After a visit to the Tomb of the Eagles, we got another history lesson – this time from Andy as he was driving us to our next stop.
We heard about the history and the role that the Orkney islands played during WWI and WWII – the most significant being the body of water known as Scapa Flow.
Scapa Flow has been used since the Viking times – with 5 major Orcadian islands and several smaller ones sheltering its waters. Besides trade and travel, its protected waters made it ideal to anchor Viking longships and… much later on in history, as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War I and II.
In order to protect Scapa Flow from submarine attacks during WWI, blockships were strategically positioned at many of the entrances to Scapa Flow. There were also nets, artillery and minefields that further strengthened the defences.
Even now, you can still see some of the blockships lying at rest in the waters of Scapa Flow. We pulled over to a little beach, where we got to look out at some of these blockships.
This blockship, I believe, is the SS Reginald.
I believe this one below might be the steamer – Emerald Wings.
Another significant event that happened in Scapa Flow was the scuttling of the German High Seas fleet at the end of WWI. At the end of the war, this fleet of 74 German ships was sent to Orkney to await their fate, which was being decided at the Paris Peace Conference. Thinking that the fleet would be seized by the Allies, the Rear Admiral in charge set into motion plans to scuttle the entire fleet so it would not fall in enemy hands. On June 21, 1919, while most of the British ships and personnel were away on an exercise, the signal was given to scuttle the entire fleet. The British tried to stop the scuttle and successfully beached and saved some of the ships. But by the end of the day, it was reported that 52 of the ships had sunk.
Over the years, some of these ships were lifted from the seabed and salvaged while others lie in their final resting places under the water. The 7 wrecks that remain underwater, along with the various blockships in the Scapa Flow, are very popular with divers today.
Years later, Scapa Flow would again become a base for the British Navy during WWII. Unfortunately, the defences that were in place during the previous war were no longer sufficient in protecting the waters of Scapa Flow. On October 14th, 1939, a German U-boat managed to move into Scapa Flow undetected and fired its torpedoes at the HMS Royal Oak. The Royal Oak sank quickly, resulting in the loss of over 800 men. It is now a designated war grave, with no unauthorised diving allowed.
Following this incident, new defences – including new blockships and mines, were installed to protect the waters of Scapa Flow. Winston Churchill also ordered new permanent barriers to be built to protect Scapa Flow and the naval base there. Gabions and concrete blocks were used to build 4 causeways, helping to close off the channels leading into Scapa Flow. These barriers became known as the Churchill Barriers.
After the war, these defences became a means of transportation, linking the islands around Scapa Flow. As we drove around the Orkney Islands on these causeways, we were able to appreciate the history behind them.
The Churchill Barriers were constructed by Italian POW’s. Besides building these barriers, they also built a chapel – now known as the Italian Chapel. And this was our next destination.
The Italian Chapel is located on Lamb Holm. This chapel was built by and built for the Italian POW’s who were living on this island and constructing the Churchill Barriers.
The Italian POW’s wanted a place to worship and they were able to convince the camp commandant to grant their request. The chapel was built using very limited, often scavenged and recycled materials. But you would never guess – looking at its beautifully clean facade or the ornate frescoes inside.
The interior was mostly decorated by Domenico Chiocchetti. He was so dedicated that he stayed behind for 2 extra weeks to finish the chapel while the rest of the POW’s left Orkney. Nearly 20 years later, Chiocchetti returned to the Italian Chapel to assist with a restoration project. He write a letter to the people of Orkney upon his departure:
“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 Lambholm where I, in leaving, leave a part of my heart”. – Domenico Chiocchetti, dated 11th April 1960.
There is a lot of meaning and symbolism in this building. The one that I’m most drawn to is the Madonna and Child, with the Child holding an olive branch. There is a sense of peace and reconciliation here.
When we visited, there was no cost to enter the Italian Chapel. Currently, there is a small fee to enter and they do advise that you book ahead. More information on opening hours and the entrance fee can be found here.
As we stepped out of the Chapel, we were greeted by more of that gorgeous Orcadian sunset.
We also spotted the cows coming home!
Coming home for dinner, it seems!
Driving away from the Italian Chapel, we headed towards Kirkwall. Look what we spotted from the road!
Those distinctive chimneys must mean one thing: a whisky distillery! The chimneys belong to the Highland Park distillery. (Because the bus was moving, I didn’t manage to snap a picture of the gate and sign.) Highland Park is the most northerly distillery in Scotland. Unfortunately we didn’t make a stop at the Highland Park distillery for a visit, but I think if I visit Orkney again, this will be on my list, for sure!
After a very full day of learning, adventures and exploring, we were on our way to our home for the next 2 nights – The Orcades Hostel.
This was definitely one of our favourite hostels on this entire trip. The rooms were clean and spacious with nice bunk beds. It was also a smaller room – sleeping only 6. Our room even had its own ensuite bathroom, with a hair dryer! Oh, those little luxuries! 😉
After freshening up, a group of us followed Andy as he led us to The Shore for spot of dinner at their pub.
And this is where we first came across… Thistly Cross Cider. A most delicious cider, of which we tried at least 3 varieties that night. Our favourites being the elderflower and the whisky cask.
To this day, we still scour our liquor stores, in the hopes that someone would have imported Thistly Cross into Canada by now. (Maybe that’s what we need to do – import it ourselves! Haha!) But alas, we are still waiting for that day to come. For more on our hunt for Thistly Cross Cider here on the westcoast of Canada, check out our next blog post!
After our dinner, music and some more cider, we decided to head back to the hostel for some sleep! Heading back to the hostel was a bit of an adventure… Firstly, it was pitch black, save a couple street lamps. Secondly, it was very windy. Thirdly, we had to cross a pond area (who knows how deep it was… I certainly wasn’t about to find out!) on some narrow footpaths, which didn’t seem nearly as daunting in the daylight. Oh and did I mention it was pitch black outside?? Eventually, with the dim light from our cell phones, we were able to safely navigate our way back to the hostel. 😥
After a good night’s sleep, we were ready for Day 6 and more exploring around the Orkney islands!
From Vancouver with Love,
Ioana and Natalie
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