Deep in the bowels of the National Museum of Scotland there is a little visited room. Even on a wet Saturday afternoon, it is always empty. This is part of the magic. The entrance is not obvious and, if stumbled upon, appears uninviting. An opening in a wall marks the start of a dark and sloping tunnel, the only light source the soft glow from an inset display cabinet full of skulls. At the foot of the slope a twisted bog-oak figurine stands guard.
I do not know whether it is by accident or design, though I suspect the latter, that the room echoes the inner chamber of a burial mound or cist; small, round, windowless, it is a space dedicated to the sacred. In cases around the outer walls are offerings from the past, worked bones, shards of precious glass, amulets and talismans worn smooth by the caresses of habit, of hope. In the centre, a circle of stones stands, runic carved.
It is with the stones that the power lies. In the gloom their presence hums and it takes only a small leap of the imagination, in the darkness and the solitude, to picture yourself in the company of their creators. They are enigmatic in their silence. We can guess at their meaning but the people who hewed them, dragged them upright from their slumber in the earth’s embrace, have left no written record. The stones alone are their legacy, their message to the future. And because there is no writing, no obvious explanation, we must look within ourselves to find understanding, the spider fine thread that binds us to our ancestors, the sacred and the profound that remains unchanged in our core, our humanity.
I always leave the room with a sense of calm, as though something fundamental has been re-set. A discreet staircase leads from the basement where the collection is kept to the bright spaciousness of the entrance hall. I emerge, blinking, back in to the present day, a piece of the past carried with me in my heart. It is a shame that the stones and the rest of the artifacts in the Early Peoples exhibit seem to get so few visitors, if you are ever passing seek them out, you may be treated to a glimpse of yourself.