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Scarborough: 4 September

Sc160905-1As we inch our way slowly into autumn, Caithness is experiencing something of an Indian summer—always assuming the Indians enjoyed mostly cloudy summers of about 16ºc. But some days, like today (Sunday), are really rather beautiful: the wind drops, the sea turns flat calm, the clouds vanish and the astonishing blue sky goes all the way to the top.

In odd moments—and most of my moments are odd, now I come to think of it—I like to play the game of imagining what records I’d save from our archive if there was a fire. (Not that it’s likely—besides, I’m not allowed matches after The Unpleasantness.) And I think out of all our thousands of documents I’d dive into the smoke to rescue the log books of the Wick harbourmasters.

They form a daily record of events in the harbour—the weather (cold, wet), the wind (cold, windy) and the fishing. All human life is there. Let me give you two examples—one a tragedy, the other not so much.


Under those trees somewhere . . .

The first is from January 1858 relating to a fisherman who drowned just round the coast from here: “A small yawl boat with two fishermen left this harbour in the afternoon on purpose to go a-fishing to the southward of the South Head. The inhabitants of Old Wick heard cries about 7 P.M. as of people in distress, but nothing more was heard of them.”


The Lighthouse

Next day there is another entry: “The small boat reported yesterday as a-missing was found this morning driven ashore by the Old Man of Wick without oars or any appearance of the two men … [who] have doubtless met with a watery grave.”

Sure enough, the body of one of the men, William Miller, was washed up at Old Wick a month later; the other, as far as I know, was never recovered. William’s grave is somewhere in the parish churchyard but when Margaret and I went to look for it we found the graves overgrown and the headstones illegible.

It’s a melancholy tale, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. William Miller was a living, breathing person who walked the streets of Wick; we know he had a wife (Catherine) and four children—and now he’s almost disappeared from history, first in life and now in death. Except for the record in the log book.

Sc160905-2Well; I said it was tragic. Meanwhile, as well as brooding on the fragility of human life, I’ve been knitting—this counts as multitasking for me—and I’ve finished the first sleeve and started the second. I picked up 144 stitches around the armhole and gradually decreased them until I had 84 at the cuff. The rate of decrease worked out at 2 stitches every 5.5 rows, so as an experiment I decreased alternately every fifth row and every sixth down the sleeve. I’m delighted to say that it all worked out exactly—though whether it will fit, only time will tell.

As for my second example from the harbourmasters’ log books, it’s from June 1855, when gas lighting was just being installed in the town: “The supply of gas to the Light House being very little this few nights past, the Light Keeper called upon the Gas Man and they went together to see what was wrong. As the Gas Man was unscrewing a portion of the meter the escaping gas came in contact with a lighted candle when a sudden explosion took place, burst the pipe and singed the Gas Man’s whiskers.”

History, alas, doesn’t record if the gas man’s name was Mr Laurel or Mr Hardy…

15 comments to Scarborough: 4 September

  • lorraine

    Gordon- This week we are looking at 40C, with the humidex. I am so done with this.

    Your sleeve looks great, and you are in the home stretch. I find the first sleeve always seems to take longer than the second.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lorraine, I would simply shrivel up and die like a salted snail in those kinds of temperatures. To be honest, if it’s too hot to wear a sweater it’s too hot as far as I’m concerned!

      Once you’re on the sleeves you know it’s just a matter of time, I agree: though the second sleeve is always a bit of a drag because it’s so much wider at the top, and I’ve just got used to whizzing round the cuff on the first sleeve, so it feels like going uphill. But the fish is hooked and I’m reeling it in now!

  • Annie

    Hardy hair hah your final comment!

    A tour one time in an old Portland, Maine, cemetery with with many Captain…Deckhand…Lost At Sea, with dates, perhaps a large shared tombstone and a wike’s dates, the second one 20, 30, 40 yeas later.

    We bake bread, we paint, we knit to stave off the coming darkness. Thanks for sharing this great, green work of art.

    • Gordon

      Hi Annie, you can’t live in a fishing community and not be aware of mortality, and the dangers of going down to the sea in ships.

      As for the coming darkness, also known as God’s Cataracts, knitting ganseys is my way of lighting a candle. Philip Larkin memorably suggested that “what will survive of us is love”, but in my case I plan to be survived by a large family of multi-coloured ganseys! My only dilemma is, which one shall I choose to be buried or cremated in—i.e., which one shall I wear in heaven? And can I bear to have little holes cut in the back for the wings…?

      • Lynne

        There will be a knitting angel who will do beautiful steeking for those wings, Gordon.
        Another lovely gansey, but, I swear, every week my laptop shows that green in a different hue, so I will never really know what color it is (unless I order that Frangipani myself!)

        • Gordon

          Hi Lynne, I suspect wings may not be my problem in afterlife, now I come to think of it—and where I’m heading it’ll probably be a bit too warm for ganseys!

