-hearted amusement.
Hawthorn trees by the river
No, these days I think of Halloween as a sort of nostalgic coach trip for the deceased where they can wander around places they used to live, criticising the wallpaper and reminding each other that there was fireplace Annie was sick in after she ate too much cake at Auntie Morag’s birthday party. That ghostly moaning you can hear in the small hours of the night is probably just your great-great-grandmother doing a spot of spiritual vacuuming, as she’s noticed some dust bunnies under your bed.
Installing tidal energy turbines near John o’Groats
I had an idea for a ghost story about ganseys once. Imagine a Victorian boat’s crew that was lost at sea in a storm. Their spirits couldn’t rest and the boat endlessly sailed the waters off Caithness, endlessly foundering in storm after storm. Then one day someone found an old photograph of the crew all in their ganseys taken the day before they sailed, and decided to recreate the patterns. After a year or two of hard knitting the last one was finished on All Hallow’s Eve. That night the ghostly crew came to claim them…
Well, it was just an idea. Meanwhile I’m making good progress on the current project. The first sleeve should be finished around midweek, which is always a sign that the home straight is near. I’m decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every 5th and then 6th rows (i.e., 4 stitches every 11 rows)—the sleeve will be 18 inches long with a 3-inch cuff. Like the body, the sleeves should stretch out nicely when they’re blocked.
Open Day at the Highland Archive
And as Samhain draws near I find myself wondering where I’d choose to haunt, if I were a spirit, given the chance; all the people who’ve wronged me, all the regrets and wasted years. Then I had a happier thought: it’d be a lot more fun to haunt Lord’s cricket ground and spend eternity watching cricket matches; or the Royal Festival Hall listening to concerts; or the British Library, just reading. In fact, this is my new theory as to why ghosts are seen so seldom: it’s not that they don’t exist, it’s just that they’ve got better things to do…