Orkney has been on the bucket list for many years, with the famous Neolithic ruins of Skara Brae beckoning. However, this is not a tale of prehistoric ruins but of something more recent, totally unexpected and absolutely beautiful both for its art and for its story of human spirit and endurance. It is a place that has to be shared, and thus preserved for future generations.
It is essential to understand the history behind this structure, incongruously situated on a remote, cold, wind-swept island in northern Scotland, before sharing the photographs. This history needs to be built up in layers, so please bear with me.
Orkney has a very deep, natural harbour known as Scarpa Flow. Because of this and its strategic location in the Atlantic, Orkney became a vital naval base during both World Wars I and II. Orkney consists of a multitude of islands which created some vulnerability to the large fleet in Scarpa Flow. During WWI barriers were formed between some of the islands by sinking old ships which became known as ‘block ships’.
At the beginning of WWII (1939), a German U-boat managed to penetrate the block ships and sink a key ship from the Allied fleet, HMS Royal Oak. At this time, Winston Churchill was the Admiral of the Fleet and he decided a more permanent barrier, a series of causeways, should be built. Interned on Orkney were Italian prisoners of war, captured from Tobruk in north Africa, they were a long way from home!
The Italians, initially asked to build the new barriers, refused to perform the work because they saw it as work aiding the war effort. When it was agreed that the barriers would also become roads to link the remote island group, they felt this was a community service and were willing to work. One can imagine that conditions were tough, particularly in the harsh winters, with long hours of hard manual labour in often difficult conditions.
Once Italy capitulated, the POWs were given more freedom and were paid for their work. In 1943 they requested permission and materials to build a chapel so they had a place for worship. They were given two Nissen army huts and access to materials including parts recycled from the block ships. What they achieved with these materials in their “spare time” is extraordinary.
Sometime after the war the people of Orkney traced the painter, (C) in Italy. He returned to Orkney and freely completed some restoration work. Since then, his daughter, who is a singer, has visited the Chapel and performed at Mass.