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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…”

Wick VI – Scottish Flag, Week 4: 6 February

I read the other day that back in 1979 Mrs Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister, attended the premiere of the play “Amadeus” which shows Mozart as both potty-mouthed and immature, and was not amused. Afterwards she roundly upbraided the director of the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall, for portraying the composer of such beautiful and profound music in this way. But Prime Minister, he replied, Mozart really did behave like that—he used obscenities. His own letters confirm it. But Mrs Thatcher was unmoved: “Mr Hall, I don’t think you heard what I said. It could not be!

Seaweed & Driftwood, Dunnet Beach

Now, given that Mozart’s catalogue includes the piece, “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” (K.231—look it up), I think Mrs Thatcher was talking out her—that is to say, I think she was mistaken. But the interesting thing is the way we can get an impression of an artist from their work that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

When I listen to Wagner’s music, for instance, the long, ponderous operas about gods and legends, I can’t help remembering they were written by a man who used to slide down the banisters when he was happy, and do handstands, and climb the trees in his friends’ gardens for fun. Dvorak was a keen trainspotter. Beethoven used to count out exactly 60 beans every time he had a cup of coffee. Brahms was a notoriously shabby dresser and allegedly once had to use his tie to stop his trousers falling down. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except that it seems to make their music more human, somehow.

Meanwhile in gansey news, while I’m still off work I’m continuing to make rapid progress. So I’ve finished the body, joined the shoulders with a standard rig ‘n’ fur shoulder strap, completed the collar and am a long way down the first sleeve. I may even get it finished by next time, but there’s a lot of knitting in a sleeve, so we’ll see. (As I’m knitting at approximately 8 stitches to the inch I picked up 144 stitches round the armhole, and am decreasing at 4 stitches every 11 rows.)

Waves at John o’Groats

In parish news, Mariah has sent me pictures of a splendid gansey knit for (and stylishly modelled by) her father, a striking combination of ladders, double moss stitch and cables; the colour really brings out the pattern very effectively. Many congratulations to Mariah, and apologies to her too for having to wait for Margaret’s return before we could post them.

And now I think I’ll go and listen to some Mozart. And imagine that, somewhere up in composer heaven, Margaret Thatcher is paying Mozart a visit and hasn’t yet realised that he’s put a whoopee cushion on her chair as he politely holds it out for her…

Wick VI – Scottish Flag, Week 3: 30 January

Sunday was a beautiful day, cold and crisp and clear, so I went for a walk up the river. There was a hazy sun reflecting on the water, high tide flooding the marshes which were crammed with wildfowl lazily sleeping off their Sunday dinners.

I’d stopped about half a mile up the path to take some pictures when a man came by walking his dog. “If you want some really good photos,” he said, with what seemed to me a rather questionable enthusiasm, “there’s a wounded deer further on. You can’t miss it! Great photo op!”

Well, I resumed my walk and soon encountered a couple with a pushchair. The man was carrying the deer in his arms: it was about the size and weight of a rolled-up duvet cast in lead, and when he was a few feet away he stopped and laid it down carefully in the grass, then stood panting to recover his breath. The woman was on her phone, trying to reach some organisation which might help. The deer had an open wound just behind the shoulder, wide and deep enough that you could see some of the internal workings, but clean and not bleeding.

The man explained that they’d found the deer—they run wild in the fields nearby—being worried by the other man’s dog, which wouldn’t leave it alone. It was well enough to stand, and was obviously eating all right, but was exhausted after fending off the dog. I looked at it: the poor thing sat there apparently quite unconcerned, until you noticed the quivering skin, the rapid breathing. The man said they hadn’t been able to leave it at the mercy of every loose dog that passed; they’d phoned a vet, but he’d declined to help on the grounds that they never bandage a wild animal.

Wick Riverside

The woman was now close enough for me to hear her conversation. “Yes,” she was saying. “On the north bank of the river, near the viewing platform. You know, there’s a couple of trees and—what? Riverside it’s called. By the river. Sorry? Oh, Wick.” There was a pause, then she said acidly, “Caithness. What? Yes, John O’Groats—near there.” She put her phone away and shook her head. “It was a central number. Someone in Glasgow.”

The man’s evident fatigue and the presence of the pushchair exerted considerable moral pressure, so I offered to help carry the wounded deer back to town. But the man would have none of it: “It’s minging,” he said—and indeed, I could smell the wild animal reek from several feet away. “You don’t need that all over you,” the woman agreed, gesturing ruefully at her stained jeans. “We were going to Tesco’s,” she sighed. “Not smelling like this we’re not!” She hefted the deer gently up in her arms and off they went.

This is a story without a punchline—I don’t know what happened afterwards. But I like to think that even now it’s lying in bed in deer hospital, flicking through the channels on the tv remote, and arguing with the nurses over the dinner menu (“What do you mean, roast beef or chicken? I’m a bleedin’ herbivore, me”). The wound on its back looked nasty but not serious; I’m choosing to believe this is a story with a happy ending—as opposed to the alternative… (Veal cutlet, anyone?)

