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Hebrides, Week 7: 8 May

The battle of Altimarlach took place on 13 July 1680, just a couple of miles up river from where we live. It’s been described as the last clan battle in Scotland, although, Highlanders being the loveable wee scamps that they are, this seems unlikely. I’d read about the battle but never seen the site, so last week as the sun was shining we decided to pay it a visit. 

The battle came about because the previous Earl of Caithness had sold the title in 1675 to Lord Glenorchy, a Campbell (also known to history as “Slippery John” just in case you’re wondering who to root for in this story). But George Sinclair, a local man, claimed the earldom by inheritance and, when a lawsuit failed, took to armed resistance. In 1680 Glenorchy invaded Caithness with 700 or so Highlanders, mostly Campbells; George Sinclair summoned an army of Caithnessians, and the two sides met where the burn of Altimarlach joins Wick River.

The Cross. A windfarm with Morven peeping above the horizon at the right.

Somehow I find it more moving to walk over a battlefield where hundreds fought, than thousands: it’s easier to imagine what it must have been like, just standing where they stood. The Altimarlach Burn joins the river at a right angle, cutting a deep cleft through the grassy meadows overlooking the river and marshland below. The main force of Campbells were drawn up on the hill, but Slippery John had some hidden out of sight, down in the burn. Well, the two armies clashed, the Sinclairs were driven back and then the Highlanders rushed out of hiding and hit them in the flank—and that was pretty much that.

Gordon photos the gorse. In the distance, the airport on the left and St Fergus on the right.

The battle was over in minutes (or about four hours if Peter Jackson ever decides to make the movie). So many Sinclairs were cut down trying to escape over the river that it’s said the Campbells could walk across without getting their feet wet. And like many battles it was all pointless anyway: within a few years a court had ruled that George Sinclair was the rightful earl after all and Glenorchy was awarded the consolation title of Earl of Breadalbane (he was later implicated in the infamous Massacre of Glencoe).

There’s two kind of history, I find: the history of kings and queens and faraway places; and the kind that happened on your doorstep, involving people who might almost be your neighbours. The local stuff may be smaller, but it feels more real, somehow.

By the way, the story goes that the famous tune “The Campbells are Coming” is said to have been composed by Glenorchy’s piper Finlay MacIvor to celebrate the victory; apparently for many years it was considered an insult to play it in Wick. Well, they say the devil has all the best tunes…

Lower sleeve pattern

In gansey news I have finished the first sleeve, which ends in a 6-inch cuff so the wearer can roll it back to fit; and am embarked on the second. I would normally expect to finish it this week, but as we have guests coming next weekend I might not make it. (As usual, my biggest challenge is remembering what I did just last week.)

The pattern for the lower sleeve is almost identical to the one on the lower body—the wave and seed stitch border are the same—the only change I made was to make the starfish slightly smaller. It’s a strong pattern, and as I said last week, because it’s on the forearm and bound to be noticed more, I didn’t want it to dominate the rest of the gansey.

Hebrides, Week 6: 1 May

The end of April in the North Highlands of Scotland is noteworthy for two striking phenomena: first of all, the hillsides are awash with flowering gorse, a stunning display of bright yellow that turns the countryside into something resembling the inside of a sickly god’s handkerchief; and secondly, of course, it’s my birthday.

Last week I celebrated my 57th year under heaven. Paul Simon once tried to imagine how terribly strange it must be to be 70; but I expect it will turn out to be much like 57, only with a few more parts missing—the damage, you might say, already having been done. I did worry that as I got older I’d have said everything I ever wanted to say; but as it turns out whole new topics of fascinating conversation pop up all the time: viz., medications, operations and what shows actors used to be in. (And did you know that the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album is 50 years old in June? Yes, I’m scared too.)

The gorse at Helmsdale

Bill Bryson once observed that the British are one of the happiest races on earth, because all it takes to make their day is a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit. In my case, I’ve discovered, it’s a new flat cap, a CD of Herbert von Karajan conducting Bruckner’s 7th symphony, music so transcendentally perfect it’s what God listens to on his iPod when he’s having a bad day; and a leather-covered notebook. (Well, yes, all right; and a cup of tea.)

Bench with a view

I’ve wanted a leather-covered notebook ever since I read PG Wodehouse’s masterpiece The Code of the Woosters. It’s what Gussie Fink-Nottle uses to record everything he dislikes in people. (“Have you ever heard Sir Watkyn Basset dealing with a bowl of soup? It’s not unlike the Scottish express going through a tunnel… Have you ever seen Spode eat asparagus? It alters one’s whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word.”) Of course I don’t use it to detail the foibles of my fellow men—there’s only 192 pages, after all—but I am using it to make notes on Caithness history, shaking my fist at the 21st century and writing by hand with a fine-nibbed fountain pen (though not both at the same time, obviously).

