As an archaeologist, I am often asked which place or period I would visit if I had access to a time machine.
I usually start my reply by saying I would be disinclined to go to any place or time before the invention of modern anaesthetics and painkillers. The idea of toothache in a world without modern dentistry is similarly unappealing.
Bearing those caveats in mind, I might however be persuaded to step inside that time machine and set the coordinates for Orkney during the Neolithic or ‘New Stone Age’ around five and a half thousand years ago.
It was from that time onwards that the inhabitants of the islands were busy – almost insanely busy – with the business of designing and building great monuments of stone. There on an archipelago far from what most us would consider the centre of civilisation at that time, the farmers were seemingly in thrall to the cosmos. They had looked up into the sky and become fascinated with the movement of the sun and the moon, with the flight of the planets across the dark. The seemingly uncountable numbers of stars, in a night sky unpolluted by artificial lights preoccupied them too. They were a people determined to make sense of the universe and their place within it.
Ring of Brodgar - Donna Thompson
And so they set themselves the task of building all manner of special places to help them understand the wonder of it all. Those structures that have survived into the modern era are rightly famous all over the world – the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and many more besides.
A more recent discovery is the Ness of Brodgar, a wonderfully complex site where archaeologists are working now to uncover and to understand the remains of a whole range of buildings including one huge structure dubbed the ‘temple’ of Orkney.
The people who built those ritual sites lived in settlements like the one at Skara Brae – another wonder of the world.
Skara Brae - © P.Tomkins/VisitScotland
Blessed with access to that time machine, I would go back just to watch the work in progress. Perhaps I would find the way and the words to ask the most important questions of all: “Why did you build these places? What are they for?”
Orkney still feels like the edge of the world – somewhere unfamiliar and strangely ‘other’. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been there now – and I hope to keep going back for many years to come, just to soak in the atmosphere of that most special of locations. Many of the most fascinating sites are on Mainland Orkney, easily accessible from the youth hostel at Kirkwall. I cannot recommend a visit highly enough.
Kirkwall on Orkney is just one of SYHA's island youth hostels. Others well worth a visit for an island adventure include Skye (Portree, Glenbrittle, Broadford), Mull (Tobermory), Islay (Port Charlotte) and Arran (Lochranza). Also great for exploring Scotland's coastline are Durness Smoo, Achmelvich Beach, Ullapool, Gairloch Sands, Inverness and Oban.