~Buildings of Scotland: The Italian Chapel,
On a barren
windswept Orkney island sits a Nissen hut from the Second World War. There’s nothing else…no tea
room…no facilities; just a Nissen hut and nearby a small concrete statue of St George slaying the Dragon. Yet
the building, converted by Italian POWs, is one of the greatest symbols of hope and peace to come out of the war
and today it is Orkney’s most visited tourist attraction, with some 90,000 people a year gazing upon its
...and it is a wonder; a monument of the human
spirit’s ability to lift itself above great hardship and adversity. The craftsmen who turned bully beef tins
into lanterns and salvaged scraps from half sunken ships, reach out more than sixty-five years later and
connect people regardless of their nationality, race or beliefs. It reached out to the demolition team sent
to take down the camp after the war, touched them so that they disobeyed their orders and left the little
building all alone in the field.
At the beginning of 1942, around 1,200
Italian POWs arrived in Orkney and were split between Camp 60 on the tiny Orkney island of Lamb Holm and Camp
34 on the island of Burray. The men had been sent to help build the Churchill Barriers, to seal the eastern
entrances to Scapa Flow, and they swapped the searing heat of Africa for a fierce Orkney winter. The work and
living conditions were harsh and within weeks the Italians went on strike! No small thing when you’re a
After a period of
negotiation (and punishment rations) they did go back to work but everything about their captivity was alien, from
the food to the weather. They longed for and worried about loved ones and friends back home and they missed having
a place to worship. Men despaired, to the point where several fell ill with psychological problems. However, in
September 1943 the small liberty boat landed a Franciscan priest on Lamb Holm and the idea of building a
chapel became a possibility.
The British camp
commander helped to obtain two Nissen huts, which were moved to the camp and joined together. They Italians lined
one end with plasterboard with the aim of creating a chancel and a highly skilled artist called Domenico
Chiocchetti painted his masterpiece of the Madonna and Child. With the ever ready supply of cement they built an
altar and altar rail. Candlesticks were made from the brass stair rods of a blockship. An Italian blacksmith built a beautiful
rood screen. He would later fall in love with a local Orkney woman and leave a token of his love in the
chapel. It’s still there today, only no-one had ever realised its meaning.
As the chancel
neared completion, it was decided to convert the remainder of the building into a nave. It seemed that everyone
wanted to help. Some Italians sold trinkets and craftwork to raise a fund for items that could not be made.
With the nave well under way, the men felt that the entrance did not reflect the beauty inside and so they
built an impressive façade.
was in use for only a short while before the Italians were moved to Yorkshire, but its creation improved morale
throughout Camp 60 and saved some men from the depths of hopelessness. Many chapels were built by Italians in POW
camps around the world. Most were taken down after the war, including the chapel built in the other Orkney camp, on
Burray. But the little chapel on Lamb Holm has survived bureaucratic orders and stormy Orkney winters. And so it
stands today…fragile and immortal…a symbol of hope and peace from people long gone for those yet to
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
[we are indebted to author Philip Paris for this text. Philip
has written a romantic historical fiction -The Italian Chapel - which tells the
true story of how the building came into existence. You'll find more details of his new book- (published
in September 2009 - in our section - Scottish Literature - use THIS LINK to
go directly there) - , and of another,a non-fiction book, Orkney’s
Italian Chapel: The True Story of an Icon, which will be published by Black & White in May
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