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Scotland, Week 7: 25 September

Every now and again life throws something at you that’s so unexpected it knocks you completely off balance. Imagine your life partner of thirty years telling you over the morning toast and coffee that they’re really an alien from Kepler 186f, before pulling off their face mask to reveal a squid-like horror of rippling tentacles and slime. Or England winning at cricket. That sort of thing: you didn’t see it coming and it takes a while for all the pieces of your world to settle back into place. That’s kind of where I am just now.

I went to the optician’s for an eye exam last week. I like opticians, I like the routine and the reassurance. I sat in the chair, feeling totally relaxed. With my left eye I breezed through the chart, rattling off every line. Then came the right’s turn—and time just seemed to stop around me. I couldn’t read a single letter. There was just a smudge where the letters ought to be. “Take your time,” the optician said casually, but I could hear the edge in his voice. “How many letters can you read?” I stared at where I knew the chart had to be. But I could see none of them.

Duncansby Stacks

Well: it’s probably just a chunk of debris in the centre of my eye, which should break up over time of its own accord. But we won’t know for sure till I go back next week and he can make a thorough examination. Meanwhile I’m spending a lot of time looking at things with my left eye covered up, like a trainee pirate; and if I concentrate I can see a tiny splodge shimmering in the centre of my vision like one of those energy clouds that used to give Captain Kirk so much trouble on Star Trek. Strange how something so small can cast such a large shadow.

At least it’s not (touch wood) affected my ability to knit, and I’m over halfway down the first sleeve. The size of the top panel was determined by the height of the centre tree, and I decided to make the diamonds in the centre panel shorter than their equivalents on the body or they’d have looked out of proportion to the rest. (The zigzags and plain panels are exactly the same as they were on the body.)

So now I’m filling time by brushing off my pirate jokes (Why did the pirate refuse to say ‘Aye aye, sir’? —Because he only had one eye…); and now England seem to be winning at cricket and I’m left wondering where on earth I left my face mask…

Scotland, Week 6: 18 September

At the risk of repeating myself, the crinkly bits round the edge of Caithness really are stunning. (Inland we’ve got Europe’s largest blanket peat bog, some 4,000 acres of pure squelchiness; but while that’s impressive as a statistic, and very handy if you’re looking to dispose of the bodies, it’s not quite so jaw-dropping to look at.)

I’ve mentioned before that just a couple of miles south of Wick lies the castle of Old Wick, one of Scotland’s oldest, dating from the 1100s. All that’s left now is the location, perched on the sliver of rock forming a geo, or inlet, overlooking the North Sea, and the tower, rising above the landscape like the conning tower of a submarine, as though Celtic technology was more advanced than we’d imagined and an Iron Age vessel had been marooned there after a particularly exciting high tide, and been left to petrify down the ages.

A short walk south from Old Wick along the clifftops takes you to another marvel: a stone arch anchored to the cliffs like a flying buttress, and I like to think that God was a bit concerned about the ability of the land to take the strain, and so brought in the same master masons who built the gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe to shore it up, just to be on the safe side. You’d never know it was there—there’re no signposts, and it can only be seen from a certain angle to the south—and the thought of innocently strolling across onto it and then looking down has haunted my waking dreams ever since. I’m not sure if its correct name is Brig o’ Stack or Brig o’ Trams (there seems some ambiguity on the subject), or even Brig o’ Death Plummet; but coming across it as you round the headland feels like you’ve just won the landscape lottery.

Castle of Old Wick

In gansey news, I have now finished the front as well as the back, joined the shoulders and completed the collar: just the two sleeves to go (more on this next week). I decided on a “rig ‘n’ fur” (or “ridge and furrow”) shoulder, partly because I’m a sucker for the way the ladder at either side seamlessly integrates into the shoulder ridges, and partly because I like the way the cast-off row of a 3-needle bind-off becomes just another ridge, and disappears. Because the neckline is indented, I replaced the third tree in the pattern (see last week’s photo) with a little starette.

