The merry dancers were swaying across the sky last night, to their own esoteric music, pale diffuse streamers shot with shimmering shafts of brilliant green. Sometimes in frosty weather it is easy to imagine that we can hear their thin high crackle in the silence, as we stand shivering, looking up at the vast moving curtains of light. It is strange that there seem to be so few superstitions concerning aurora borealis, for they are an eerie, awe-inspiring sight, sometimes red and green, sometimes silvery white, like slivers of ice dancing across the sky.
With no warm glow from street lamps, or intervening hills to blot out the horizon, the island is like a ship floating between dark sea and bright sky, with the moon carving out a path through the water. Orion rises slowly out of the east, and moves steadily southwards, steel-green Rigel and starry belt glittering, followed by huge Sirius the dog, loping up out of the darkness. Planets cross the sky in pre-programmed formation, Jupiter with his moons, fiery Mars, Saturn with his icy rings, and more beautiful than all the rest, Venus, morning and evening star, first to shine clear and peaceful in the west.
Children quickly learn to recognise the Plough, or Charlie’s Wain, Castor and Pollux the shining Twins, the Bull with his angry red eye, Cassiopeia’s silver throne, and the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades. Even the names are enthralling, Antares, Aldebaran, Arcturus and Altair. The wide sweep of the Milky Way is like an eternal spiral, with so many stars that they dazzle us. Shoals of shooting stars drift downwards in an arc, like the souls of the dead and unborn. Sometimes strange flickering hairst blinks scatter across the night sky in late autumn. With the outside lights of barn and byre switched off, the feeling of being swept along in the endless movement of the galaxies leaves us dizzy and breathless, searching for the Andromeda Nebula, two million light years away, the furthest the eyes can see into space.
The feeling is intensified by the smallness of the island, and the sound of the sea all around. In a city there are always neighbours’ lighted windows, the lights of buses and cars. Here, only the lighthouse cuts a wide swathe across the sleeping fields, a golden beam which leaves the dark crofts even darker with its passing.
Often satellites pursue an apparently erratic course, so difficult to follow that we have to stand and watch intently for some time, before their imperceptible movement can be traced among the stars. The moon is so close to the earth that its craters are visible, and its light is bright enough to read by. No wonder that people used to visit each other when the moon was up, and that it was symbolic, bringing good luck to those who married with a waxing moon and a flowing tide.
We lean against the haystack, out of the wind, and watch the slow procession of the constellations across the sky. The night with its coldness and brilliance is part of winter’s magic, slowing down the rush of daily life, and bringing tranquillity and peace.
From the book Orkney Days by Christine Muir. A few copies of the book are available from the author for £11 by cheque including P&P, from Garso, North Ronaldsay, Orkney KW17 2BG. Photo by John Vetterlein.