I stand on deck and watch the island of Hoy slip in and out of the fog.
‘What if we’re last getting off the ferry?’ my husband asks. ‘Or it arrives late?’
‘It won’t,’ I say. Our tickets give us entry to the settlement between ten and ten thirty.
‘I still don’t understand why you booked the earliest slot. You’ve waited this long, what difference would another couple of hours make?’
He’s right, of course. I’ve dreamed of visiting Skara Brae since I was a wee girl. I’m fifty next year. I grasp the ferry’s handrail and gaze into the steely blue ocean. . . .
The opening bars of the Coronation Street theme tune drift upstairs from the living room, which means my mum won’t move from her spot in front of the ironing board for the next half hour. I sneak out of my room, move across the landing to her bedroom and make my way around to her side of the bed. Using both hands, I slide open the top drawer of her bedside table. I know exactly where the necklace is kept. It never moves.
Inside the drawer, a patchwork of colours meets my eyes. One by one, I lift out the small, velvet-covered boxes—green, maroon, navy blue. I make sure to place the boxes on the bed in the order I lift them out of the drawer, but I don’t waste time opening them. I know their contents, have heard their stories. Inside the maroon box is the gold wedding ring that belonged to my dad’s grandmother. It stayed on her finger for fifty-nine years of marriage—she died two weeks before her diamond wedding anniversary. I never met my great-grandmother, but her picture stands on the hall table downstairs. Dad says she’s watching over me from heaven, but that idea terrifies me. I’ve never taken her ring out of the box. Just in case.
The box I’m looking for is plain white. There’s no inscription on the inside, no fancy gold lettering, no velvet.
The simple metal hinge opens smoothly. I lift out my treasure.
There’s excitement on board around me as people scrabble to get a picture of the Old Man of Hoy. The enormous column is right there in front of us, soaring out of the Atlantic Ocean, and I can make out the reds and pinks of each layer of sandstone.
Another, more recent memory comes to mind, and I see my daughter, just seven years old, standing at the front of a paddle steamer, pointing excitedly across the man-made lake to Cinderella’s Castle. She’d spoken of nothing else once we’d shown her the holiday brochure. She turns eighteen next week.
The ferry changes direction and I brace myself against the prevailing wind. The memory of my daughter drifts in and out of focus like the Old Man himself as we leave him behind in the smirr.
The other passengers disappear inside after taking a selfie with the famous sea stack, but I’ve always preferred being outside. Watching the fulmars and gulls glide across the water is preferable to watching fellow passengers stare at phone screens, and my numb fingers and toes have often been rewarded with a glimpse of a dolphin.
Today is no different. Just as I follow a fulmar coasting above the water, I catch a glimpse of black and white beneath the surface. Orca! I step back and widen my gaze to see if there are others, and sure enough, alongside the ferry, two more leap out of the water, playing in the wake before vanishing once again. My heart surges, rising out of my body, singing with the wind, and I raise my hand to the silver necklace. . . .
I’m on my tiptoes in front of my mum’s vanity mirror, admiring the pendant around my neck. It was given to me from my Godmother on the day of my Christening, and I love the weight of it. I also love hearing the stories of the place where it was found. The spiral design was discovered on the fragment of a clay pot used by people who wore animal skins and cooked over open fires. I’ve seen pictures of people like them in my Children’s Encyclopaedia. The necklace is kept safe in my mum’s bedside table because I’m too young to wear it yet, but I’ve been promised that it will be mine to look after once I’m eighteen.
We’re not the last to drive through the colossal metal jaws of the ferry, and it isn’t late either. We follow the sat nav away from the port at Stromness, but it’s soon clear that it’s not needed. There aren’t many roads to choose from, and giant standing stones indicate the route like props from a pantomime set. On the hilltop ahead of us, a circle of standing stones appears. The Ring of Brodgar. The stones look like they’ve been placed by a child playing a game of skittles. No wonder there are stories of giants in this part of the world.
We drive past the Ring of Brodgar and continue along the single-track road to Skara Brae. Once we’ve parked the car, we head inside to the visitor centre and show our pre-booked tickets.
The path from the door to the beach is lined with several strategically placed stone plaques intended to give visitors the sense of stepping back in time. The first plaque tells us that man landed on the moon in 1969, and from there we step back further to the Declaration of American Independence in 1776. But there are no American tourists here today. I look back at the empty space at the very start of the timeline and wonder if, in years to come, a plaque will be placed there which reads, The Great Pandemic of 2020 to—
But today’s not a day for wondering about the future. Today’s a day for living in the past. So I carry on walking, past the Fall of Rome AD 476, the Birth of Christ BC/AD, the Parthenon 480 BC. I pause at the last stone: Pyramids of Giza 2500 BC. I’ve stepped back almost four and a half thousand years, and I’m about to go back further.
I look up.
There it is: my Cinderella Castle.
I can’t believe my luck. The mist has cleared and the grass, sky and sea are the vivid greens and blues of a child’s crayon drawing. Sweeping passageways wind their way through the grassy mound connecting the small group of subterranean houses, and I’m reminded of those pocket money toys where you guide a silver ball bearing to the centre of a maze. I touch the talisman at my neck, tracing the swirls that curl down and inwards like the horns of a ram. Are such horns where the inspiration for the design came from? As a girl I would imagine a woman sitting around a fire, scraping the design into clay, her hair pulled back from her face, lips pursed as she concentrates on keeping her hand steady. Perhaps the pot was to be a gift to her daughter.
My thoughts shift to the young girl who dreamed of coming here, and then to my daughter, and I smile. They would have made good friends.
The walls of the subterranean houses look remarkably fresh, the colours of each stone warm in the bright sunlight. I walk over to the house closest to the sea and look out across the Bay of Skaill. Five thousand years ago, the sea would have been further out, but as the waters have risen they’ve threatened to wash away the memories of those who once lived here, and it’s a race against time to save what is left.
I clutch the pendant. Skara Brae. Roll the sounds around my mouth. Skara Brae. The words come out like an incantation, perhaps the chorus of an ancient song, once sung around the flickering flames of the hearth on a stormy evening. Skara Brae. I say the words again and again, half expecting a tidal wave to rise up and come rushing inland.
skarabrae skarabrae skarabrae
Nothing happens. The gentle hum of a bumble bee carries on somewhere to my left, and the waves continue to shoosh over the shingle on the beach. The walls that were built stone by stone by stone don’t waver. Don’t tumble. I laugh at myself and bend down to pick up a shell. I follow the spiral inwards, my fingers tracing a pattern they know so well. I put the shell in my pocket and raise my camera. I promised my daughter some pictures.
Any Scot can tell you the word brae translates to hill, but no one knows what skara means. And what about the people who lived here, what did they call this place? Did they even give it a name? Skara Brae, I discover, is a place of questions, not answers.