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Vicar of Morwenstow 6: 23 November


Ye Front

As I still have the dregs of my cold, so that I sound like a man gargling with gravel when I cough, and as the Caithness nights are drawing in (sunrise at 8.21, sunset at 15.36), I thought I’d skip six months and take us on to May Day, a.k.a. Calan Haf in Wales, or Beltane in Scotland. (I know it means missing Christmas, but look on the bright side: just think of all the money you’ll save.)

You see, this week I came across an interesting account of a Beltane custom from Shurrery in the parish of Reay, up on the far north-west corner of Caithness, recorded back in the 1930s. It seems that on the last night of April all fires in the neighbourhood were extinguished. A group of men then went off in the dark to a certain place and set about lighting a fire from pieces of bog-oak, using only friction to get them alight (apparently a true Beltane fire could only rightly be started in this way, or by striking sparks from a flint).


Ye Back

When they had a fire properly burning in an open hearth all the people of the neighbourhood came to the special place, bringing their cattle. They and their beasts then passed through the smoke of the fire, being careful to move in a sun-wise direction.

After they’d all passed through the smoke, faggots from the fire were distributed to everyone and taken home to re-kindle their own hearth-fires. (This was a known as a teine-éigin, or “need-fire”; it was believed that the smoke had healing properties and would keep them free of disease in the coming season—a sort of sacred fumigation.)

Meanwhile, back in the present day bleak-almost-midwinter, I’ve been making progress up the front of my heather gansey, and have almost completed the first shoulder. (I see some of the stitches are a tad uneven, caused by the fact that it’s usually cold in our lounge when I sit down to knit of an evening! But this should all be sorted out when it’s washed.)


Hawthorn & Lichen in evening sun

Now, on the back, if you remember, I had 63 stitches for each shoulder and 60 for the neck. And each pattern band is 14 rows deep: 12 rows of the main pattern plus 2 additional rows (a purl row and a plain row to mark the boundary).

So I’ve decided to indent the front neckline by a depth of 16 rows (one whole pattern band plus the two boundary rows of purl and plain from the previous band). And because I decrease each side of the neck at a rate of one stitch every two rows, this means I’ll be decreasing 8 stitches either side of the neck (16 / 2 = 8) by the time I reach the shoulder. To achieve this, I’ve divided the front into 71 stitches for each shoulder (71 – 8 = 63); which leaves 44 for the neck in the middle. (Trust me, it’s easier to do than to explain.)

So hopefully by this time next week I’ll have finished the front, joined the shoulders, and maybe even have done the collar too, assuming my cold continues to improve. In fact, now I come to think of it, and given how many colds I’ve had this year, perhaps I should consider investing in some bog-oak and some kindling for next May’s Beltane Eve…

12 comments to Vicar of Morwenstow 6: 23 November

  • Lynne

    Aww, this gansey is coming together nicely and I like that heather color better than I thought I would, it’s going to look really nice on you.
    The bog oak fires, hmmm, a new book? or is that a combo of The Bone Fire and the Wraiths of Elfael. I actually have a ‘bog oak’ bowl, the wood coming from the Fens in Cambridgeshire and shaped by the relatives in Peterborough, a real treasure already thousands of years old.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne, funnily enough I am still writing away. Although I’ve not “published” it yet, I’ve written another Victorian detective story set in a fictitious version of Wick, as well as about half another book, a sequel to it, of short stories, using many of the stories and tales of Caithness I’ve picked up over the last few years. I thought I’d see if I could interest a publisher in it—and when I find i can’t, it’s back to Amazon self-publishing for me! So watch this space.

      I’m slowly working myself up to finishing my Wraiths trilogy—but seeing as I have to send my heroine Mair to the Land of the Dead as the climax to the book, I have to be in the right frame of mind… (And no, I don’t mean Wick this time!)

      Your oak bowl sounds very special. But if anyone offers you a piece of cake with a special bean in it, just say no!

  • Jane

    What a wonderful gansey, it is very impressive, a fine piece of work. I am also impressed by the mathematical skills! It is so true, knitters are totally multi-faceted!

    I look forward to the return of the lengthening days from the depths of our soggy, increasingly soggy, rural dip. We have no street lights, so the dark is very long and very dark, but the starlight and moonlight quite remarkable. The Yoda jacket is continuing nicely, all garter stitch so very soothing, but the mind does yearn for the occasional purl! Keep warm.

    • Gordon

      Hello Jane,

      If only my father could see me now! (Well, he could, if he’d bother to use FaceTime…) He’s a mathematical natural, and my abiding memory of my childhood is him with his head in his hands failing to get me to understand quadratic equations. (Actually that’s a fib—failing to get me to understand the times table. Lord, but I was terrible at maths. And now look at me—I can add up and, on a good day, if I’ve taken my medication, I can even subtract.)

