Stories from the Islands

Sailing into the aurora

Photos by Ingrid Tulloch
Written by Christine Muir
Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades, or loose the belt of Orion? – Job 38, 3

Strange rose-red rays across the sky after sunset heralded a night of dramatic display. We were feeding the cattle in the late afternoon when we noticed the unusual display, with its spectacular broad bands like sunrays on a stylised picture or an old wireless. They stretched over a golden horizon, long after the winter sun had sunk out of sight below the sea and the first bright planet was shimmering over the bay.

No clouds scudded past, and the sea was quiet and still, reflecting the changing colours of the evening sky, from gold through rose and dove-grey to duck-egg blue and turquoise, until dusk when more and more stars appeared. The red rays faded slowly to a pale pink, still clearly visible, and unlike anything I have seen before. There was no diffuse glow of red or fiery orange.

At about nine o’clock the north and west lit up with a broad band of the Merry Dancers, first a pale green lightening of the night sky, then a vast curtain of light, moving like folds of drapery blown by the invisible breath of some immense entity. By midnight the aurora was overhead, with shafts of coloured light dancing on the ground, red, green and white from horizon to horizon.

The Northern Lights are the most breathtaking phenomenon in the sky. In autumn we had a girl from Fremantle staying with us who had always longed to see them. One night my brother called us on the ship-to-shore radio to say they were twelve miles off North Ronaldsay, and so we all went up to Dennis Head to watch the ship’s lights as she went north to Shetland. Then the whole sky lit up with a brilliant display.

Our Australian visitor couldn’t be persuaded to come inside. She was completely overwhelmed by the brightness and speed with which the colours and shapes moved and changed, green shot with red striations, sudden flashes of gold and turquoise, against a black backdrop glittering with stars. Wendy could hardly believe how awe-inspiring and mysterious such a sight can be. The ship was sailing northwards into the aurora, and my brother was able to take a series of photographs, so we have a record of that particular night.

As if this calm and gentle winter must have some drama, even though gales have been almost entirely absent, we had a violent electrical storm almost directly overhead. Blue lightning flashed through rooms more than twelve times, wakening every sleeper with its lurid and ghastly brilliance, and thunder was almost simultaneous with each startling illumination. The electricity was cut off, and so were many of the telephones which were giving phantom rings. When the power came back on, the radio crackled for hours afterwards, so the storm must have been near.

Now although the daylight is stretching both in the morning and evening, the stars are still bright almost every night. It almost seems as though we have lost a complete season somewhere, for only the coming of Christmas signified midwinter. Already the leaves of daffodils and narcissi are showing through the grass, and in the garden the parsley still grows bushy and green, and no salt spray has leached the colour from the fields. Every day we expect winter to come with its usual ferocity, but there is only an occasional tussle with a south-easter to let us know that it is lurking somewhere like a feral cat occasionally stretching out its sharp and savage claws.

About the author

Christine Muir

Christine is a Leith lass, who has lived in North Ronaldsay all her married life, and brought up four children on the croft, with her husband Tommy. She loves languages, history, writing, music, and her family. She also loves the Open University, which encouraged her to study for three degrees, and enabled her to teach, proving that distance is no barrier to learning.