My luck, when it comes to touristy things, is not all that great. Years ago when I went to visit a friend in Arizona we decided to go to the Grand Canyon, since I had never seen it. Though it was springtime, it snowed, and before and after the snow there was fog. I stood at one of the viewing points near some other disappointed people and said to the man beside me, “They tell me there’s a canyon here. They even say it’s ‘Grand’.” He laughed ruefully as we looked out across an expanse of… foggy clouds. I still don’t feel like I’ve seen the massive, awe-inspiring sight that everyone raves about!
Similarly, a few years ago here in Scotland a friend and I went over to Orkney. Boy did we hit it wrong. I was on an island – a series of islands, in fact – but I never would have known it. While mist and fog are not unexpected in Scotland, this was extreme. The ferry muscled through the swirling waters of the Pentland Firth for about three times longer than the expected crossing time. We were fairly sure we were lost at sea but finally we spotted a signal light through the thick fog and the ferry berthed safely. I know they have all kinds of fancy navigational equipment onboard nowadays but it was no joke – even the crew looked relieved when we got there. In spite of the weather we had fun on the bus tour, but similar to my time at the Grand Canyon, I didn’t feel like I’d really seen Orkney at all. Fog, drizzle, mist, rain… we could have been anywhere.
Now that we’ve moved we’re closer to Orkney, and a couple of months ago my husband and I booked ferry tickets and the same all-day bus tour that I’d taken before. Sem hadn’t been there for decades and my first experience had been a bit lacking, so we looked forward to a good day out. The weather even cooperated!
The tour includes as many places of interest as possible given the timing from the first arriving ferry to the last departing one, and it’s worth the trip. The tour bus meanders from one island to another using the Churchill Barriers (aka the Churchill Causeways) which are engineering marvels in their own right. For anyone interested, the places they stop are Kirkwall, Stromness, Skara Brae (a Neolithic village), the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and one more very special place.
Volumes have been written about Orkney’s wartime history (both World Wars), and the many ancient sites, majestic and mysterious, have been extensively researched as well. One column could never cover all that Orkney has to show us, but there is a gem of a place that tugs at the heartstrings which I would like to share with you.
“La Bella Cappella Italiana” is the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. Italian POWs were held there on that previously-uninhabited island during WWII, and after a time they asked – and were duly allowed – to build a Roman Catholic chapel there. They were given two Nissen huts which were placed end-to-end, and they used whatever materials they either were given from their work on the barriers, or that they could find, glean, or re-purpose.
Italians are known for art, sculpture and stone-masonry. Among the prisoners of war there were some very talented men, and many more who contributed muscle. It was a labor of love and of faith, to the extent that when the prisoners began their journey homeward just before the end of the war, one of them, Domenico Chiocchetti, stayed behind to finish work on the chapel. That’s dedication!
Instead of reciting dates and facts (dry, dusty stuff!), I will instead tell you that the place feels peaceful, even holy, though we only had a scant quarter-hour to look around. Even so, if you can become still within yourself in spite of the tourist-bustle and camera flashes, looking around this small space can take your breath away. The trompe l’oeil was done so skillfully that even looking at the walls up close, you almost have to touch them to believe that they are not made of stone. The lanterns were made out of corned beef tins, the baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust which was covered in concrete, and outside the chapel there’s a barbed-wire-and-concrete statue of St. George slaying the dragon that is nearly as beautiful as any sculpture you’ll see in a city square.
The devotion that went into the building of this lovely place in the middle of nowhere can hardly fail to touch the heart. The artistry, engineering, and creativity bring home, to me at least, that these men weren’t “just” POWs or “just” soldiers, they were people with talents and skills; engineers and tradesmen, artists and workers, who just wanted a place to worship. How easy it is to lump a group of people together as “just” something-or-other, forgetting the humanity within them (and ourselves)! What they conceived, planned and created is remarkable.
The Orcadians promised the POWs that they would watch over this shining jewel, and they have not gone back on their word. It is an astounding place. I wish I could go there during a quieter time to just stand and reflect, both indoors and outside, at what these men accomplished in a place far from home, in a country so different to anything they knew.
I’d never heard of “La Bella Cappella Italiana” before I went to Orkney that foggy day a few years ago. It wasn’t part of any of my history lessons, but maybe it should have been. To learn about this small chapel on a windswept island would surely have rounded out my understanding of not just history but the human spirit, and how much good can come out of people treating each other with understanding and respect, even during – especially during – wartime.
I am no longer a church-goer in the traditional sense, and my thoughts on the subject of religion and faith have changed a lot over the years. But whatever a person’s beliefs, this enduring testament to devotion is something very special to see. The fact that concrete, plasterboard, barbed wire, and scrap metal along with some paint, skill, and determination can be turned into such a beautiful place says so much about the men who created it. That it still stands protected by those to whom it was entrusted is something special, too. It’s likely that there are few if any left, of those who worked on the chapel. But what a legacy they have left the world in this small, beautiful building, created by love.
People can be awe-inspiring, given a chance.