      We have street lights but our house is set far back from the road, so I keep a pocket torch in my bag to prevent me tripping over the neighbours cats in the dark as I walk up the path. It’s fine until I have moments like tonight when I mistake a fence post and a wheelie bin for a sinister lurking figure and jump about three feet in the air like a man on an exploding trampoline…

  • =Tamar

    Every so often I try to remember how to do quadratic equations. I used to be good at them.
    The gansey is developing nicely. I like that color. Will your novel(s) be available in a form that doesn’t require an e-reader?

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar,

      If I ever have access to a time machine I will go back in time and tell my 15 year-old-self that quadratic equations will form no part of his life after the age of 16. (Mind you, I may not tell him that Latin will still be hanging around like a bad smell at the age of 54…)

      If the novel found a publisher, then it would be available in all good retail outlets, and probably some bad ones. However, as I don’t have an agent, and will have to take my chances in the “slush pile” of hundreds of other unsolicited manuscripts that publishers receive each year/month, I think my chances of winning the lottery are actually better. So, ebook it is. I do have plans to format all my books in hard copy so they can be bought through the “publish in hard copy on demand” option, but the formatting is a bit of a pain, and they’re not as cheap to buy as ebooks. So it’s just a question of getting round to it, and this internet won’t read itself…!

  • I liked to read about the Beltane customs in Shurrery. It reminds me on what was done here in Sweden in days of old. It is common still to light a big bonfire on the last night of April. You take the oppotunity to get rid of scraps and garbage, there might be someone holding a speech to greet the oncoming spring, maybe a choir singing spring songs. But in days long gone, the youths of the village practised the habit of jumping over the remnants of the fire, in order to stay healthy and strong, and of course showing off a bit. Nobody tried to force the cattle to jump though.

    • Gordon

      Hi Lillemor,

      By the 1930s the celebration of Beltane was dying out in Scotland, and it was only in remote rural areas that customs such this held on a little longer. Now there’s a huge revival in post-Christian/ neo-pagan celebrations, and suddenly it’s fashionable again, and they have a huge event in Edinburgh with bonfires and, er, topless dancers (but it’s OK because it’s cultural, albeit a bit chilly in the extremities…).

      I wonder if there’s a connection with the jumping through the smoke, which does seem to be a common Beltane feature. Or waddling, as I expect the cattle did it. (Some part of Scotland made oat cakes and left out pieces to each of the animals that might harm their cattle.) Anyway, if the name Beltane really does derive from “bright fire”, then it seems appropriate, somehow.

  • Marilyn

    Hello Gordon, it’s nice that a cold doesn’t slow down your sense of humor. When my head is stuffy I’m on the ornery side of cussedness. And I’m impressed anyone can do quadratic equations.

    Note to Margaret: The Hawthorn and Lichen is a stunning picture. Wow what a combo. I appreciate your eye and skill with the camera. Felicity Ford’s new book KnitSonik Colourwork Sourcebook shows how to take these inspirations and turn them into stranded knitting. Can’t you see a sleeveless pullover with these colours? Oh my.

  • Sue

    Think I got there before you!


    Not sure if the link will work or not but this is the slipover inspired by my very autumnal garden that I just completed for my Dad. The red is in there but not sure how well it shows up and probably a bit browner overall tan Margaret’s magnificent photo.

  • Gordon

    Hi Marilyn and Sue,

    I out-source my sense of humour to India these days. It’s cheaper, and this way I can be facetious even in my sleep.

    I think I first became aware of the idea of using the colours around you to inspire knitwear in the books and patterns of Alice Starmore, though obviously it’s by no means unique to her. Of course, in ganseys one is limited to the single colour of the yarn, but it’s always struck me that you could do a collection inspired by the sky-and-seascape of Caithness; I was thinking of calling it “50 Shades of Grey”. but I see someone’s pipped me to the title; and as far as I know no one hand-knits sado-masochistic gear, so it may be best to just steer clear of that one.

    I like the colours in that weskit a lot, Sue—very autumnal. I’m a big fan of browns and greens in jumpers, basically anything that looks like Robin Hood might have been happy to give to one of his Merry men for Christmas.

    • Sue

      Thanks for the compliment, Gordon, I have a lot of greens and browns in my stash and I can take a hint! Ask me nicely and perhaps something similar mght wing its way to you. There used to be a Pringle factory up the coast in Arbroath and when it closed down it looks as if a great deal of Shetland 2 ply on the cone found its way into the stashes of local knitters and those stashes are now appearing in charity shops on a regular basis – where people like me snap them up!

      One such stash cost me £27 and so far has yielded 6 complete garments and should yield another 3 at least. But this leaves me with a lot of smaller quantities left over and hence why I am turning my hand to Fair Isle again. At this rate some family members will be able to tell whose jumpers is makng a guest appearances in later garments for other family members!

      I admit to cheating a bit and using the 2ply doubled – it knits up to the equivalent of a double knitting tension so they grow a lot quicker than your average gansey 🙂

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