‘Nothing really prepares you for the spectacle that greets you when you walk through the front door of the chapel. Inside nothing is as it first seems, everything was made out of the few materials available to the prisoners, the brickwork and the tiles appear real until on closer inspection you realise that they are all in fact paintings.’
Following on from my previous article on Neolithic Orkney, we now move forward several thousand years in time to continue our historic journey around this fascinating place. Starting with the founding of the cathedral in the Islands capital Kirkwall.
Magnus Eriendsson was the Earl of Orkney in the early 1100’s. He shared the Earldom jointly with his cousin, who was called Hakon. The two men didn’t get along and Orkney suffered because of this. In an effort to settle the dispute the two men decided to hold a meeting on the island of Egilsay. Hakon had agreed to bring along two ships of unarmed men, but instead he arrived with eight ships and all the men were fully armed.
Hakon decided to kill Magnus, but rather than do it himself he ordered his cook, a man called Lifolf to carry out the deed for him. Magnus was killed by an axe blow to the head whilst he was praying. He was buried on Mainland Orkney in Birsay an area in the north west of the island. Stories began to circulate of miracles happening near to his grave, the local people began to believe that Magnus was a holy man.
Magnus had a nephew called Rognvald who came to Orkney form Norway to claim his uncles Earldom. He made a promise to the people that he would build a great stone Minster in honour of Magnus. In 1137 the cathedral was founded, on completion the remains of Magnus were removed from the church in Birsay and brought to the cathedral.
When first built the cathedral was part of the Archdiocese of Nidaros (Throndheim) in Norway. Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468, a few years later the cathedral was given to the people of Kirkwall by King James III of Scotland.
After the Scottish Reformation in 1560 the cathedral was used for Protestant worship. Today it belongs to the people of Orkney and is looked after by the Orkney Islands Council. Although it has a Church of Scotland congregation it can be used by any Christian denomination.
The cathedral is built of red sandstone and is also known as ‘The Light in the North’. It is a beautiful building both inside and out.
Fast forward a few hundred years from the founding of the cathedral and returning to the aforementioned village of Birsay.
It is here we find The Earl’s Palace, a ruined 16th century castle. It was built by Robert Stewart who was the 1st Earl of Orkney between the years 1533 and 1593. He was the illegitimate son of King James V and his mistress Euphemia Elphinstone.
Work began on his palace in the 1570’s. It is a two storey building constructed around a central courtyard and well (now covered so the tourists don’t fall in) it had stone towers at three of the four corners, it was as much a fortress as a residence. Only the palace’s upper floors had large windows. The ground floors had small openings with an array of gun holes, from which musketeers could cover every aspect of the building.
Following the death of Robert Stewart the palace was used only occasionally by later earls of Orkney, and was not occupied at all after the mid 17th century. By 1701 the palace had begun to deteriorate badly, a state it remains in today. It stands in a commanding position in the very tiny village of Birsay, now surrounded by a few houses, a small shop, cafe, church, farm and garage.
The palace is a category A listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, now in the care of Historic Scotland. You can see in the next photo the covered well, I did wonder just how many people tumbled in before someone decided to put a lid on it!
Travelling forward again in time to the 20th century and an era of conflict. Firstly we’ll take a look at World War I and then World War II, wars in which the Orkney Islands not only played an interesting but strategic role.
Firstly an event from WWI, The sinking of the HMS Hampshire a Devonshire Class armoured cruiser.
Following the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916, HMS Hampshire was ordered to carry Lord Kitchener from Scapa Flow on a diplomatic mission to Russia. Due to the gale force weather conditions it was decided that ship would sail through the Pentland Firth, then turn north along the western coast of the Orkney Islands.
This course would provide some shelter from the strong winds. She departed Scapa Flow to meet with her two escorts, the destroyers Unity and Victor. As the ships turned to the northwest the gale increased and shifted direction so that the ships were facing it head on. This caused the escort destroyers to fall behind Hampshire. Considering it unlikely that enemy submarines would be active in such conditions, Captain Savill of the Hampshire ordered Unity and Victor to return to Scapa Flow, which they did.
Sailing alone in heavy seas, Hampshire was approximately one and a half miles off the mainland of Orkney between Brough of Birsay (in the picture below the small island in the distance where you can just see the lighthouse) and Marwick Head (which is where the photo was taken from) when an explosion occurred and she heeled to starboard.
She had struck one of several mines laid by the German minelaying submarine U-75 earlier in May that year just prior to the Battle of Jutland. The explosion resulted in a hole in the cruiser between the bow and the bridge. The lifeboats were smashed against the side of the ship by the heavy seas when they were lowered. About 15 minutes after the explosion Hampshire sank by the bow.
Of the 735 crew and 14 passengers aboard, only 12 crew survived, some were found on the shore and others on three floats. A total of 737 were lost including Field Marshal Lord Kitchener.
The wreck is designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act, it is a designated War Grave.
