exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

Na Fir-chlis: The Tale of the Nimble Folk and the Merry Dance

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Long, long ago, in the lands to the north, a mither and her son sat together in front of the hearth as the gloaming fell and the hoar frost paled the land outside. The steam from mugs of buttered brose rose and mingled with the steam from the pulley above the fire, heavy with socks and mitts and ganseys, the air so thick with damp and stoor you could chew it.

Mither took up her spindle and her basket of wool fluff like a dun cloud and began to twist the fibres between her fingers. As she teased out and spun her yarn longer and longer, she spun a story along with it, as she so often did.

“Calum, son,” she said, “let me tell you about the angels who were cast out of heaven and fell to earth in the time before time. Those who fell to the land became the Sith, the fairy race; those who were dashed on the rocks became echoes, and can still be heard when the waves are quiet; those who landed in the churning sea became seals, or the selkie folk; and those who remained in the sky became the Nimble Folk of Na Fir-chlis, the Northern Lights.

In the dark half of the year, the Nimble Folk come forth to hold their merry dances. They are bigger than mountains, as wan as ewe’s milk and as dark as peat, and their huge stature belies their elegance. Fairy pipers play enchanting music as the Nimble Folk whirl and prance and leap across the skies, lighting it up with all kinds of colours. It is the most wondrous thing you ever did see.

But peace is never kept for long in the kingdom of the Nimble Folk, and as the old proverb says: when the merry dancers play they are like to slay. Many a battle has been fought in the sky above the shore, and the blood of the giants falls like rain upon the land below and the sea between as their great weapons clash and their colours flash across the night.”

A chill went through Calum as he listened to his mither’s words, and after a time he bade her goodnight and took to his bed. It was a fitful sleep, his dreams invaded by bloodthirsty giants and blazing lights, and when he woke the next morning he was fair tired.

He wrapped up good and warm and spat in the smoored hearth on his way past to ensure good luck with the sea that day.

Dèan sgaite aig an iasgach!” his mother called to him as he set off for the shore. “Make a good catch!”

Calum spent his day casting and hauling his nets. It was hard work, and he grew wearier and wearier as each hour passed. His restless sleep of the previous night came back to haunt him, and by the time the sun began to dim in the sky, he was bone-tired.

“I’ll just close my eyes for five minutes, then I’ll pull in the last net,” he thought to himself, the steady rhythm of the slate grey waves rocking and soothing him like a lullaby.

He woke with a start.

How much time had passed he couldn’t be sure. Darkness cloaked the land but the sky was bright, and remnants of his dreams came back to him – bursts of colour burning in the night. He yawned and stretched in the cold air, waiting for his eyes to adjust, but the light refused to dim. He rubbed his eyes with his balled fists, then opened them as wide as he could, batting his eyelids to clear away the last remnants of sleep, but the wider he opened his eyes the brighter the colours became. He blinked and blinked and blinked again until at last he began to comprehend what he was seeing – the Nimble Folk were making their way across the sky.

The huge figures were radiant as they stepped and spun and flitted around each other with a grace Calum could not have imagined. The whole of the night was illuminated with their merry dance, great arcs of green in every shade curving across the sky as the Nimble Folk shimmered and frolicked against a backdrop of stars. Ribbons of turquoise and teal undulated among them, while vast magenta clouds and bands of gold streaked across the horizon.

As the soft beams of the aurora flickered across his face and began to disappear back into the darkness, Calum felt a peace like he never had and he sighed deeply, breathing in the familiar tang of salt and fish. He could not wait to tell his mither what he had seen.

But then, in a single beat of his heart, the whole scene changed.

The fading figures were suddenly brighter than ever and the once gentle hues blazed as they materialised anew in the darkness. From every great hand sprang a lightning bright sword blade or a lance as clear and polished as an icicle, the ghostly weapons slashing and hacking in the fray of spectral shapes that rushed back and forth across the pulsating sky.

Swathes of crimson began to smear the heavens, and below the feet of the Nimble Folk a monstrous red cloud formed. Drops of blood began to fall, settling like dew on the green shore stones and tainting rock and boulder alike. 

The weather turned as the celestial battle raged on and on. Surging winds blew in from the north and the sea began to churn.  The crest of a wave splashed over the bow of Calum’s boat, landing on the deck in an explosion of red and leaving a dark stain on the wood. Calum took a closer look at the roiling sea and to his horror he realised that the water was thick with the blood of the Nimble Folk. In his great shock, he collapsed back against the side of the boat and saw no more of that terrifying night.

The tempest gave way to a beautiful morning. The sun hung low in a crisp blue sky, and the sea was calm and clear, with no sign of the battle that had taken place the night before. Calum awoke to find himself drifting just a short way off from the shore, and if it hadn’t been for the stain that marred the wooden deck of his boat, he might have thought his memory of the Nimble Folk to be just another dream.

As he waded his way through the shallows and up on to the shore, a splash of colour caught his eye amongst the grey and white pebbles of the beach. It was as smooth and green as an elder leaf and flecked with scarlet – a bloodstone.  Calum lifted the glossy gem into the air, holding it up to catch the sunlight for a better look.

The world shifted.

The scene in front of him blurred and changed. The landscape remained the same but two men appeared out of thin air, as diaphanous as gauze, hauling an equally filmy boat that Calum knew to be his own onto the beach. They were laughing together, easy in each other’s company, and working in tandem at a task that had clearly been practiced many times.

As Calum looked closer he noticed that the face of one of the men was very familiar, with hazel eyes and a bright smile that he knew better than any other – it was his own, five or perhaps ten years older. As he marvelled at what he was seeing, the pair secured the boat and he watched his future self turn and embrace his companion, their bodies pressed close and fitting together perfectly. They drew apart and shared a kiss, the love between them as clear as the cloudless sky, before the vision dissolved and the empty beach returned.

Calum set off running across the stony sand towards home. He was eager to tell his mither what had happened and what he had just learned: that those who witness the battle dance of the Nimble Folk are gifted with second sight. He could not stop smiling.