Waiting for Gordon

Speaking of Caithness history, I read today that the Earl of Cromarty and his son, Lord Macleod, who’d been recruiting for Jacobite cause in the county, missed the dreadful battle of Culloden because they stayed too long in the castle of Dunrobin “to watch the tricks of a juggler”, and were captured. Isn’t that great? (This is an excuse I now intend to use at work to explain my next missed deadline.)

In gansey news I am well down the first sleeve. Now that I’m back at work I have less time for knitting, of course, but I still hope to finish this one in a fortnight. The patterns are essentially the same as the body, except that the starfish are slightly smaller—the reason for this being that they will be on the forearms, in full view, and I didn’t want them to dominate the rest of the gansey’s patterns. (It’s possible I may be over-thinking this.)

I’ll post a chart next week if I remember—but as far as today’s concerned it’s a bank holiday, the sun is shining on the hills and somewhere in the distance I can hear a god sneezing…

Hebrides, Week 5: 24 April

History, when you come to look at it, isn’t very pretty, is it? Or maybe it’s just historians who can’t come across a disembowelling without experiencing an urge to share it, hoping, like the Fat Boy in Pickwick, to make our flesh creep.

I start my phased return to work as of Monday, and to get myself back in the zone I’ve been swotting up on my Caithness history—and what a bloodthirsty tale it is. A viking lord is slain leaping from his window to escape his pursuers; a bishop is burned in his kitchen for demanding too high a tithe on butter; an earl’s son is imprisoned by his father, starved, then fed salted beef but no water and dies of thirst; a clan chief is treacherously murdered while at prayer in a chapel—honestly, it makes the Sopranos look like Teletubbies (word of advice: never turn your back on Tinky Winky when he’s holding a kitchen knife).

The chronicles, I notice, never include such passages as, “Earl Ronald, seeking to avenge the cruel death of his father, gathered his followers and sought out Harald Skullsplitter in his house where he offered him a fairy cake with pink icing as a peace offering.” Or, “Lachlan ‘Vicious Bastard’ Gunn, lusting after the wife of his neighbour, the Fair Helen of Tarool, decided instead to move to London where he changed his name to Lionel and became a celebrated interior decorator.”

If only the Vikings had turned their energies into more creative pursuits how much nicer history might have been (though I can picture in my mind’s eye the final seconds of anyone who suggested to a Viking they should “bury the hatchet”, realising just too late that murderous pirates probably have a limited understanding of metaphor). I mean, if he’d taken up knitting, Erik Bloodaxe might now be known to us as Erik Cableneedle.

It snowed Monday morning

Well, as last week was my final week of freedom, I chose to spend much of it knitting. I’ve finished the front—note the steek running all the way bottom to top—and joined the shoulders, and knit the collar. I’ve picked up stitches round the armhole and started on the first sleeve, essentially the same pattern as the yoke without the side ladders. Now I’m back at work of course progress from now on will be a lot slower: but I managed to complete 3.5 ganseys while I was ill, so I shall definitely have happy thoughts of the last few months to go with all the bad stuff I’ve been dealing with.

And here’s a final thought: we are all creating the history of our times, every day, all the time. It’s up to us to make sure that our story, when it comes to be written, is a good one. For my part, despite pretty strong temptation, so far today (it’s 8.00 pm) I haven’t burned a bishop, or murdered a clan chief, or slain an enemy in battle. So there you are: I’ve done my bit. One day down, the rest of my life to go…

Hebrides, Week 4: 17 April

Just a short blog this time, as it’s Easter weekend—and, let’s be honest, if we’ve done this properly we should all be far too full of chocolate to read a whole bunch of words and stuff. Anyway, it’s spring—the daffodils are expiring in a riot of yellow; the gorse has picked up the idea and run with it, as if God, looking over His paintbox after finishing the world, realised He had loads of cadmium yellow left over and decided to splash it all across the Highlands for a laugh; and out in the fields the lambs are—to use one of my favourite Scots words—friskling (in the sense of, leaping or frolicking: these are not Special Branch plain clothes lambs patting down other sheep for concealed weapons).

And now for the good news. Easter was ever the time of renewal and hope, and so it has proved for me: this week I received the All Clear from the doctors and am now preparing to return to work after my long illness. I’m not out of the woods yet—and I have to stick with the meds till the autumn just to make sure my serotonin levels come back up to strength—but compared with how I felt in December, this will do nicely. I don’t have a date to go back yet, but soon.

Of course it’s helped having something creative to keep me occupied these last few months, and I suppose three ganseys isn’t a bad return, not counting this one. I’ve finished the back and started the front, and hopefully I’ll get that done this week. As ever, this sort of pattern forces you to pay attention; it’s not the kind of thing I can do while watching television, for example. But the results are so stunning I start to wonder why I knit anything else.

