open country

I have a ring which I wear most days. The significance of this item is great; I hold a lot of treasure here. It is a thick round of silver, on top it is moulded into two spirals holding the tips of two diamonds, one elongated.

The ring is not classically beautiful – rather than symbolising metal, for me, it symbolises stone. For almost four years it was missing, somewhere in an Edwardian tenement flat in Glasgow. Unbelievably it reappeared and was sent to me.

When I had moved into the Yarrow Valley, the ring arrived in a box with a gold ring. I tossed the gold band to the side – my beautiful Orcadian ring had returned to me to greet the new person that had emerged from me when I first went to work in the Southern Uplands.

In 1988 my father was taking a botanical trip to the Himalayas. He asked if I would like to go but the vastness weighed on my imagination and I stayed at home. My mother decided that we would take my Nana to the Orkneys and the Shetlands.

I was transfixed. These islands lie north of Scotland like giants’ stepping stones to Scandinavia. When the ferry sails up to the Orkney Islands, there is a certain grace in the movement, a gentleness in the topography. The high cliffs act as a wall to a kingdom dripping with archaeology up on the long fertile green lands.

After my first visit, I returned to the Orkneys twice. All three trips were different both in terms of the accommodation – hotel versus canvas – and my travelling companions – family versus friends. However, the common ground was my immersion into the remnants of our prehistoric ancestors.

A life in ruins – strangely, the title of a workshop I attended recently. Of the four sessions throughout the day, I had left this intriguingly named one until last. I imagined that it would be about the loss of animal habitats. However, the first things that greeted me were large images of standing stones that I immediately recognised – the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness.

I do not think that there is one stone from these monuments I would not recognise. I have walked around them many times, run my hand over the obeliscal stands, sketched them, painted them (even with glue and gold dust), photographed them and read about the theories of the difficulties stone-age man conquered to create them.

When I had momentarily quelled my excitement and seated myself, I soon realised as I was in good company as one of the ladies exclaimed, “You are even wearing a Skara Brae ring!” She spoke with a warm Orcadian accent that sings like the sea rising and falling with its swell – governed by the moon.

Sandra and Elaine, I discovered, have been employed by Historic Scotland, based on Orkney for six years. They have built up the ranger service there largely on their own terms because there was no ranger service there before. They had brought some treasure from the islands to show us.

The artefacts may only be reproductions that are predominantly made in the same natural materials as the originals but they were just as precious to me. Their worth was born of the enthusiasm from these womenand their love and sense of place.

I felt like a child picking up the beads and the sword, the hammer and the comb; most strange of all was a small wooden board and a round of glass the size of my palm. The reason the two items were placed together on the table is because the glass round was a linen smoother and the board a Viking ironing board.

The Scar plaque was found in a boat burial on the chest of a woman, the original was made of whale bone. Although there have been many found in Norway it is a rare find in Britain. Just as the artefacts that are found on Orkney are often rare and beautiful examples so are the people. I hold treasure there.