The Italian Chapel at Lamb Holm in Orkney, is one of my favourite haunts when I visit these remote islands of the the north coast of Scotland. Providing you can avoid the coachloads of tourists, the tranquil setting provides peace and a haven of tranquillity after a strenuous day of sightseeing. But it's only when you know the history of this special place that you can truly marvel at the ingenuity and dedication that went into its the construction.
It all started in the summer of 1941 - just a few months before Pearl Harbor - when Britain had already been at war for two long years. Around 500 Italian soldiers, captured during the North Africa campaign, were shipped up to Orkney to build the Churchill Barriers. These were a vital measure to secure the eastern entrance to Scapa Flow, where the British Home Fleet was based. They consisted of four causeways, linking Orkney Mainland to the island of South Ronaldsay via Burray, Lamb Holm and Gimps Holm islands. Massive blocks of reinforced concrete, submerged in the water, blocked the passage of any German U boats, which had already managed to sink the Royal Oak, resulting in the loss of more than 800 lives.
Within weeks of their arrival, a quite extraordinary thing happened. The prisoners went on strike! They did return to work but their morale was at rock bottom. Depression, despair, homesickness, took their toll and they all longed for some purpose in life.
The 'miracle' began when a priest arrived in September 1943. The British officials agreed to construct two Nissan huts, end to end, and allow the prisoners to create a chapel for their worship. The chief architect of this was a gifted painter called Domenico Chiocchetti, who began work later in 1943. Among the prisoners were some skilled artisans, including a cement worker, an electrician and a blacksmith, but it was Chiocchetti who created the exquisite paintings.
Work began with concealing the corrugated iron of the hut behind plasterboard. Bruttapasta, the cement worker, fashioned the altar, altar rail and holy water stoop out of leftover concrete from the barriers, while Palumbo used his blacksmith skills to fashion an ornate wrought iron rood-screen, out of scrap metal. Lanterns were fashioned out of old bully beef tins and fellow prisoners sent their cigarette money to an Exeter firm to pay for two heavy gold curtains to hang either side of the sanctuary.
The project turned enemies into friends and the concrete foundations of the chapel were supplied by Balfour Beatty, while a local Orkney artist donated brushes and paints.
The chapel was completed in the summer of 1944 and on 9th September of that year, the whole of Camp 6o was relocated, although Chiochetti remained for some weeks in order to complete his work there. The camp itself was demolished straight after the war and only the concrete foundations and a few steps - going nowhere - remain. But the demolition teams left the chapel alone.
The local people took the chapel to their hearts but by 1958, deterioration was noticeable.A preservation committee was set up, with an appeal for funds and, in 1960, Chiochetti was traced to his home in Moena and invited to return to restore his artwork.When he had completed it, he wrote this:
Dear Orcadians - My work at the chapel is finished. In these three weeks I have done my best to give again to the little church that freshness which it had 16 years ago.
The chapel is yours - for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.
I thank the authorities of Kirkwall, the courteous preservation committee, and all those who directly or indirectly have collaborated for the success of this work and for having given me the joy of seeing again the little chapel of Lamb Holm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart . . .
Goodbye dear friends of Orkney - or perhaps I should say just "Au revoir".
Domenico Chiochetti died on 7th May 1999 just days before his 89th birthday. The Chapel remains, lovingly cared for, and Mass is regularly celebrated there.
Surely no one could have a more enchanting memorial