In parish news, Judit has sent us this splendid picture of her brother wearing a gansey in cream. It’s the classic Filey lifeboat design, but for the whole gansey, not just the yoke, and perfectly realised, as ever. Many congratulations to Judit on an excellent gansey and excellent photograph.

Happy Easter everyone, and a happy Patriots Day weekend to all our friends in Massachusetts!


And so we come to the yoke. The classic Hebridean arrangement is three bands each on three pattern “squares”, making a total of nine squares. They don’t have to be, of course, but in this case all the squares are all the same size—it makes them interchangeable, and it’s easier to do the maths, too. My reasons for choosing these particular patterns was as follows.

I knew beforehand that I wanted to include the tree of life—it’s a strong design which looks good in cream, and is symmetrical so can be broken into two equal halves by the steek. This I decided to use to anchor the corners and be the centre. (Also, living in Caithness, we need all the trees we can get.)

Again, the diamond is an effective design and can be split in two by the steek (which is why they’re in the centre column), but it’s also quite a plain pattern. The overall design of this gansey is very busy, and I wanted to balance some of that busy-ness with plainer patterns, or it just gets too much, I feel.

Finally, the recipient has a connection with the sea so I wanted another nautical connection, hence the anchor. I didn’t have a pattern that exactly fit the size I needed, so I more or less made up my own based on the examples in Michael Pearson and Rae Compton’s books.

The cables and yarn over triangley pattern thingeys are more or less self explanatory, though I’ll just note that I’m flanking the cables with a 3-stitch seed stitch on each side. I don’t think I’ve done this before—I usually opt for 2 purl stitches either side of a cable—but this is, apparently a feature of the north of Scotland ganseys, and, although a wee bit fiddly, it does look effective. The ladders at either side of the body are a great regulating mechanism, and can be made as large or small as you like to fit the number of stitches required.

Hebrides, Week 3: 10 April

About 13 miles north of Caithness lies Nybster broch, another of those round Iron Age drystone towers scattered across Caithness as thickly as currants on a bun. Brochs are unique to Scotland, and Caithness, with some 300 sites, has more than half of them. Their shape always reminds me of a clay pot on the potter’s wheel, smooth and tapering giddily upwards; most are just ruins, with only the foundations remaining (though a few preserved examples can still be found in Orkney and the Western Isles).

Nybster perches on another of those Caithness goes, the narrow promontories jutting out like splinters of rock into the North Sea. We parked in a small car park next to a couple of taciturn men staring intently through binoculars the size of TOW missile launchers for what I supposed were whales or dolphins, but who may just have been looking for Russian submarines.

The distance to the broch is further than it looks, the path twisting like a Tudor maze, but it’s worth the walk: the location is stunning, there are many unexpected goes and stacks of rock to see along the way, and the broch itself is surprisingly extensive. The central chamber is some 23 feet across, but there are the foundations of a number of outbuildings surrounding it; the evacuations were never filled in, so you can make them all out clearly. There are so many of these outbuildings that, seen from above, the site looks rather like a green honeycomb.

What’s that you say?

In gansey news, the Hebridean cardigan is moving right along. I have finished the lower body and am, at time of writing, 2 rows away from finishing the gussets. I’ve just started the yoke pattern, which I’ll say more about next time. I do like this yarn: it’s Frangipani Aran (Natural) yarn, but it has a yellowish cream tint, a shade I associate with (and this tells you how old I am) a milk bottle left too long on the doorstep in the sun. It reminds me of those examples of antique lace you find in museums—almost as if it’s been pre-aged.

Nybster, by the way, also features a bizarre stone monument, “Melvyn’s Tower”, erected by Sir Francis Tress Barry, the Victorian archaeologist who excavated Nybster, in memory of his nephew, and using stone from the site; bizarre not least for the gargoyles that adorn it. It seems an odd approach for an archaeologist to take, but then I suppose we should just be grateful Barry didn’t use dynamite to excavate the site, the way Schliemann did with Troy…


I opted for a simple diamond pattern for the border—I tend to think the border shouldn’t distract too much from the yoke, which is always where the main action is in a gansey, I feel. It adds to the richness of the overall effect, but make it too busy and it gets a bit overwhelming. It’s nice to get a border more or less lining up so that it breaks exactly in the centre of the gansey, like a perfect crease in the leg of a pair of gentleman’s trousers; but it’s even more so with a cardigan employing a steek.

In this case the pattern repeat was 8 stitches, and as there are 173 stitches on the front side, and the back, we inset the border by 2 stitches either side to give us that perfect centre effect.