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Scarborough: 21 August

4W160822-2If you ask an archaeologist who created the ancient stone cairns that dapple the landscape around here, they will tell you it was Neolithic people; if you ask them why, they will cheerfully throw around words like ritual, ancestors, sacred, and the like. But they are, in fact, wrong: I can now reveal that cairns were created by swarms of midges as traps for unwary sightseers.

Sc160820-1We discovered this on Saturday when we paid a visit to the remote Cairn of Get at Ulbster, a few miles south of Wick. I’m suffering another of my summer colds and, looking for somewhere not too strenuous to explore, was misled by the directions which said it lay just a mile from the car park. Unfortunately the mile was on the vertical axis, not the horizontal, and we were soon scrambling up muddy hillsides (Caithness has hills; who knew?) and squelching through boggy marshes.

A heavy mist had descended, the kind you see on those late-night movies featuring promiscuous teenagers who’ve lost their way and are about to encounter assorted zombies or werewolves, possibly brandishing chainsaws. Landmarks, including the helpful posts to guide our way, vanished. But at last we found the cairn, set in the very apex of the hill’s crown, bulging up like the bridge on top of the Starship Enterprise, or the cherry on a bakewell tart.

Sc160820-2It’s a stunning location high above Loch Watenan, nothing for miles but fields and sheep and peat bog and heather; and silent, just the birds and the wind. But when we entered the shelter of the cairn the midges sprang their ambush. In seconds we were smothered in dancing clouds of tiny insects, so that the air seemed to boil around us. It felt like having pins and needles everywhere at once. I brushed my forehead with my sleeve and it came away a black smudge; a tickle in the ear resulted in excavations like Sherlock Holmes cleaning out his Meerschaum pipe.

A signboard near the entrance said that skeletons had been found inside, and speculated that Neolithic residents had used the cairn for ceremonial burials. But this is, I fear, erroneous: it was midges, tiny airborne piranhas. Realising that if we lingered archaeologists would have two more sets of bones to theorise over, we hurriedly retreated to the safety of lower levels.

4W160822-1In gansey news, I have finished Side A, turned the record over and started Side B (as this is going to be another traditional collar there is no front and back). I had intended to knit another couple of plain rows before starting the shoulder rig ’n’ fur, but the pattern creates a sort of elastic stretchy tension in the yarn. The armhole should measure 8 inches from the end of the gusset to the start of the shoulder strap, but when I checked it was anything between 7¾  and 9½ inches, depending on how far I stretched it, so I chickened out and decided to stop there. It won’t look quite as elegant, but on the other hand it mayn’t hang down to my knees.

Sc160822-1As for the cairn we visited, every time I drive along the A99 and pass the sign I can’t help thinking of the Beatles’ track I’m So Tired, in which John Lennon wittily sings, “I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset / Although I’m so tired I’ll have another cigarette / And curse Sir Walter Raleigh / He was such a stupid get.” “Get” is of course a Scouse variant of the British slang insult “git”, meaning a stupid or contemptible person. I like to think that the cairn was named after a disagreeable Stone Age chap: though, to be fair, The Cairn of the Cantankerous Old Git wouldn’t look quite so good on the tourist signs…

[Apologies to Judit: I should have mentioned last week that she has finished her glorious green gansey. Here it is in all its glory! And many congratulations again to her.]

8 comments to Scarborough: 21 August

  • Sharon in Surrey

    Poor Gordon. I’ve experienced the nasty little bugs a time or two myself. You’d think there’d be a bird hanging about that could grow fat on them like Swallows do on mosquitoes!
    Looking forward to you modeling that gansey in the near future. I’ve become very fond of the simpler stitch patterns.

    • Gordon

      Hi Sharon,

      A midge-devouring bird would be perfect. Or you’d think there’d be a plant, like the venus fly trap, that is basically a big sheet of sticky goo which would catch the wee devils and slowly digest them, wouldn’t you? The highlands would soon be overgrown! But no, evolution has let us all down again.

      I love the simple patterns, mostly for the texture. There’s something almost hypnotic about an unbroken yoke of double moss stitch, as though it contains the secrets of the gansey genome, or the origin of the universe in binary code. (I may have spent too long staring at it, of course…)

  • Jane

    Ooh, how nasty, in the ears and on the face! And if you breathe them up through the nose, it’s nasty too, I speak from personal experience here!

    This is a lovely gansey, so elegant, and beautiful work, nice to see it coming along so well! Take care!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, I can still feel the prickling on my face several days later, like those people who still feel an amputated limb. I keep reaching up to brush imaginary midges away from my forehead. Every time I sneeze I avoid looking in the handkerchief just in case… Mind you, an advance guard of the little swine have probably made it all the way up my nasal cavities and into my brain, and who know what damage they can do one they’re in wurble wurble schilzzzzz

  • Judit M/Finland

    Hi Gordon,
    Many thanks for adding my green gansey to Reader`s gallery ! You should have a hat with an anti-midge veil on it in order to avoid a bread and midge breakfast or midge-seasoned biscuits in the future. Should I send one ?

    • Gordon

      Hi Judit, you’re welcome, and sorry it took me so long.

      As for hats, I like the idea of one of those Australian one’s with dangling corks – but the wind up here would send it skimming over the German Ocean like a frisbee, alas…

  • Jane

    Citronella oil on tissues, might be worth a thought!

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