          Ganseys are very hard to photograph so that they show the colours correctly; but I’ve noticed they change colour depending on the light too. This one is very different in sunlight (a light Robin Hood green) and shadow (a deeper emerald). I think it’s because many of them are 4 strands of one colour with the 5th strand slightly different. So this green is mostly light green, but with a dark thread running through it. So it changes hue subtly through the day—except in Caithness, where the emerald shade predominates…

  • Jane

    We had a wonderful moment when finalising the gas into a house, we do a bit of building work to keep the wolf from licking the door in our semi-retirement. The gas was live and flowing, hissing even, when the man from the gas company bends over the hole with lighted cigarette clamped firm to see what’s what. “Noooo” yells his mate up the road. My husband, stood at a distance, said it was the funniest thing he had seen for years…..

    It is the very human events of life that bring such joy!

    Lovely, lovely gansey. Take care!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane, what a great story! It’s not often that life so closely resembles a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and we should treasure every such moment—as TS Eliot said, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”. In his case it was what he could salvage from the collapse of Western civilisation; in mine it’s a bunch of funny stories.
      Let’s face it, both are good.

  • Sharon in Surrey

    Weather on the Wet Coast here in southwestern BC has definitely cooled to half of what it was!!! My west facing basement was so hot two weeks ago that I couldn’t work in my ‘office’. Luckily I own an oscillating fan that blows directly on the bed so sleeping was no problem. This week, I had on my wool ‘house’ sweater in the office because it’s cool – haven’t closed the windows yet but it’s very clearly FALL. Love this time of the year!! And I can’t wait to see you model that sweater. I am so tired of tan, beige, taupe, ecru & ‘natural’ yarns. Let us have Red, Green, Purple & Orange for a change.

    • Gordon

      Hi Sharon, with 50-60mph winds and rain forecast tonight I think the trees will be shedding quite a few leaves! But I agree—I love autumn, my favourite season, full of rich golden colours and that bitter sharpness in the air. And you have to make the most of it because winter is just round the corner.

      Even a green as vivid as this is getting hard to see in the dark evenings now—luckily I only have the second sleeve to go. But it’ll be cream or light grey for the next few months if I want to actually see what I’m knitting!

      Red, Green, Purple and Orange sounds like a 70s psychedelic rock band, whose debut album “The Cosmic Underground Versus the Children of the Invincible Plankton” reached number 86 in the charts before Green quit the band to pursue other interests, like how many marbles he could fit in each nostril, and the others were sued into insolvency after the company behind Opal Fruits took out a patent on the name of every colour. Ah, the seventies! You had to be there.

  • Helen McAteer

    I knitted ganseys in the later 1970s and early 1980s, losing a young husband to the sea when I was 25. At 63 years of age and recently retired, your website has rekindled my interest and I am in the initial stages of a new denim coloured gansey, having just completed the welt and starting to set the Flamborough pattern, using Frangipani wool cones. I do enjoy your writing! Keep it up. Thank you for providing the motivation, although arthritis in the fingers and poorer eyesight provides a whole set of new challenges! I can’t manage navy wool in the evenings. I dug out a cream gansey I knitted for my first husband all those years ago – far too small for my spreading waistline, now, knitted with Poppleton’s gansey wool, which at the time was deemed high quality wool. It has proved useful for working on this latest, larger, jumper. Best wishes to the group.

    • Gordon

      Hello Helen, how lovely to hear from you! I started out with Poppleton’s yarns too, back in the day, they were indeed quality, though occasionally beset with knots.

      I look at some of the Frangipani darker colours – dark navy an black – and i wonder how on earth anyone can knit with those outside of the long summer days of July and August. It’s already getting challenging knitting this bright green with the sun setting at 7.45pm. I’m starting to think gansey knitting is a young person’s game…

      Best of luck with your new Flamborough. Frangipani denim is a great colour and will show the pattern off to great advantage. Please send us pictures once it’s done—as you’ll have noticed, people are alway interested in new ganseys!

      All the best, Gordon

  • Helen McAteer

    Hello Gordon and thank you for your reply. I love the colour of your gansey but am curious – in my neck ‘o the woods fishermen are incredibly superstitious and won’t wear green of any shade. I wondered if this is a North East coast ‘thing’ or whether other fishing communities are similar? Do you have any idea? There are some wonderful gansey colours available now, it’s difficult to make a choice. I was very drawn to both the greens and plum shades. We’ll have to see how I get on with the denim first! I will send picture (s) – eventually!!

    • Gordon

      Hi again Helen,

      You’re the second person who’s mentioned the idea of fishermen not wearing green. But after extensive research * I haven’t been able to find out if this is a general thing, or where it comes from. Certainly, in the old days (i.e., the 1980s), “conifer green” was one of the 5 traditional colours on offer before Frangipani brought ganseys into the technicolour age. All I can say is that green is not a traditionally unlucky colour for archivists!

      *i.e., a quick Google search

  • Helen McAteer


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