Fun fact. Did you know there’s only two seasons in Orkney? Six months of Winter and six months of bad weather. That’s not really true, of course, but someone said it to me when I said I was planning a trip up there and it stuck in my mind. On the third day of the holiday, when we woke up to high winds and low temperatures, I did think there was a grain of truth in it. Mr THL declared the weather ‘not that bad’, but his work has taken him from the Falkland Islands to the Canadian Prairies in the depths of Winter so nothing much bothers him. No such thing as the wrong weather and all that. Nothing to do but wrap up and head out.
Orkney is well known for it’s Neolithic remains and Viking history, but this little family of islands also played an important role in both World Wars. Hoxa Head is a stark reminder of turbulent times, a cliff top home to what remains of watch towers, gun emplacements and concrete bunkers. What can be seen is just part of what once stood, but skeletal bases of former accommodation huts give a sense of the camp that was.
Hoxa Head is wind swept, remote and parts are close to collapse. I’m not averse to a bit of off limits exploring and rarely put off by a Do Not Enter sign, but I took one look and decided to behave myself. It was worth the effort, though, to see a bit of Orkney military history while it stands, and for the views across to neighbouring islands. Sturdy footwear and a sense of adventure recommended.
The Italian Chapel.
The Italian Chapel, on the tiny island of Lambholm is the result of one of the most moving human stories of the island’s wartime history.
The modest white building is all that remains of the site of Camp 60, home in the later years of WW2 to Italian prisoners of war. Captured in the North African Campaign, the men were sent to Orkney to help build the Churchill Barriers, the concrete structures that sealed the way into Scapa Flow. The prisoners set about carving a home out of a camp, and being men of faith, a place of worship was important.
With the support of the authorities, two Nissen huts were joined together. The transformation from industrial huts to place of worship began with the vision of one artistic prisoner, Domenico Chiocchetti. He found skilled hands in his fellow prisoners; electricians, cement workers, metal workers. The corrugated iron of the huts was hidden with plaster-board, the alter moulded in concrete. Behind the alter, Chiocchetti’s masterpiece. Madonna and Child, inspired by a picture he’d carried with him throughout the war.
A simple desire to have a place to worship grew into something special in the hands of the Italian POW’s. Despite a shortage of materials, scrap brass and iron was found to make candelabra. Wood from a wrecked ship for the tabernacle. Money came via a prisoners welfare fund to purchase curtains for the sanctuary. By the time the prisoners left in 1944, a façade had been created to mask the original outline of the huts, complete with a red clay image of Christ. A thick coat of cement had been added to the exterior. Two humble Nissen huts had been transformed into a chapel that wouldn’t look out of place on an Italian hillside.
After the war Camp 60 disappeared, but the Chapel remained. Orcadians took over stewardship and over time the Italian Chapel grew into a visitor attraction. By the late 1950’s, with the chapel growing in fame but deteriorating in condition, the issue of preservation had to be addressed. A preservation committee was formed and repairs carried out, funded by visitor donations.
In 1960, as the result of the dedication of a local committee and generous assistance from the BBC, Domenico Chiocchetti was traced to his home in Moena, Italy. He returned to Orkney for a three week visit. With assistance from a local craftsman, Chiocchetti restored some of his original paintwork and supervised other repairs. A service was held to celebrate the restoration attended by Orcadians of all denominations. Chiocchetti was the first to receive Holy Communion.
Since the 1960 restoration, the relationship between Moena and Orkney has endured and the Italian Chapel has grown into a must-see for visitors to the islands. It stands as a tribute to the spirit of the Italian builders and the Orcadians.
Domenico Chiocchetti died at home in Italy in 1999, but in a letter to the islanders, he wrote, ” The Chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve”. The people of Orkney have stepped up beautifully caring for the Chapel and nurturing the friendships it created.
If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend visiting the Italian Chapel and seeing it for yourself. It’s something so unique and special. Before our trip, I’d wanted to visit for a long time. So this post is a bit of a passion piece for me, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.