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Wick V – Donald Murray 5: 26 December

I’m writing this on Boxing Day (Monday), and Storm Conor is shaking Caithness like a terrier with a rat between its teeth: there are winds up to 70 mph and vicious showers of sleet, hail and rain.

This is our second storm in three days, after Storm Barbara blew through on Christmas Eve—I was dimly aware of noises on the roof around midnight and the muffled sound of sleigh bells; I listened anxiously for Santa but there was only a sudden gust of wind followed by a distant “Ho, ho, hoeeuuaaarrrggghhhhh” and that was that.

Still, Christmas morning offered a brief respite, so we went up to John O’Groats. Looking out over the North Sea under leaden grey skies you really do feel that you’re standing at the end of the world—which, in a sense, you are, of course.

Stroma gleams in the morning sun

There’s a scene towards the end of the Lord of the Rings when the riders of Rohan come to the rescue of the besieged realm of Gondor, and in the battle Eomer believes that his uncle and sister have been killed. Seized with a beserker death wish he rallies his men with the world’s greatest battle cry: “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!”

Well, I always picture the host of Rohan several days’ later sitting on their panting horses at John O’Groats, staring at the bleak expanse of the North Sea. Eomer looks round and observes, ‘Well, it’s the world’s ending all right—kinda ruined, too. Hmm, wonder how it all worked out back at Gondor? Ach, it’s probably fine, yeah: now, who wants ice cream?”

Gordon impersonates . . .

In gansey news, I have slowed down a little but not much: so that I have finished the first side and am over halfway up the second. At this rate I should manage to get the shoulders joined this week. It’s going to be long—about as long as a cricket sweater, I think—but I can always fold up the ribbing the way they used to in the old days.

. . . George M McKay.
Courtesy Wick Heritage Society

Finally, I’d like to thank all those who’ve read, commented or made a donation this year: as my favourite Anglo-Saxon saying goes, “Everyone who cries out wants to be heard”—so thank you. See you next year! And to quote the traditional Somerset Carol:

God bless the ruler of this house and long may he reign,
Many happy Christmases he live to see again!
God bless our generation, who live both far and near
And we wish them a happy, a happy New Year.

(Well, it was either that or “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the year’s ending!”…)

Wick V – Donald Murray 4: 19 December

It’s the week before Christmas, and I’ve been signed off from work till the new year. The infection has pretty much cleared up but I’m still not fully recovered from the stress-cum-overwork, so the advice is to rest up and come back refreshed for 2017.

Well, knitting is about as relaxing an occupation as I know, so that’s mostly what I’ve been doing—as you can see by the progress I’ve made over the last week. I won’t quite manage seven ganseys during the calendar year of 2016 but I won’t be far off it at this rate.

You can see the pattern more clearly now, what I think of as the distinctive Wick gansey: a wide central panel divided into two or three horizontal bands, and flanked by three or more narrower side panels, including zigzags and moss stitch.

Tonight’s sunset

I’m finding that using Wendy’s yarn has had an effect on my row and stitch gauge; so that I am knitting at 7.7 stitches to the inch instead of 8, and 11½ rows to the inch instead of 12.75. So it’s definitely going to be roomy (which should still be fine—I have broad shoulders, so that although my chest size is 42 inches, I’m most comfortable in jumpers with a 48-inch chest).

In parish notices, Elizabeth has sent me pictures of a vibrant Fair Isle tam she’s knitted as a gift, which offers a welcome splash of colour in what has been a pretty monochrome season. (I do love Fair Isle, and at times think of one day giving up ganseys when I retire and just switching codes, like Sherlock Holmes giving up detecting and deciding to keep bees.) Many congratulations to Elizabeth: finding one of those in your stocking would be even better than a chocolate orange.

Waves at Thurso

It doesn’t look as though we’ll get a white Christmas this year: so far December’s been dreary, grey, wet and mild. (As the old song says, “I’m dreaming of a Wick Christmas / When all the skies are dreary grey / And the weather’s boring / And the rain comes pouring / And the wind blows Santa’s sled astray…”) 

Evening light by the harbour

I think Christmas is still, for me, the most wonderful time of the year. There are a whole jumble of reasons for this, partly tied up with childhood memories and the strangeness of snow, the way it alters a landscape and makes it unfamiliar and unsafe; and partly because it is one of the few times of year when I can make the emotional, imaginative leap to something like religious belief.

This is best summed up for me by Vaughan Williams’ Christmas cantata Hodie. In it, he sets Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen to hushed, mystical, magical music. The poem is all about the old legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve all cattle, descendants of those at the original Nativity, would kneel in reverence in their stable. Well, the narrator believed this when he was a child; but he’s older now. And yet, he says, if someone should say to him at midnight on Christmas Eve, “Come, see the oxen kneel”, he would still go, “hoping it might be so.”

And that is Christmas for me. For one night and day of the year, in spite of everything—and let’s be honest, 2016 can jolly well go to gosh-darned heck—I too would go. Hoping it might be so.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

Wick V – Donald Murray 3: 11 December

I’ve been signed off work these last few days with a chest infection and stress, which is probably mostly down to overwork. I was aware I’d been running on empty for some time—the cold that refused to die was a bit of a clue—though I’d hoped to make it through to Christmas. But then I suddenly reached a point when my body more or less shut me down, and that was that.