In the meantime I plan to pack up my troubles in my old kit bag, take a trip inland and drown them in the peat bog. As the old saying goes, what happens in Caithness, stays in Caithness—usually because the road’s blocked at Berriedale and the trains aren’t running…

Scotland, Week 5: 11 September

Marcel Proust was famously inspired to reminisce (for over 3,000 pages) about his early life by tasting a madeleine cake dipped in a spoonful of tea. Well, mutatis mutandis, there is a food from my childhood in New Zealand that has a similar effect upon me—though not, you’ll be glad to hear, at such length.

Yes, it’s time to celebrate fudge slice, also known as fudge cake, a confection so dense and sweet it warps the very fabric of space-time: not only does it exert a gravitational field strong enough to attract other items towards it across the kitchen counter, its effects reach backwards in time to give your teeth cavities before you’ve even eaten it. Now, you might feel that the nation which brought us the tinned spaghetti pizza doesn’t have much to teach us about haute cuisine: but you would be wrong.

Fudge cake is a tray bake, a blend of ground-up biscuits and a rich melted sugary-chocolatey-buttery mix, which is then left to set before being covered with chocolate icing. It’s so lethal that the cookbooks recommend wearing a hazmat suit during assembly and handling it with the sort of gloves they use during nuclear experiments. It’s safest to eat in pieces about the size of a sugar cube: larger than that and your body sort of collapses around your stomach much as matter does around a black hole.

It’s a taste of my childhood: and while I wouldn’t want it every day (can you even get stomach pumps on Amazon?), it does take me back, to a simpler, happier time; a time before dentists. I made a batch this week and, after the flashbacks about being put to bed by my mother had passed, I took some round for the neighbours to try. I went back later to see what they thought but the curtains were drawn and no one answered my knock; when I lifted the letterbox flap all I could hear was a faint bubbling. I think I also heard someone sobbing—probably just a coincidence, though.

Turning to happier matters, I was on leave last week and so managed to catch up on my knitting. I’ve finished the back and am just over halfway up the front. With luck I shall get the shoulders joined by next week. The pattern is proving straightforward to knit, and designed so that there are two horseshoes to each diamond—so it’s easy to make sure things are aligned properly.

As for dear old Marcel, and the memories unlocked by a piece of soggy cake—all I can say is, if his trigger had been fudge cake his memories would probably mainly have consisted of his being violently sick; and I’d defy even him to get much more than a short story out of that…


The closest online recipe I’ve found is here, though I’d recommend bringing the mixture with the eggs in to the boil to make sure everything’s cooked through; and it takes about 1 lb of biscuits. What?—oh, I beg your pardon. You meant the gansey?

Here are the pattern charts for the yoke (the tree is of course the celebrated “Mrs Laidlaw” of Seahouses which features in many of the books; the rest are Scottish Fleet or Hebridean in origin):

Scotland, Week 4: 4 September

So there I was last week, several thousand feet above Glasgow on the flight from Inverness to Birmingham. I had the window seat. Beside me, a commodious gentleman occupied the aisle seat. Between us lay a narrow armrest.

When he’d sat down he’d colonised this armrest with admirable nonchalance, taking out a newspaper and leaning his elbow on the rest to support it. Being British of course I preferred not to call him on it, but instead bided my time. Sure enough, a few minutes later when he reached up to adjust the air flow nozzle I slid my elbow over and claimed possession. Fifteen-all.

A runny nose caused me to dig for my handkerchief and by the time I was done honking he was back; but a few minutes later he was obliged to turn the page of his paper and I seized my chance, and the armrest. Thirty-all.

And so it went on, back and forth, the armrest changing hands like a sort of airborne Alsace-Lorraine. Each of us maintained an air of studied abstraction, as though armrests were the very last things on our minds (“my dear fellow, if only I’d realised, you should have said something…”).