The Kitchener Memorial is the building which can be seen on the cliff top.
The picture below is a Vickers pattern 3lb Recoil MK2 deck gun which was salvaged from the wreck of the HMS Hampshire. The gun is now located in the small Marwick Head visitors car park pointing in a seaward direction.
Moving along again, this time only a few years to World War II and a visit to one of the most fascinating places on the Orkney Islands.
In 1942 five hundred and fifty Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa were brought to Orkney. They worked on the construction of the Churchill Barriers, four causeways created to block access to Scapa Flow.
Two hundred of the prisoners were based at Camp 60 on Lamb Holm, one of the Orkney archipelago. In 1943 Major Thomas Pyres Buckland, Camp 60’s commandant, and Father Gioacchino Giacobazzi, the camp’s Catholic priest, agreed that a place of worship was required.
A chapel was constructed by the prisoners with the limited material available. Two Nissen huts were joined end to end. The corrugated interior (you will see later) was then covered with plasterboard and an altar and altar rail were constructed from concrete left over from work on the barriers. Most of the interior decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti, a prisoner from Moena. He painted the sanctuary end of the chapel and fellow prisoners decorated the entire interior.
The facade was created out of concrete, hiding the shape of the green Nissen huts behind.
When his fellow prisoners were released shortly before the end of the war, Chiocchetti remained on the island to finish decorating the newly consecrated church.
It was not fully completed until after the end of the war, it was restored in the 1960’s and again in the 1990’s. It is now a popular tourist attraction, and a category A listed building. It is still used as a place of worship and when I took the picture was closed to the public for one hour for Mass.
Nothing really prepares you for the spectacle that greets you when you walk through the front door of the chapel. Inside nothing is as it first seems, everything was made out of the few materials available to the prisoners, the brickwork and the tiles appear real until on closer inspection you realise that they are all in fact paintings.
The light holders were made out of corned beef tins. The baptismal font was made from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete.
Several restorations have been carried out in the years since the chapel was first constructed, the latest in 2015. A professional art restorer from Rome called Antonella Papa offered and had her services accepted to restore the chapel’s frescoes. She spent a month on the work along with help from local volunteers.
The artist and prisoner of war Domenico Chiocchetti, as well as decorating the church, made a statue of St. George slaying the dragon for the ‘square’ outside the church. It has a frame made of barbed wire and is covered with cement. The base of the statue contains all of the prisoners names and some Italian coins. The statue itself represents the prisoners triumph over defeat and loneliness during the years of captivity on Lamb Holm.
Driving away from the church making my way back to where we were staying on South Ronaldsay, we have to cross the famous Churchill Barriers, constructed in part by the Italian Prisoners of War who built the church.
Here is a map of the area (thank you Apple) to show the layout of the barriers, it may help make my written explanation clearer.
In the following photo I’m standing on the island of Burray looking across at barrier Number 3 to the left of the picture, which connects Burray to Glimps Holm. In the centre of the picture going off to the right is Barrier Number 2 which runs between Glimps Holm and Lamb Holm. Barrier Number 1 which is hidden in the image then connects Lamb Holm to the Orkney Mainland at St. Mary’s. Barrier Number 4 which is behind me goes from Burray across to South Ronaldsay.
These four causeways were built after the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak while it lay at harbour in Scapa Flow in October 1939.
On 14th October 1939 the German U-Boat U-47 took advantage of a high tide to get passed the blockships and into Scapa Flow. Once there it torpedoed HMS Royal Oak before leaving the way it had entered, 834 members of the Royal Oak’s crew were killed. A memorial to all those who died on the ship is in St. Magnus Cathedral In Kirkwall.
Not long after this attack Winston Churchill visited Orkney and ordered that work begin on the construction of four permanent barriers, linking together the chain of islands from Mainland to South Ronaldsay. The contract was given to Balfour Beatty and work began in May 1940.
The Churchill Barriers were formally opened by the first Lord of the Admiralty on 12th May 1945, just before the war ended. As a result their lasting role was not as a defence for Scapa Flow, but as a series of causeways linking five islands together, road surfaces were built on top of the barriers after the war.
This barrier in the below photo is number 2 it connects the Islands of Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm. The barrier blocks the eastern approach from the North Sea, which is where the remains of the blockships can be seen.
These blockships were deliberately sunk during WWI to prevent enemy shipping entering Scapa Flow and attacking the Royal Navy Fleet.
The three ships that can be seen in this photo from left to right are the SS Numidian, SS Thames and the SS Aorangi, all with their own stories to tell no doubt.
Travelling thousands of years through time exploring the history of the Orkney Islands has now come to an end. I hope you have enjoyed both my articles and thank you for looking.
As in my previous piece about Neolithic Orkney, I once again would like to thank the authors of many books, the creators of many web sites, the erectors of many signs and the publishers of many leaflets which have been very useful to me during my research.
Writing & Images Ruth Craine – 2021/22