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Patrington & Withernsea, Week 7: 27 November

The weather’s been horrible this last week. Rain becomes sleet becomes hail becomes snow, then more rain, all of it swooping down from the Arctic and slamming into Caithness with the force of an All Black pack piling into an English scrum. The land is sodden, it can’t take any more. Fields are waterlogged, turned into temporary lochs. Horses and cattle and sheep stare disconsolately at you as you pass, muddy and bedraggled and ankle deep in dirty water, as if thinking it’s just as well they can’t hold a pen or there’d be a stiffly worded letter about this in the John O’Groat Journal next Friday. And still it rains. Horizontally.

I’ve been thinking about land this week because we received a new oldest document, a feu charter dating from 1469—a grant of land, in other words. It’s written in Latin on parchment—one day horned Highland cattle will rise up and take over the world and I’m not looking forward to telling them what most of my archives are written on—and records a grant of land at Reiss and Ackergill to one James Brisbane of Wick (or “Weke” as it charmingly spells it, as if the scribe was from Yorkshire).


When this document was written, Edward IV of England had been ruling peacefully for almost eight years, unaware that in a few short months Warwick the Kingmaker would start a rebellion that would reignite the Wars of the Roses; while in Scotland James III was in the process of negotiating the transfer of Shetland and Orkney from Norway, which had ruled them since the days of Viking longships. The oldest documents are almost all about land, because parchment was expensive and you only recorded what you needed to know for the future.


Of course the irony is that 548 years later James Brisbane and his fellow landowners are not even a distant memory, just names on a scrap of parchment. The land’s still there, though, soggier and owned by other people. And you might say that an archive is a record of what people used to think was important. There’s a great quote from Native American Chief Seattle on land ownership: “We do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?” Sometimes I think archives should contain the sparkle of the water too.


In gansey news, I have joined the shoulders (no ridge and furrow, just the pattern all the way up to the three needle bind-off), and am well embarked on my first sleeve. I outsourced the picking up stitches round the armhole to Margaret this time, as the dark nights, navy yarn and the wee hole in the centre of my right eye’s vision make that sort of fine work problematical for me just now. Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the pattern bands on the sleeve are all four stitches narrower than on the body.

Finally, here is one of my favourite jokes on the way perceptions change over time. Apologies if you’ve heard it before, it’s from an old Punch cartoon. It’s set in Hell, and a tide of humanity is flowing along a rocky defile surrounded by flames, demons with pitchforks on every crag. At the front are two sad, fat naked little men. One turns to the other and says mournfully, “Apparently, what I’m in here for is no longer a sin.”

The ghost of James Brisbane of Weke haunts the waterlogged fields of Reiss and Ackergill, collar turned up against the wind, blowing on his frozen hands, telling anyone who’ll listen that once upon a time he used to own all this…

6 comments to Patrington & Withernsea, Week 7: 27 November

  • =Tamar

    Weke… Now I’m wondering whether Mr. Weeks (a farmer who used to own a dairy bar where I grew up) had Scots ancestry. I’ve read that most American patronymics ending in “s” are shortened Welsh names, Weeks being assumed to have been “Weekson”. Now I wonder, if the original name was “Weke”, could there have been some connection?
    Armchair philology without the work of looking it up is a pastime with a long history.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, well, Wick as a place name in Britain has two derivations. In the north of Scotland it’s Viking, from the Norse word “vik”, a bay—supposed to be where the Vikings got their name from, of course.

      In England it’s more usually from the Old English “wick”, an outlying settlement or small village.

      The Caithness dialect is unusual—it doesn’t sound typically Scottish, i.e. the way people who impersonate Scots people tend to sound. I think it’s more like a cross between Norfolk and Irish, but no one I’ve said that to up here agrees with me! But Wickers do pronounce their home town as “Week”, so “Weke” is nicely phonetic.

      All of which means your Mr Weeks could easily be named after Wick, Caithness; but there are many other candidates, as the BBC weather app reminds me every time I try to select “Wick, Highland” as my home town… (I just looked it up—the UK has 7 places called Wick.)

  • Lynne

    Gordon, was this 550 year old document in someone’s estate and just surfaced? or was it in another archive somewhere else all this time? I just wonder how something that old could have been ‘hidden’ all these centuries? Is it unusual for something this old to just ‘show up’?
    Such speed on the gansey! Your next one better be white, it sounds like it’s going to be a long dark winter!

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne, it was in the possession of a family, not local, who handed it in to our head office in Inverness. It was in a poor state, but the conservation department have done a great job of restoring it.

      This is one of the joys of archives—stuff just turns up all the time. Who knows what lies in forgotten attics, or buried in boxes. Our previous oldest document dates from the 1550s, and was part of a collection held by a local solicitor, A decade or so the firm went out of business and the records were set for destruction, but a keen secretary rescued them and kept them in her house for safekeeping. Eventually she got in touch with us, and they’re now a proud part of our archive. So who knows what will turn up in future?

  • sharon pottinger

    Shades of Ozymandias. I think it is sheep that make the best substrate for writing–that’s what the Book of Kells is on, if I remember correctly. Recently read a poem–Robert Frost, it might even be, about creating a place where the ideas of right and wrong didnt change. He thought it would have to be a desert. I think perhaps a get out of hell for time served card for things no longer a sin would be better option.

    • Gordon

      Hello Sharon, sheep and cows, or if you just wanted to make a wee note maybe a gerbil would provide enough parchment for a medieval post-it note.

      I like the idea of the afterlife being like a game of Monopoly! Lucifer has you stretched on a rack, gloating, as a lesser demon eyes the tip of a a red-hot poker thoughtfully, and you suddenly produce your “Get out of Hell free” card… Mind you, you’d probably make your escape only to find someone’s built a hotel on the Elysian fields and you can’t afford the rent…

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