When you think of Orkney, you probably think of the past.

That’s not unreasonable, to be fair, because there really is a lot of it.

There’s the very old stuff, like Skara Brae, Maeshowe, The Ring of Brodgar, The Knap of Howar, or the Brough of Birsay, as well as the seemingly endless collection of standing stones which are so numerous that some have been wrapped with barbed wire and turned into fence-posts.

Then there’s the more modern history – the AD stuff – like St Magnus Cathedral, Cubbie Roo’s Castle, the Earl’s Palace and Orphir Round Church. Of course, if you prefer your history just a few decades old, you’ve got the Italian Chapel, the Churchill Barriers and the Kitchener Memorial to hold your attention.

The past is everywhere in Orkney – you turn a corner and stumble over it, or look up to find at staring down at you – and that physical connection to history seeps deeply into the culture and identities found here.

But there’s another Orkney – one that, rather than being defined by the past, stands on the cusp of a very different future. This is the Orkney experimenting with hydrogen production and electricity generation, hosting the European Marine Energy Centre and opening the International Centre for Island Technology, and leading the way in a green energy revolution on which we are all going to depend.

Read more: Life skills, seaweed-eating sheep and the life of a Orkney janny

This is not an archipelago set in aspic, nor is it a place that seems content with looking backwards. That being the case, the success of the Orkney International Science Festival (OISF) should come as no surprise.

It all began in 1991, having been inspired by Edinburgh’s decision to host the world’s very first science festival two years earlier. Over the following three decades it has grown and become a key feature of the Orcadian calendar.

This year there were dozens of workshops, talks, presentations and performances to choose from: Professor Karen Johnson of the University of Durham provided an engineer’s perspective on the need to rebuild soil quality; Dr Melanie Windridge spoke about the latest developments in the pursuit of fusion power; Dr Vassilios Spathopoulous told the story of the oldest-known computer, the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism. Attendees could also enjoy concert performances, buffet lunches and walking tours.

And in the middle of all of that was the OISF Family Day, which saw Kirkwall Grammar School transformed into a space where the public could learn all about the science going on around them.

The Herald:

By the time I arrive the hall is already packed and there’s a serious buzz in the air.

The first thing I learn about are stoats, which, despite being very cute, are an enormous problem for Orkney. They only arrived here in 2010, but can already be found across pretty much the whole mainland. Preventing them from spreading further, and eradicating the ones already here, is now a top scientific priority.

The problem with stoats, I’m told, is that they’re “just too good” at what they do, and have no predators here to stop them. Orkney doesn’t have foxes or badgers and, although a bird of prey could certainly eat one, it would be a very risky meal.

As a result, they represent an existential threat to an extremely delicate eco-system, putting at risk not only the animals on which they prey, but also those further up the food-chain who struggle to compete with such a skilled and dangerous incomer.

Thousands of specially designed traps have been sited across the mainland and, because stoats can swim, even more have been used to create protective barriers on smaller islands like Wyre, Eynhallow, How and Shapinsay.

Special dogs for detecting stoats have been brought to Orkney, and locals are asked to report any sighting using a special smartphone app. Nearly 5000 have been captured and killed but there is still a long way to go.

The project, described as the biggest of its kind on an inhabited island, has cost millions so far, and needs millions more to finish the job. The alternative, however, could be much worse, and much more expensive.

Read more: School without uniform has radical ideas on education

The space around me is absolutely jammed full of fascinating exhibits and activities. Alongside my new-found knowledge of stoats, I learn about Orbital Marine Power’s floating turbine, find out about the real-world maths involved behind seashells and ferns, take a VR trip to the top of a wind turbine, watch a mini Mars rover trundle around a simulated surface of the red planet, and use something called a diffraction grating spectroscope to see the difference between natural and artificial light.

Last but not least is the very serious-looking telescope set up in the middle of the room. I presume it’s just on display, given that it is the middle of the day and we are indoors, but the spirit of scientific curiosity has clearly taken hold, and I can’t help having a glance into the eyepiece.

And then another, because that can’t be right, can it?

So I look for a third time and yes, it can be right – it’s a tiny Buzz Lightyear in keyring form, standing in his classic pose, grinning down at me from the balcony.

The fact that I, a 36-year-old man who was only really here for a story, am now grinning back suggests that his mission has been accomplished.