Aurora Borealis, the icy sky at night…
Aw man. Neil Young sang that. It’s the sighing opening line to Pocahontas, one of his best, yet perhaps little-known songs. You though. You knew that already.
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to see the Aurora Borealis. You hear of folk booking Scandinavian get-aways at eye-watering prices, with the promise of seeing the Northern Lights up close and personal, only to return home with empty camera rolls and emptier wallets. There’s half a chance you’ll see them in Scotland, they say, especially the further north you go. It’s not unheard of though to see them on a clear late winter’s night as far south as Dumfries and Galloway.
Being on Ayrshire’s west coast, I’ve always lived in the faint hope that one night I’ll twitch the curtains and see the sky dancing above the neighbour’s house in a multicoloured hue of natural wonder. It’s a far-flung hope that, in the absence of Scandinavian Aurora Tours suddenly reducing their prices to recession-friendly 2023 numbers, I keenly hold onto. You can, then, imagine my flabbergasted seething jealousy and uncontrollable pissed-offness on waking yesterday morning to see my timeline flooded with wobbly amateur shots of yer actual Northern Lights dancing merrily in the skies above Irvine and Saltcoats and Millport and Arran and, y’know, half a dozen other places that are at most a ten minute drive from the room where I am writing this. No. Way. No fucking way. How did I miss it?!
There was Arran, silhouetted in black, the skies above ablaze in Coca-Cola reds and iridescent yellows and neon greens. Irvine Beach lit from above with raspberries and oranges and dancing limes. Ardrossan! Bloody Ardrossan, its skies painted in coppery crimsons and burnt umbers and glowing sage green, like a Farrow & Ball colour chart on heavy psychedelics, the colours of my dreams, red, gold and green, red, gold and green, to quote an old pal of this very blog. Every other photo on my timeline yesterday morning, from the expertly crafted time-lapsed professional shot to the shonkiest but smuggest of one-handed efforts showed a brilliant display of multicoloured, swirling, swaying dancing Aurora-lit Ayrshire skies. And I had slept through it all.
By the time I’d eaten my Cornflakes I’d downloaded an Aurora Watch app. There was a chance they’d return that evening, it said…a slim chance based on cloud cover, or the lack of, but a chance that had to be grasped.
We set out last night around 8 o’clock and headed for Ardrossan’s North Beach. It’s outside the town on the way to Seamill and West Kilbirde, and, now a sudden expert in light pollution, I was sure it would give us the best local chance of seeing them. As an added bonus, the Isle of Arran is just across the water. My mind was already replaying the sort of photos that this shonky amateur photographer would be smuggly sharing come the morning. Yes, the dark silhouette of Arran would provide the ideal contrast to the Holy light show that would part the clouds and have us all gasping, and I would have brilliant pictures to prove it.
Ardrossan North Beach was packed. Like, summer’s day back. Cars were parked randomly and, in the dark, dangerously on grass verges, left abandoned as their occupants scrambled onto the beach for the best possible vantage point. Truth is, anywhere in this part of the world is the ideal vantage point, but it didn’t stop this army of suddenly-expert skygazers to pitch up and stake their spot. There were campfires on the beach, a couple of tents, people out on the rocks, aiming for both solitude and spirituality, to be at one with God whenever he chose to start the show.
Nothing happened. The sky was thick with white cloud. The wind would occasionally blow the Cumulonimbus and Altostratus apart slightly and the crescent moon would poke its way through, teasing us with the promise of a none-more-black sky behind the cloud. No clear sky, no Aurora, they say. And we had no clear sky and definitely no Aurora. It didn’t stop some of our more challenged fellow watchers turning south to take pictures of the glowing sky above Saltcoats, the town’s light pollution (see, expert!) reflecting on the white cloud base to create a glow that, I’m certain, folk will be passing off as yer actual Aurora across social media today.
It’s the fear of being there and yet missing it, isn’t it? Have you ever seen that footage from one of those video bloopers shows, where the camera is trained on the space shuttle and, as the countdown gets to “lift off!” the camera operator swears loudly and quickly turns to their left, only to see a cloud of smoke and fire where the now-launched actual shuttle sat only seconds before? I was convinced that’d be us, looking where we thought was north, oblivious to the sky erupting behind us.
A quick scroll though Twitter confirmed that the light show had started its merry dance in other parts of the world. Gourock, 20 miles up the road had it good. Oban. Arisaig. Ullapool. The Hebrides. The more rural and further north, the better. But still the clouds above us kept their firmly knitted pattern tightly shut. My Aurora app fluctuated between a 6% and 7% chance of seeing any action, but still we, and about a hundred other hopefuls around us, persevered.
It was not to be.
We left around half past ten. Two and a half hours of willing clouds to part and laughing at strangers taking pictures of what was definitely not the Northern Lights and scrolling enviously through Twitter drew to a conclusion and we admitted defeat. We weren’t the first to leave, but we were definitely not the last. I drove home, one eye on the road, the other in my rear view mirror, lest the Lights sneaked out at our expense. I don’t think they ever did.
Super Furry Animals – Northern Lites
Super Furry Animals wrote Northern Lites after being convinced they’d witnessed the phenomena of the Aurora Borealis. One of our best-ever bands, the group’s eclectic, catch-all ethos is put to good use on a track that bursts with steel drums, frothy mariachi trumpet blasts and overlapping Beach Boys harmonies. A scraping guiro provides its Beck-like percussive rhythm, its fuzz guitar and Caribbean rhythmic groove swaying hips to the very end. If only I’d thought to play this last night in Ardrossan, it might’ve summoned up the Aurora to make a fleeting appearance.
I think I’ll try that tonight.