Boats in the Marina, with added spray

Gansey Technical Notes:

Flag pattern, 10 stitches wide by 9 rows high

I’m signed off work, and Margaret is still away—which I guess explains the rather startling progress.

The design is taken from Rae Compton and Henrietta Munro’s book on Caithness ganseys, They Lived By The Sea, and it’s one of the more common patterns in Wick Museum’s Johnston Collection photographs too. Rae Compton calls it “the Scottish Flag Pattern, sometimes known as the kilt pleat pattern”. In her examples each repeat is 7 stitches wide and 6 rows tall (the equivalent of 1 inch wide using 3mm needles).

First question: how big should I make my pattern repeats—how many should I have? I zoomed in on one of the examples in the Johnston photographs and counted 18 repeats across the yoke. That seemed like a good proportion to aim for here.

I’d already worked out that my yoke would have approximately 180 stitches, so if I wanted to have 18 repeats in my gansey the maths was relatively simple, even for me: each yoke is therefore 18 x 10 = 180; i.e., 18 panels of 10 stitches each, plus an extra 2 stitches for the fake seams, and another stitch each side of the yoke to serve as pick-up stitches for the armholes. All in all it’s 366 stitches in the round.

You can see at once why it’s known as a pleated pattern: it knits up full of texture. I feel that really complex patterns get lost in the dark hue of navy yarn, but it comes into its own for this sort of simple pattern that relies on light and shade and repetition to make its effect. And this is just the sort of simple pattern I love, though I may have to iron it to keep it flat.

Rae (I feel we know each other well enough to be on first name terms by now, don’t you?) describes this as a “perfect starter pattern”, and I know what she means. It’s simple to plan out and simple to knit—and so long as you don’t lose concentration (*cough*) or lose count (who me?) you can’t go wrong. It’s also one of those patterns which is as easy to knit on the reverse side as the front.

Wick VI – Scottish Flag Weeks 1-2: 23 January

Guess what I’ve been doing…

Picture the scene: it’s 2.30am, and I’ve been jolted out of a restless sleep. I’ve heard a sound (but what?). I’m a light sleeper and a moth stropping its antennae is usually enough to wake me, but this is different. I lie staring in the darkness, listening to the beating of my heart. I am alone—Margaret is still 600 miles away.

There it is again. The ceiling creaks above my head, footsteps moving from left to right. There is someone in the attic. A burglar? But wouldn’t a burglar start at the bottom and work up? And he’d need a pretty long ladder to reach the attic windows, unless he brought his own cherry-picker, which, on reflection, seems unlikely. A fireman, then? Was the house on fire and I’d failed to notice? But firemen usually come through the door with axes. If not a ninja fireman, then what?

Wick Harbour

The steps move again, from right to left. In the dark it’s like listening to a Pink Floyd album on headphones. The attic is Margaret’s workroom, where she keeps her yarn and fabric stash. Maybe the burglar is making himself a stylish mask out of old curtain remnants before ransacking the house? This, I decide, shall not stand. I turn on the light and get out of bed. I go out into the hall. Out here all is silent. There are no lights upstairs. I retrieve my old Morris dancing cudgel from the spare room and think bitter thoughts about the doctor’s advice to get some rest. I grit my teeth and climb the stairs, cloaked in the armour of righteousness and a rather natty blue dressing gown, brandishing my cudgel like a Wee Willie Winkie who’s let himself go.

Well, reader, I went from room to room; I checked the closets and behind the curtains but intruder found I none. In the end I turned out the lights and went back down, not without a few nervous backward glances and, it now being 3.00am, returned to bed. Whereupon the noises began again. A poltergeist? I was just commending my soul to God when there was a rapid scrabbling, and all became clear: some wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie had managed to get into the floorboards between my room and the attic, and was noisily exploring.

Sunrise over the river… at 8.45 am (sigh)

It worked its way leisurely through all the lessons in “Tap-dancing For Rodents in Ten Easy Steps” and finally buggered off around 5.00am. Some time later I fell asleep. But I’d forgotten to turn off the alarm, and the shock when it went off an hour or so later left me thrashing around like someone who’s just dropped their hair drier in the bath. (At this point I felt an actual burglar would have been an improvement.)

Some sort of bird in the Marina

Och, weel—it’s not like I need to sleep or anything. Meanwhile, I have been knitting. A lot. And when I say a lot—well, you can see for yourselves. I started this gansey ten days ago, and am almost up to the gussets. It’s Wendy navy yarn this time, and I set myself the challenge of knitting the body in a week. I haven’t quite managed it, and will in any case slow down now—not least because knitting’s supposed to be fun and this makes it too much like work. (And at least I know I couldn’t knit ganseys for a living; though I can do miniature karate with the calluses on my index finger.)

Tune in next week for maybe even a bit of pattern…if I’m awake enough to write it.

[Apologies again for the quality of some of the photos this week in Margaret’s absence—normal service will hopefully be resumed next time]