Foxfire and Da Mirrie Dancers

by Tom Morton -

I want to tell you about the Northern Lights. I sit with the witnesses, the narrators, the diarists and describers, from Aristotle through George Low, Minister of Birsay and Harry in Orkney between 1774 and 1795, right up to the bloggers and photographers of today, swamping social media with their symphonies in white and green, always green, great wiggly waves across a midnight blue sky.

But it’s not like that. The aurora borealis, captured on absurdly long exposures by chilled snappers on folding chairs, makes for a beautiful picture, but not an accurate one. But then, neither does a more realistic photo showing a strange, if one-dimensional glow. Green again. That’s the oxygen, struck by electrified particles from the sun. The further north the greener. The reds - from nitrogen - tend to be seen in more southerly climes.

Because the Northern Lights, Da Mirrie Dancers in Shetland, move, flicker, sprint across the sky , beam imperiously like massed Batsignals or some Nuremberg rally, and occasionally envelope you in a sense of otherness, of alien interference. Buzzing. Sometimes there’s an odd rattle and hum, and not just from that U2 album you left playing in the car. Orcadians have been known to compare this to the rustling of silk, while the Lapps say, beautifully, that it’s similar to the cracking of reindeer leg joints as they run.

Orcadians have been known to compare the noise to the rustling of silk...

Aristotle, in his Meteorologica, managed to catch the lights as far south as Greece, comparing them to jumping goats. The names, the words are always quaint, often lovely. Galileo, also far to the south, named the phenomenon Boreale Aurora - northern dawn. The Finns call it revontulet, foxfire, as they thought, or a poet told them to think, that the lights were caused by sparks from the coat of the Arctic Fox. Nordlys may be an obvious Danish translation, but in the folklore of Denmark, it is swans flapping their wings while they try to free themselves from the ice they’re trapped in.

The Umingmaktormuit Inuit - known as the Musk-ox People - had shamen who believed they could control the lights through whistling and spitting, while some Sami thought the aurora posed a threat. Bare headed, you risked burning, and it could become ‘entangled in the hair’. Everyone tried to stay silent while the lights were active.

What else could the lights be? Ancients racked their imaginations and blamed the glinting of shoals of herring, the reflections of fires or shards of ice in the sky.

But as we now know, it’s sunspots. Or solar winds. Of course it is.

Whatever those are...

There are various scientific websites which predict, more or less accurately, electro-magnetic activity and will send you alerts by Twitter or email. In Shetland, these periods of massive sunspot action often coincide with heavy cloud. I once met an excited tourist, heading north into the social withdrawal which can be Shetland at New Year. I was in a shared cabin on the ferry, snoring badly enough to wake the undead, and certainly enough to keep this poor soul from Kettering from his dreams. He was heading up to Shetland for the weekend, he said, to see the Northern lights. Really, I said, between snores. Where was he staying. Lerwick, came the reply. Did he plan to hire a car, get out and about? No.

As it happens, there was little auroral activity that weekend, and low cloud anyway. Lerwick, with its street lights and traffic, swamps faint auroras in visual pollution, but sometimes, sometimes it falls prey to the natural phenomenon of the Dancers in a splendid and spectacular way. I’ll never forget the Up Helly Aa, in the early 1990s, with all the town’s street lights switched off for the procession, when the aurora burst forth in its full majesty.

And as the ‘vikings’ and other guizers paraded, shouted, set fire to the galley, there were inescapable thoughts of Norse traditions that the lights were a bridge to Valhalla, that they signified a journey to another world.

The Umingmaktormuit Inuit had shamen who believed they could control the lights through whistling and spitting

It’s easy to make mistakes. Many visitors have left Shetland convinced that the orange flares from the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal and gas plant, lurking below the horizon, are the aurora.

But there’s a difference. When you see them in their full, naked glory, it can leave you disturbed, haunted. Spellbound.

For me they will always be associated with the taste of Jameson’s Irish whiskey, as the first time I witnessed Da Mirrie Dancers, I was in glittering, ice cold frost outside my then girlfriend’s house in Voe, that crossroads village at the Shetland Mainland’s centre, where roads lead north, south, east and west.

I was a mere visitor then, in the process of falling in love. With a person, a place, a people. We had just returned from an extraordinary meal at Burrastow House on the far west side of Shetland, where in those days proprietor Harry Tuckey would serve you candlelit winter dinners of pearl-peppered mussels and freshly shot hare, great old Claret, home made bread, all in oak-panelled rooms smelling of polish and peat. We returned home replete, driving carefully on ungritted roads into the swirling sky.

The stars swam in great shifting sheets of ice, as swans flapped their wings, herring flew, and warriors flexed their armour as they travelled to eternity. Foxes shook their hair, sending crystals of pure light towards us. I staggered in delight around the garden, bottle in hand, then grew solemn. Where was I? What was happening to me?

Shetland was.

One trillion watts, they reckon, passing through the sky, passing through me. One million amps. Louder than bombs, louder than Led Zeppelin. Louder than my heart.

Where was I? What was happening to me? Shetland was...