Finally, after I’d been repulsed for about the fiftieth time, I happened to glance out the window and saw, far below, through a break in the clouds, a glitter of water shimmering in sunlight. And it occurred to me that I was sitting in a technological miracle, actually flying, all of God’s creation laid out before me; and here I was getting huffy over an armrest. How petty, I thought; how mean.

Carn Liath Broch

A surge of fellow feeling washed over me. I rummaged in my bag and produced a packet of fruit sweets, tore open the wrapper and held it out to my companion with a rueful smile. And as he reached out to take a sweet, I saw that he’d raised his arm from the rest… Well—no, I didn’t take it, though the thought was there. But then, we’re always at our most vulnerable to temptation when we’re congratulating ourselves on our strong will. And anyway, virtue is its own reward: he got the blackcurrant one, which made us about even, I reckoned.


As I was away from home for most of last week I haven’t made much progress on the gansey. (I did cast on and start another one, but that’s another story.) But I have finished the lower half of the gussets, divided for front and back and started on the back yoke. I’ll say more about that next week, when hopefully you’ll be able to see the whole pattern in all its glory. I’ve got a few days’ leave so should get a fair bit done; and in my own chair, too, with an armrest all to myself. Heaven…


Scotland, Week 3: 28 August

Every now and then I go to the doctor with some minor ailment—a headache, say, or a nagging cough—and come away finding the stakes have been raised rather more than I’d expected. It’s a bit like going to check your balance at a cash machine only to be told that your card has been confiscated, your assets frozen, and to stay where you are as an armed response unit has already been dispatched to your location.

One example of this came many years ago when I lived in Wales, and went to the doctor presenting the symptoms of a severe migraine only to be told brightly: “Gosh, you’re awfully young to have a brain tumour. We’d better get that checked out.” (This was one of the very rare occasions I was actually grateful to have had “just” a migraine.) Another occurred the other day.

Got milk?

I’ve had a cough-cum-cold for a few weeks and it won’t go away, so off I went to the doctor. My morale, low to begin with, plummeted when I pulled up my shirt only for what I laughably call my waist to overflow my belt line like over-yeasted bread rising in a very hot oven. I took some deep breaths while he listened to my chest, answered several questions, and then he delivered his verdict. “Well,” he said, “your lungs seem clear, you’re not a smoker and you’re not coughing up blood, so it’s probably not lung cancer.”

Well, it hadn’t of course occurred to me it might be, any more than gangrene, say, or tennis elbow. I jerked like a gaffed salmon and he hastened to reassure me: probably a virus, give it a few more weeks and it should go away, try using a nasal spray. I departed clutching a prescription and counting my blessings (I stopped at ten; any more and I’d have had to take my shoes and socks off).

Meanwhile I continue the ascent of mount gansey: I’m about three-quarters up the gussets, and have paused to make base camp while I acclimatise. I’ve opted for an open diamond pattern for the centre border panel, the median strip that separates the body from the yoke patterns like an amuse bouche between courses at an expensive dinner, or C-3PO’s tummy.

I’m off to another meeting in London next week. It gives me an opportunity to spend some time with my family, but as this gansey is now too bulky to carry onto a plane I’ll be starting the next one instead. But when I get back I hope to make a start on the yoke; we’ll see. Meanwhile my cough is slowly improving; sometimes, as Freud might have put it, a cough is just a cough—probably…


Border pattern

The diamond pattern in the border comes from page 61 of Sabine Domnick’s “Cables, Diamonds, Herringbone: Secrets of Knitting Traditional Fishermen’s Sweaters“, and is another Scottish Fleet design, so entirely appropriate here. The height of the border is dictated by the number of rows in the yoke pattern (about which more next week), but as it happened I was able to use it just as it appears in the book. There are 12 diamonds per side, each of 13 stitches, with a plain stitch between each; and two plain stitches either side of the seams.