**Above photograph was taken from the same spot I was standing, but during the day (it was too dark to take a decent photo on the night – they did the scene no justice) **
Last Tuesday, I went to bed at 10.15pm. At 10.55pm, I got out of bed, pulled jeans and two hoodies on over the top of my pyjamas, along with a pair of odd socks, a pair of trainers and a woolly hat, then I went to the beach.
I’d received an alert on my phone earlier, telling me the Aurora Borealis was likely. I ignored the alert; the Northern Lights are a common site here, so I’m fairly blasé about them (plus they look nothing like they do in the wondrous, multi-coloured photos plastered all over the internet), but I couldn’t sleep and for a reason that I can’t quite fathom, I wanted to go and look for them. A glance out my spare bedroom window suggested they might be visible round to the right of my house, so on went the dodgy ensemble gathered mostly from the laundry basket, and off out I went.
But no. It was just strips of cloud lit up by the waning moon, not long past her full phase, so very bright. Stupid moon. I’d been caught out by her before, as moonlit clouds are not dissimilar to the Aurora. Plus, the brighter the moon, the less visible the Aurora are, so the chances of seeing them were slim.
At the point, I could have gone back inside, but the sound of the sea was alluring. I couldn’t see it in the darkness but it was just twenty or so metres away, and despite the chilly, still night, it sounded ferocious.
And it was. The sea alone had been worth getting out of bed for. The tide was high, almost right up to the bottom of the esplanade, from where I looked down onto the beach which had all but disappeared. Spits of seawater hit my face as the foamy tide rattled the pebbles on the shore whenever it ebbed, the sound just audible above the roar of the breakers out in the bay. We get impressive waves here anyway; most surfers will tell you that, but that night, they were huge. To hear the sound, and witness the height of them, with no light except paltry streetlights that couldn’t cast a shine beyond the tide line, was immense. White noise, black waves with stark white tips and an angry playfulness that was at complete odds with the calm night. It seemed like the sea was putting on this random, late night performance but hadn’t told anyone. I stood there, transfixed. There was no one else around and the darkness was full of the sound. There was a strange, unreal quality to it all, and I felt I was watching something I shouldn’t have seen.
Only when I finally managed to tear my eyes away from the mesmirising, rhythmic waves, did I notice the familiar shifting greenish-grey arcs of light, stark over Orkney. The alert was right, and the moon was so far out of the way that the Aurora were perfectly visible in the black sky. I stood for a while longer, watching the lights dance and listening to the sea rumble, before heading back to bed.
On Wednesday morning, my van windscreen was frozen for the first time since February, and I could smell peat smoke on the chilly air. It was as if autumn had transitioned into winter overnight and I’d somehow been witness to it. Nature coming to life and unleashing its wildest, most secret beauty when it thinks we’re all asleep. I felt honoured to have seen what I did, and it reminded me that in some respects I really do live an unusual, privileged life up in this tiny, bleak corner of Scotland.