My work at Historic Scotland (which looks after buildings of historic importance) takes me all over the country, but not often enough to Orkney and Shetland, the islands to the north of Scotland. They are quite different in character. Both have one main island and several smaller islands and both have that indefinable quality which islands have, but Orkney is green and fertile, whereas much of Shetland is rugged moors. Why do I like visiting them? It is because, even as a Scot, I find them almost 'foreign', because the landscapes are beautiful, and because the sense of ancient communities is so strong.
In Shetland, the most important is Jarlshof, dating back to the late Bronze Age, but with dwellings from the Iron Age, the Picts and the Vikings. Enough of the 'houses' remain for you to see how the community was set out and, because it sits on a windy headland, how bleak it must have been in the winter. A tip - in the spring and early summer, go to nearby Sumburgh Head and you will see puffins.
Orkney has many sites of historic importance, which is why it is a World Heritage site. The most important is Skara Brae; go there and you will understand what life was like for people in pre-historic times; you can see dwellings which still exist in good condition. Look out to the North Sea, their source of food and their highway. Life was hard then. I also make a point of going to the Broch of Gurness, similar to Skara Brae, but smaller and with fewer visitors, so you may be on your own, the best way to experience a place like this.
There are a number of other must-visit places including the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness. The latter is quite small, almost 'human' in size, but the Ring of Brodgar is imposing - a magnificent circle of upright stones dating from the late Neolithic Age. No one is quite sure why these stones were erected and one cannot imagine how the people - without the machinery which we have - managed to drag the stones to the site and set them upright so that they stand there thousands of years later.
The atmosphere, especially at twilight, is rather mysterious: perhaps the spirits of these people linger there. Maeshowe is the other place I visit. Built more than 5,000 years ago, this small, now empty, tomb, with a high ceiling, was the burial place for a community, and is said to be one of the finest Neolithic buildings in Europe. The entrance was arranged so that on the winter solstice the setting sun shines in and strikes the far wall.
The Vikings came here, and you can see the runic inscriptions left by them - perhaps the earliest examples of graffiti! Visitors are taken into the tomb in small groups so that a guide can point out and explain the inscriptions. You should spend at least three days on Shetland and three on Orkney and an essential item for your stay is the good-value Orkney Explorer Pass; with this in your hand you can visit all the Historic Scotland properties in Orkney.