Hundreds of years after the architectural contributions of the brutal Black Earl et al, another team of forced laborers created a triumph of wartime shortages and homesickness on the tiny island of Lamb Holm on the eastern shore of Scapa Flow.
Scapa Flow is a wide body of water bordered by the Orkney mainland, Hoy, and the isles to the south and with a shallow sandy bottom. It’s one of the best natural harbors in the world, used at least as long ago as the Vikings as a safe and sheltered anchorage in the North Sea.
There’s some history to catch up with, so bear with me. At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain thought they might want to relocate some of their naval fleet to better defend against the buildup of the German navy on the North Sea. After a few false starts at other locations, Scapa Flow became the main base of the British Grand Fleet. To protect against attacks by German U-boats, the channels between the small islands to the south were fortified with mines and blocked with sub nets, booms and eventually block ships.
These efforts were largely successful with only a few failures but by the beginning of World War II the block ships had collapsed and the previous defenses proved inadequate. In October 1939 a German U-boat breached the perimeter and sunk the battleship HMS Royal Oak causing the loss of over half the 1400-man crew. Three days later Scapa Flow came under attack by Luftwaffe bombers.
In response, more blockships were sunk, more booms and mines were deployed, and anti-aircraft batteries were installed to defend the fleet. Winston Churchill ordered the construction of causeways linking the small islands to the southeast, essentially blocking the entrance to Scapa Flow from that direction. The causeways are now called the Churchill Barriers.
By that time there were hundreds of Italian prisoners of war encamped in Orkney and they were set to work constructing the barriers. At first the prisoners went on strike, claiming the Geneva Conventions prohibited prisoners of war from being forced to support the war effort. In response, the Brits claimed the barriers were only meant to improve communication between the small southern islands and mainland Orkney. You be the judge. In any case, the Italians ended up working on the barrier project.
Far from home and missing their culture, a small group of Italian POWs petitioned their captors for permission to build a chapel. They were given two Nissen huts which they connected end to end, then lined the inside with plasterboard, scrounged for scrap materials, bartered for paint, and set to work.
The result is a masterpiece of ingenuity, talent, faith and dedication, and the best example of trompe l’œil either Jack or I have ever seen.
A sign at the entrance asks visitors to refrain from touching the walls, but of course the first thing Jack did was reach out to feel the smooth surface of the plasterboard, that’s how good the illusion of 3D is.
The base of the holy water stoup is a giant spring covered in concrete. Visitors are advised not to lean on it.
There’s so much to know about every detail of this beautiful little chapel and the men who created it. You can read more here.
And feel free to go down the rabbit hole about Scapa Flow on your own time. Here’s a good place to start. We came to Orkney for the Neolithic sites but ended up fascinated by the dramatic history of Scapa Flow. I’ve only touched on a few high points.