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.