The Christmas lights have come on in Wick. We went to John O' Groats yesterday for a Book Week Scotland event and when we came back they were switched on. Since we came to live in Caithness - nine years ago - the number of lights seems to have dwindled but they are still a delight over Christmas and Hogmanay. We were very excited to find in the early years that our square had pretty festive lights. Gradually they stopped working and they were not replaced. When we enquired about them, the response was slightly more polite than, "Well, are you going to mend them?" Of course we're not. After the initial bruising, we realised that the pretty Narnia-esque lights, which are always shining, are really sufficient. We stood back and admired the spidery silhouettes of the leafless trees and the way the light from the street lamps made maps of them, made artworks and gave gentle illumination for those walking home on a dark evening. There is much more to them than Christmas puds, mock lanterns and bloated robins. The centre of Wick has its display and our square has its light.
When I was small, if you wanted to see the illuminations, you went to Blackpool. A tram ride took us through marvellous ribbons of light, past comic characters and cleverly strung mixtures of toffee-paper-type pictures. Shiny and quite thrilling for adults and children who were used to low wattage light bulbs. Now, illuminations are everywhere - along roads, in parks and on houses. There are various reasons for creating these displays and there are various responses to them. However, one thing for certain is that, whether we know we are doing it or not, it is our way of banishing the darkness through the wintermost weeks of the year. Back in my Axholme childhood, we relied on torches to give us light. Everyone had a torch and we weren't afraid to use it! One had a tremendous sense of power when holding THE torch! What mischief our beastly brothers were able to perform when they switched off the torch. What terror lurked in unlit places! As we grew up we realised that the unlit places were exactly the same as when they had been previously illuminated Nothing to fear then.
So why is it we try to banish darkness? Living in the countryside means clearer night skies. An absence of light pollution. Who doesn't get an uplift from observing the moon, planets and stars? Up in Caithness we are fortunate to be able to see the Aurora Borealis when the conditions are favourable. Even in Wick we are sometimes able to make them out if we keep the artificial light behind us. When we lived in Orkney, we had some amazing displays from our house and we knew when to go outside for a viewing because the television went over to a Norwegian channel. Orkney was my first time. I had never seen the Merry Dancers until I was in my thirties and I wondered how I could have missed all of those years. Over time we have attempted photography - and sometimes succeeded - but we have never been able to improve on those early pictures taken by my husband when we lived in Stenness, Orkney. Many photographers post on Twitter - and their Northern Lights are marvellous - but the memories invoked by those first pictures are capable of producing such emotion that it is impossible to explain their value. The value of Light.