Apart from the infection, which sometimes feels like a fat and lazy cat is lying on my chest, the other symptoms are not dissimilar to what I’ve read about shellshock, if I can be forgiven so extreme a comparison; and given they used to use shellac to make the wax seal resin of very old documents I’ve coined a new word for stress experienced by archivists: shellac shock.

It’s not a very nice feeling, to be honest. But after a week’s resting up I feel much better, to the extent that I’m no longer going through three or four handkerchiefs a day. I’m well enough to potter about the house, although climbing the stairs currently requires a team of sherpas, some huskies and a plentiful supply of oxygen.

In keeping with my biography in What Archivist Monthly (“his hobbies include ganseys, creative writing and brooding”), I’ve been doing a lot of knitting—and I mean a lot. To be honest, there’s not a lot else I can do right now: I can’t concentrate for long on reading or writing; and besides, the therapeutic benefits of knitting are well known (and, I can now testify, accurate).

So, here we are, well into the pattern and embarked on the underarm gussets. The usual way with yoked ganseys is to start the yoke pattern about the same time as you start increasing for the gussets. But interestingly a number of the old photos of Caithness fishermen in the Johnston Collection show the pattern starting several inches below the gussets, like this one does.

It’s not always easy to tell, mind you—partly because of the resolution of the pictures, and partly because a number appear to have very long ribbed welts which are folded up, reaching almost to the armpits (I’m guessing this was done to provide greater insulation?). Anyway, you can see the original photo of Donald Murray in his gansey here. And, although it’s not possible to replicate it exactly (different yarn, needles and gauge), here is Margaret’s recreation of this distinctive Wick pattern.

Finally this week, some sage advice I’ve been following from Merlyn the magician, in TH White’s wonderful The Sword in the Stone. The young boy nicknamed the Wart is unhappy on a dreary wet day and goes to see Merlyn, who he finds knitting himself a night-cap for the winter:

“Oh Merlyn,” exclaimed the Wart, “please give me something to do, because I feel so miserable. Nobody wants me for anything today, and I just don’t know how to be sensible. It rains so.”

To which Merlyn replies sagely: “You should learn to knit.”

Wick V – Donald Murray 2: 4 December

5wdm161205-1Here’s an interesting thought. Human civilisation has existed for perhaps 6,000 years. We think of this time as impossibly remote, but some people live for 100 years or more; and while modern medicine has made this more common, it’s always been the case. So, if you think of it in those terms, human civilisation is only 60 lifetimes old. Jesus was walking the earth within the lifetimes of just twenty people.

I read this idea in a book called Ultimate Questions, by my favourite philosophical writer Bryan Magee. He was using it to make the point that the human race is really just at the start of its journey in time and space. But the message I took from it, as an archivist, is how close the past actually is—the distant past not so distant after all.

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Roe deer by the river

Time, and lifetimes, have been rather in my thoughts lately. I gave a talk recently in which I mentioned that I’d been an archivist for 30 years. Afterwards a charming young lady came up to me and said, “You know, you’ve been an archivist for longer than I’ve been alive.” (I smiled obligingly to show there were no hard feelings, then snuck out during coffee and let the air out of her tires.)

Then I watched a programme on the recording of Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986 and realised that growing old has a new terror, worse even than infirmity and hair loss: yes, I’ve now lived long enough to see my own memories repackaged into anniversary editions and turned into television retrospectives. (But looking on the bright side, wasn’t the music so much better back then?)

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Rocks near Sarclet

I’ve been laid low with a cold which has been lurking in the wings for a few weeks and has finally made its move, leaving me pretty wiped out. I have enough energy to lie flat on my back, which I vary by sitting up and knitting, but not much else at the moment; this is why the body of this gansey has grown so fast. The Wendy’s yarn is definitely more uneven than silky smooth Frangipani—lots of joins and bobbles and fluffy bits—but I am enjoying the change. At this rate I shall start the yoke pattern in the next few days, which is a bit scary.

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Path to the river

In parish news, Lois has sent me pictures of this cracking gansey using a combination of classic Flamborough patterns (and more). The yarn is a cotton and wool blend, and the colour shows up the patterns superbly; more evidence if any were needed that you don’t need 5-ply to knit a splendid gansey. Many congratulations to her!

And touching on where we started, it occurs to me that just two long human lifetimes encompass all the great advances in civilisation since the Battle of Waterloo: the industrial revolution, universal suffrage, cricket, the music of Bob Dylan, etc. Wick harbour was being built while Napoleon was still emperor; 200 years later all that remains of that way of life are ruined buildings and old photographs—and ganseys, of course. The archaeologist uncovers the past with a trowel; but every time we knit a gansey we’re doing experimental archaeology in wool. And bringing the past just that little bit closer with every stitch.

Wick V – Donald Murray 1: 27 November

cam161128-1With 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.

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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.

cam161126-1The 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.

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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.

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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?