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Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 1 – 30 September

There’s a classic definition of a Scottish croft as a small parcel of land bounded on all sides by a lawsuit. I was thinking of this the other day when we went to the abandoned clearance village of Badbea close to the Caithness-Sutherland border.

As I mentioned last week, Badbea is unusual in that it wasn’t abandoned because of the Highland Clearances, it was created because of them. Although there had been a small number of inhabitants in earlier times, it was mostly settled around 1800 when twelve families, some 80 people in all, were moved there from Langwell and the Strath of Berriedale. The Clearances of course happened when landowners realised they could make a lot more money from sheep farming than from the rents of their tenants (this was known as “the coming of the Great Sheep”); as a result many hundreds of the poorest people were driven out of their homes and forced to emigrate, or else scratch a living on bleak and barren scraps of land. Few seem more bleak than Badbea.

Ruined croft at Badbea.

Even on a warm September afternoon, with the early autumn sunshine glinting on a flat, calm ocean, it looks a tough prospect. God knows what it was like in a wild, dark, stormy January. The narrow strip of land land slopes sharply down to the cliffs, a sheer drop to the sea; even today if you mowed the grass and dropped a tennis ball the chances are it would roll away to plummet over the edge. Like other crofters the people kept cows and pigs (there was one horse) and grew what vegetables they could. But without the additional income of the summer herring fishing they would’ve starved: and as the fishing declined so the people had to leave, the last inhabitant clinging on till 1911. Now it’s just stones in a field, the bare outlines of houses, and a lingering sense of injustice and the memory of a bitter wrong. In fact, I feel so strongly about it that if someone ever invents a time machine, one of its first uses will be me going back in time and giving Sir John Sinclair and the Duke of Sutherland a sharp piece of my mind.

Badbea Monument

Meanwhile, I have a new gansey to unveil. I started this one back in July, as something to do when it got too dark of an evening to knit a navy gansey (it was either that or turn on the light; honestly, this seemed easier). This is another of my favourite patterns—possibly my favouritest. I’ve knit it a few times before and it always feels like coming home. It’s in Frangipani pewter, a lovely bluish-grey, and it’s for me to wear, all the previous versions having been given away down the years. This one is intended to keep me warm in my old age, which feels like it could happen any day now.

Nybster Harbour at high tide

The one fact everyone knows about Badbea is that the locals used to tether their children and livestock to stop them falling over the cliffs. Even—apparently this is true—their chickens. (The thought of a sort of giant cat’s cradle of interweaving ropes stretching away to the cliff edge, each with a chicken attached, boggles the mind. Eminently practical, though: indeed, a few well-trained chickens could probably weave a pretty good fishing net.) But when I think of things like this I can’t help wondering—not about what caused them finally to leave – but what on earth took them so long…?

7 comments to Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 1 – 30 September

  • =Tamar

    Have you perhaps found the origin of lace knitting?

    It must have made it easier to haul the chickens in for the night.

    What shade of grey is that gansey?

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, that’s plausible theory for lace knitting, and the holes are plucked out by the chickens’ beaks as they try to free themselves…

      The grey is Frangipani pewter. Rather lovely.

  • Jules

    This is the first gansey I ever made, bought the yarn and pattern in Bobbins in Whitby, now I think sadly gone. I really struggled to get started with the long needles and number of stitches, knitting looking out at the sea from the cottage we had rented at Robin Hood’s Bay. But it worked out fine in the end and my other half loves it and always insists on giving people a ‘guided tour’ of its features whenever he wears it. It’s a good pattern to knit with lots of interesting things to keep the novice going when you get to the patterned section. And it got me hooked on ganseys!

  • Annie

    This is an exceptionally lovely gansey with its color and pattern. Hope you don’t give this one away!

  • Deb

    This pattern is the one adopted & promulgated by Bobbins of blessed mynding as The Whitby pattern. Feel free to dispel this & substitute the indefinite article. Mrs. Laidler was the first Wy knitter to incorporate Scottish Flags into her pattern & to this day Wy is the only English port to do so. MP did record a version of the Humber Keel pattern by Mrs Hutton from Goole – she used Flags too, they work well with the other motifs. Her son, now in NZ, knits on; when his kids were small he knitted their teddies little jackets. Guess what motif he used? In terms of physics (energy in/out) it’s a very efficient motif, esp. for a beginner because it’s dead easy to get a cracking, pleated result for very little outlay. However many stitches you choose to knit it over just start with p2 & the rest will follow.
    ps hope your Ganseys have made it safe home.

  • Gordon

    Hi Deb, thanks for this. One of the reasons I like the pattern is the way it incorporates the Scottish flag, it’s sort of a best of both worlds. And very easy to knit for such a spectacular pattern.

    Yes, the ganseys made it home, where they’ve spent a few days as part of an exhibition in the local church—they’ve spent more time in church this decade than I have!

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