The Merry Dancers
While visiting Orkney (a group of islands to the north of Scotland) earlier this month I heard people talking time and again about The Merry Dancers. Amazingly this is the name that locals give for an astronomical phenomenon all too rarely seen in the south of the UK, but on display regularly above Orkney – the Northern Lights.
I was struck by how dark the skies are in Orkney. Indeed that was the purpose of my trip – to begin working with island communities there so that they can become Dark Sky Places under the International Dark-skies Association programme.
But what also struck me was how connected people there are with the night sky, a connection that is all but lost in most of the rest of light-polluted UK.
I did several talks to public audiences while in Orkney – in Kirkwall, in North Ronaldsay, and in Stronsay – and at each of these talks the locals were full of questions, and I got a chance to speak to many of them afterwards, and it was during these conversations that I got the sense that here were communities still living under a dark night sky, who knew its changing face under the waxing and waning moon, and knew too the marvels that were visible overhead each night.
But time and again I was told about how amazing the “merry dancers” were in Orkney. I had never heard of them before and initially I was confused, as they were being brought up in the context of astronomy and the night sky, but very quickly I came to realise that the Merry Dancers is the name given to the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, by Orcadians.
These are people so in touch with their night sky that they had a pet name for an astronomical phenomenon, and everyone knew them by that name!
The origin of the name is a bit obscure, but in gaelic the Northern Lights are known as Na Fir-Chlis. In Gaelic “Na” is the definite article, while “fir” is the plural of “fair”, meaning man, or one. “Chlis” means quick, lively, or nimble.
So Na Fir-Chlis can be translated as “the nimble ones” or “the lively ones”, which is a suitable name for the Northern Lights. Legend has is that these “nimble ones” were inclined to violence, as in the proverb
When the mirrie dancers play, they are like to slay.
And this gives a clue as to the origin of the phrase “merry dancers”, as they are referred to by many people in Orkney today. It is, in fact, probably a mis-pronouncing of the word “mirrie” which means shimmering, a very suitable description of the Northern Lights.
Thus from Na Fir-Chlis, the nimble / lively ones, we have the sense of motion, of “dancers”, while the description as shimmering, or “merrie”, completes the name, properly The Mirrie Dancers.
That “mirrie” sounds very similar, especially in the Orcadian tongue, to the English “merry” leads to them being called The Merry Dancers, with connotations of happiness, but the name more properly describes their shimmering nature, and as legend has it, they are often far from happy, fighting in the sky and staining the morning moss blood-red!