Winston Churchill and Orkney have history together. Thanks to this astounding British Prime Minister, so perfect for his time in history, you can go see a Neolithic Burial Tomb and a Chapel brimming with stunning art created by Italian POWs. They’re spread over several islands, but today, you can get there easily by car: just drive across the Churchill Barriers!
Location, location, location
Invaders, attackers and conquerors alike have long realized the strategic importance of this group of islands off of Scotland’s northernmost coast. Inhabited for thousands of years, Orkney has seen them come, go and stay, from ancient Celtic settlers to Viking warriors to the onslaught of World Wars I and II. They all left their marks, from Neolithic stone circles still standing today to invisible traces of DNA in the local population, where many feel closer to Scandinavia than the United Kingdom.
When U-Boats attack
Orkney was a crucial port for the British Fleet in WW2. They had all kinds of Navy ships here – but the Germans had U-boats. On October 14, 1939, like a lone wolf, the U-47 snuck in through the narrow strait between Mainland and Lamb Holm. Maintaining deadly silence, Captain Günther Prien maneuvered his boat through Kirk Sound into Scapa Flow, with admirable seamanship. He craftily used the tides and negotiated his way through an array of anti-submarine nets and sunken block ships. Then, he wreaked havoc.
For whom the bell tolls
Undetected, the U-47 torpedoed the aging but still proud Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak, part of the British Grand Fleet of WWI, moored in the waters of Scapa Flow. The U-47 escaped the same way, unharmed, but over 800 British sailors perished in the attack in these cold northern waters.
The Bell of the Royal Oak is on solemn display in Kirkwall’s Saint Magnus Cathedral, and the wreck of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow is an official War Grave.
Churchill launches counter-measures
In 1939, at the time of the assault on HMS Royal Oak, a gentleman by the name of Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty. In charge of the British Navy, Churchill promptly ordered a “never again” project to close off those dire straits in Orkney. Engineering design started immediately and construction began in May, the month when Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10th, 1940.
Building what would become known as the Churchill Barriers was a huge project. Thousands of laborers put down a seabed foundation of broken rock from local quarries. Huge concrete blocks were then placed on that, in a randomized pattern, to make them break the vicious Orcadian waves rather than be pounded head-on.
Bridges to somewhere
The blockade worked: no U-boat ever hit a ship in port here again. And, unintended consequences, the causeways built on top of the 4 Barriers provided the Orcadians – and us visitors – with an easy connection between five islands! You can drive from Mainland to Lamb Holm, Glims Holm, Burray and finally South Ronaldsay, the island with Orkney’s third-largest town.
Fun fact: To put things in perspective, St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay is Orkney’s third-largest town indeed – with a population of just over 500! For the fact-obsessed, Stromness is number two with just over 2,000 and Kirkwall number one with a whopping 9,000. More on Kirkwall in a future blog post.
And now, for something completely different: drive south across Churchill Barrier No 1 from Mainland to Lamb Holm, and look left: for a brief moment, you’ll think you’re in Italy!
In WW2, Orkney was used to detain over a thousand Italian POWs, Italy being on the wrong side at the start of WW2. But, these guys were conscripts, not hardcore zealots. They were run of the mill workers, masons and craftsmen, fathers and brothers, forced to enlist – or else. Having no choice, they went to fight – but their heart wasn’t in it. What their heart was into was their faraway family, their religion and their art.
The good chaps of the Chapel
The Italian POWs started to improve their dreary surroundings by creating a statue of St. George slaying the dragon – perhaps a hidden nod to wishing for an end to this horrible War. The inscription looks like “P. di C. 7-8-1843” but the “C” is rather thick and probably a “G”, as in “P. di G.”: Prigioniero di Guerra, Italian for POW.
Huts to Heavens
Domenico Chiocchetti was a craftsman from Moena in the Dolomites, Under his leadership, the Italians built a stunningly beautiful chapel out of two old connected Nissen Huts. It was partly to honor their religion with art, and partly in appreciation for the most decent and civilized treatment they received from the British in general, and the Orcadians in particular.
Look at the sides of the building and you can see the tunnel-like half-cylinder of the Nissen Huts structure. But look straight-on from the front, and what you see is an intricately carved and decorated gabled Chapel. Then, after you purchase your ticket, and perhaps donate a bit extra, step inside for a jaw-dropping experience.
Oh Brothers Where Art Thou
The artwork, the detail, the love that so obviously went into the Italian Chapel inside and out will wrench your heart. Think about this being built in the midst of unimaginable worldwide suffering; so much pain, brutality, inhuman behavior. Yet somehow a monument to something higher came out of all that, here at the water’s edge on a small windswept Orkney island, so close to where the Royal Oak went down. From enemies to brothers in arms to brothers in art.
What’s in a name
The Chapel has become a top attraction in the Orkneys, a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Domenico Chiocchetti came back to Orkney twice, in the sixties, before getting progressively ill and assisted with restorations. In a 1960 speech here, he spoke of how the Chapel symbolized love and kindness. And in all sincerity, he thanked the Orcadians for their warm hospitality: a former POW!
Domenico passed away in 1999 and in 2014, his daughter visited Orkney to mark the Chapel’s 70th anniversary, singing at a Requiem Mass. Her name could not be more appropriate: Angela.
