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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.

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!

  1. October 17, 2012 at 01:29

    dear steve, i’m interested to visit orkney, hoping to see the merry dancers, but i cant find any information about it as to how reliable and often the lights can be seen? is there a high chance to see it in mid december?? please advise! thanks!

    • October 17, 2012 at 08:38

      There’s no way to guarantee that you’ll see the merry dancers I’m afraid but there are ways to maximise your chances:

      1. Go in December when the nights are longest and you get many hours of perfect darkness which makes seeing them easier.
      2. Go during the dark of the moon. 6-10 Dec is fine (moon only up in small hours before dawn), 11-15 Dec is better (moon not up at all), 16-21 Dec is ok but not ideal (moon up in evening but not in small hours before dawn).
      3. If you’re flexible when you go, and can get there in a day, watch spaceweather.com and wait for the Kp index to get up to 6, with predictions of good aurora, then head straight away to Orkney.
      4. Although most of Orkney is really dark there are parts of it on the mainland that are overlit at night, so stay somewhere outside, and north of, Kirkwall. The further north the better, and you might think about heading to one of the more remote, beautiful northern isles of Orkney. Make sure wherever you’re going that there isn’t a bright light (like a lighthouse!) to the north.
      5. Plan other things too! If you’re there in mid Dec it’s a great time to visit Maes Howe and see the midwinter sunset inside the 5000 year old burial chamber, or the small but much more peaceful Quoyness on the island of Sanday.

      Have fun!

  2. October 18, 2012 at 01:47

    great! thanks so much for that steve!

  3. February 16, 2014 at 05:11

    Thank you very much for the clear information on the “mirrie dancers”. I’m writing a fantasy story set in the Outer Hebrides, and this fits right in with the story being told. One never knows where useful information will come from nor where it will go. Blessings on your Dark Sky project!

    • February 16, 2014 at 09:53

      You’re welcome, Jessica. Let me know when you’re finished your book!

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