‘WE’RE going to use the cross-runway today,” says the pilot, barely a minute after take-off. And then we descend. Sharply. We skim just over a stone wall and touch down on the grass. Coming to a halt on the edge of the runway he turns and says: “Welcome to Papa Westray”.

It’s a fittingly dramatic introduction to this beguiling Orcadian isle, an outpost alive with Viking and Neolithic ghosts, woven together by a stirringly strong sense of community.

I’m staying at Papa Westray’s trim community-run hostel, which is just a short walk from the landing strip – most things in Papa Westray are just a short walk as this island is only four miles long and not even a mile wide.

“We’ve a real sense of community on Papa Westray,” the warden, Jennifer, tells me. “Visitors are very welcome too. We’re celebrating Johnsmas tonight, so come along to the bonfire and join us for the walk when we follow the setting sun.”

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After rustling up lunch using veg in the local shop that comes from the community garden and salmon from the neighbouring isle of Westray, I meet another cheery local, Jonathan (it’s all first names on Papa Westray). He’s better known as the Papay Ranger, who sweeps visitors off on brilliant day tours that really open up the island.

I join Jonathan for a hike around the RSPB North Hill Reserve, which protects around one-third of the island. He expertly points out the puffins, fulmars and Arctic skuas swirling around the sea cliffs, all the time keeping an eye out for marine mammals. He also shows me the modest monument to the last great auk, which was killed for a collector on the isle in 1813. Jonathan is currently working on a new, more fitting memorial.

On my own now, I push on through a straggle of houses that fail to really become a village – past the cute wee school and post office and sheep-dotted fields, past the white sandy sweeps of South Wick and North Wick. I’m in search of St Boniface Kirk, a quick heft across the island.

One of the oldest still-in-use churches in northern Scotland – indeed one of the region’s oldest Christian sites – it dates back to the 12th century but was left to fall into ruin in 1930.

Impressively, it has been resurrected with the help of the community, weaving new materials with traditional construction techniques. The graveyard is fascinating too, especially the 12th-century Viking hogback gravestone. There are more recent Viking excavations on Papa Westray, too, in the north-east, where work is still ongoing.

History is never far away on Papa Westray, as I discover at St Boniface. Just below the graveyard, by the nesting fulmars, are a collage of Neolithic ruins, what would have been a number of houses that have been lost to the sea. It’s just me, the birds and the thunder of the waves today. Just metres away is an altogether more impressive Neolithic site, I’d go as far as to say my favourite Neolithic gem in Scotland – the Knap of Howar.

I sometimes joke in articles that Skara Brae on Orkney makes Stonehenge look like IKEA. Well if that’s true the Knap of Howar on Papa Westray makes the more famous Skara Brae look like IKEA too. Carbon dating in the 1990s has shown it may be up to half-a-millennia older, making the Knap one of the oldest Neolithic sites in Europe, the oldest preserved stone house in north Europe.

You won’t forget your first sight of Knap Of Howar. Past a field dotted with cows, wedged on the very edge of the sea on a wild and wildly beautiful coast, sits this time machine.

It looks like its inhabitants have just recently left – you can still make out where they slept, warmed around their hearth and sat relaxing at night.

It’s a deeply humbling experience connecting with the ancient past like this. And the sheer joy is being able to eke through the door and actually explore the homes – a joy you can no longer have at Skara Brae and most of Europe’s more illustrious prehistoric sites. The history here is not hidden behind Perspex: it’s alive, accessible and tangible.

It’s always rude to turn down an invite to a party so at night I join the community hunkered around the bonfire tucking into home-baked scones and good cheer.

We troop off in the shadow of the ancients down to the Knap of Howar, where the musical instruments come out and provide a background to the main show of the sun casting a peachy orange and burning red glow over the almost 6000 year-old home.

It’s an experience far more dramatic than any flight and one that will forever burn in my heart and soul, an experience that is very Papa Westray.