Why I wrote Skara
Since the late 1970s I have yearned to write a Neolithic epic set in Orkney. I began it after a Christmas Eve walk on Birsay Beach with my wife, Sigrid. We watched the redshanks running in the ebb and across the wet sands. I said, ‘At last I have the beginning and end of my book. It starts with a tsunami and ends with one’. I began Skara that evening, introducing Shala, her family and fellow villagers. By then I had decided that the first great wave would be described as a race memory in later storytelling. This is where the powerful character of Wrasse appears. Two days later, the huge tsunami hit Indonesia.
Skara, with Shala and Oiwa, is the first novel in this series. It sets the scene for momentous movements in knowledge and political power in Orkney. But first, the Isles were suffering from inbreeding. These dangers had to be countered, hence the spiritual insights of Shala and Wrasse – I firmly support race memory and the predictive force of dreams, having experienced these in quite abrupt and physical ways. From Skara Brae or Birsay, gazing west across the Atlantic, the next stop is unimaginably distant. This is from where I chose the hero, Oiwa, to travel. He had his reasons, as you will discover, and underwent terrible yet wondrous adventures.
My inspiration for the series has been my lifelong interest in archaeology. I have always earnestly believed that Orkney was a great centre of knowledge and culture, influencing world thinking at a time when early civilisations were about to burgeon, but there is virtually no material evidence to back this up. Only when you think deeply about the sites, the dates in world history and how the islanders were modern people in their time, at the forefront of technical advances and natural wisdom, does the notion become plausible.
The skills of people who use early technologies also fill me with inspiration. Their efficiency of movement, style and concentration bring spectacular results and the simple, yet effective ‘struggle for mere existence’ becomes a rich, rewarding lifestyle. I always tend to look at evidence with an alternative view and my experiments in ancient pottery, cooking and material culture have given me skills and knowledge of the past. I enjoy putting flesh on ancient bones, brains in their skulls, hunger and satisfaction in their bodies and, of course, love and lust in their hearts. I feel that many archaeologists tend to de-personalise the lives of people from the past and misinterpret perfectly ordinary discoveries as ritual. My characters are intensely practical in the way they live. Cult is there, but takes second place to real life.
There is an old Orkney expression, ‘If it’s hard work, you’re doing it wrong’. We look back assuming everything in the distant past was difficult and survival was tortuous. Yet, as the great explorer John Rae discovered, if you take your example from the locals, there is always a right way, and a time and place to work miracles.