Fun fact: the website for the Chapel was perhaps not built as lovingly as the Chapel itself: it reroutes to just a business directory entry! So, I’m providing links to more Chapel detail via Visit Scotland and Visit Orkney.
Not ferry far to go now
Continuing south over Churchill Barriers numbers 2, 3 and 4, your final island is South Ronaldsay. Not far at all – but the road will narrow and wind as you go, and the northern stretch can be surprisingly busy. St. Margaret’s Hope here is the ferry port for the Pentland Ferries route to Gills Bay. Check out my earlier blog about this shortest car ferry route between Scotland and the Orkneys, operated with a stable catamaran.
The accidental farmer
Sometimes – or perhaps often – discoveries happen by accident. And that was the case in finding the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay. One day in 1958, farmer Ronnie Simison was in his fields clearing out rocks in a far corner near the sea. He literally stumbled onto – or rather into – a cave that was filled with skulls!
A Whiter Shade of Pale
Simison called in archaeologists, and the cave turned up thousands of pale human bones! They started digging and also found remains from hundreds of eagles, the White Tailed Sea Eagle to be precise. The archaeologists determined it was a Neolithic Burial Tomb, some 5,000 years old but, mysteriously, the eagles were dated to up to a thousand years later: evidence the Tomb remained in use for over a thousand years!
Rust, Bronze and Stone
The Visitor Centre is your first stop. Get your tickets here, have look at the displays and check on the schedule for presentations by a local expert. For now or later, the Centre also boasts a nice little gift shop and offers refreshments.
To see the Cave, walk through the fields, just over a mile as I recall. You’ll pass by an old WW2 German ambulance shed rusting away in a field next to a 3,000 year old Bronze Age stone grouping with the remains of a building, perhaps used for cooking, on your way to the Tomb itself.
Upside down you turn me
The Tomb is more of a cairn or mound, above ground, yet it requires a bit of agility to get into! Access is only via a narrow little tunnel at ground level, 28 inches wide and 33 high, about 10 feet long – and dark!
To get in, there’s a flat auto-shop style flat board with wheels. Lie flat on that, on your back, and pull yourself into the Tomb using the overhead rope. If that’s too freaky, lie on your stomach and use your hands to push and pull. Or, skip the cart altogether and crawl in and out Infantry-style!
Inside the Tomb
The cart does provide some access control, which is good, because the Tomb is rather small. Space is limited to just a few people. No danger or darkness here though: the new-built ceiling is some 10 feet high, skylights have been put in and it’s reinforced with struts. You’ll see the drystone walls but alas, of course the skulls and bones are long gone.
There’s a small semi-separated chamber of undetermined purpose at the far end, to your right as you go in on your back – or to your left if on your stomach: directions get confusing this way!
I hiked the Cliff Walk back and got caught in one of Orkney’s rapid weather changes. The skies darkened and rain started sputtering. I don’t know if it was because of the rain but, seal heads started popping up above the waves. They’d look around, check stuff out, then dive down again, very adorable! Pretty far down from the cliffside but I managed to snap a few decent telephoto shots. In spring and summer, you’ll also see lots of wildflowers here.
Back at the Visitor Centre near closing time – note their opening hours differ between seasons – we hopped out of the rain into the car. Driving back to Kirkwall over those same Churchill Barriers, we had a final peek at St. Margaret’s Hope on the left and the Italian Chapel on the right.
Fine art, First Nations
But wait, there’s more! Just back onto Mainland, at the end of Churchill Barrier No 1 at Holm, lo and behold, we saw a large Totem pole! We’re quite familiar with them after two decades of living in Alaska, and it looked very authentic. We just had to pull over, curious as to the what and why in this unexpected setting.
It’s all about community
Turns out this Totem pole is the result of a Parish of Holm community art project, between local artists and carvers from the Squamish First Nations people of Canada. The paint colors had mostly faded but the carving was impressive, great detail all the way to the Raven head at the top.
In many Native cultures, Raven is the Creator and stories about this trickster abound. And – insert heavenly music here – that rapidly changing weather provided a rainbow in the dark heavens over Raven, as if to show support for man’s desire for peace and good will.
The flow of history
Not to get sentimental – well, a little bit maybe – but this one lonely Totem pole gave me fresh hope that yes, people from all over the world can find, know and respect each other. We can create and build together instead of fight. Thank you, Squamish First Nation artists, for demonstrating this with your Totem pole at Holm, despite the flow of history having been as rough on you as the waves in Scapa Flow, along the route of the dreaded U-47…
Tip my top hat
In a Kirkwall pub that evening, I pondered this day of amazing Orkney impressions: a Chapel, a Tomb and the Churchill Barriers. I quietly observed a moment of silence for the sailors of the Royal Oak, and mentally saluted the Italian POWs who returned to their true roots as craftsmen, to peace. I felt like tipping my top hat and lighting a cigar in homage to that great Brit, Sir Winston Churchill, but, I didn’t: I don’t smoke, plus where was I going to get a top hat? Instead, I toasted their memory with a dram from the two Orkney distilleries I also visited on this trip. But that’s another story.
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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