Posts Tagged ‘Italian Chapel’

On the start of our big Monday on the Mainland of Orkney, there was some minor disagreement about what time to get up, sparked mostly by Bear’s refusal to wear a watch or own an alarm clock. I think Graham the cook/barman is amused by us.

We went directly out to a point on the northwest tip of Mainland where a narrow channel separates Mainland from a much smaller isle called Birsay. Currently Birsay is uninhabited but it originally had a Pictish and later Viking settlement on it and was known as the Broch of Birsay.

Coastline with the tide coming in

Just above there, the Kitchener memorial stands on some cliffs overlooking the North Sea. I had never heard of Kitchener so I was really grateful once again for the Wikipedia offline app that I have on my iPad which lets me look up tons of historical information on the fly.

Kitchener was a key member of the war cabinet during WWI and was killed in 1916 off this point in the sea when his ship was struck by a German mine. There are some fairly credible theories that there was a German spy, Fritz Duquesne, with a personal grudge against Kitchener who engineered the whole thing. Duquesne had lived in South Africa and had direct encounters with Kitchener during the Boer Wars and his family had suffered in war concentration camps there, which he held Kitchener responsible for. He had tried to assassinate Kitchener previously and there’s evidence that he made it onto Kitchener’s ship, signaled a waiting U-Boat which deployed the mine, then escaped on a lifeboat before the sinking and was picked up by the U-Boat later. (He had quite a career afterward, being captured and escaping several times, before finally winding up in the US during WW2 and being captured by the FBI for running a massive Nazi spy ring.) Moral of the story: Don’t piss off a German Boer.

Kitchener Memorial

The monument to Kitchener is easily visible on the headland and we found that it too is being maintained by rabbits. I believe they think it’s just another monument like the others that they’re running and it just happens to look a little newer.

There’s birds there in them cliffs

We spotted some cliff dwelling birds in hopes of spotting puffins but I think what we only got some black guillemots.

Not sure, but definitely not puffins

We had to literally run the kilometer back to the car and then race at speeds that I won’t admit to make it to Maeshowe for our booked tour but we missed it by 10 minutes and had to re-book for later in the day. (They’re not into making exceptions.) Bear felt ashamed and I admit I had a chance to talk to him about timekeeping, wearing watches and setting alarms, but instead I opted for cheering him up and suggesting that we go to the Tomb of the Eagles in the mean time. He had been reluctant earlier because the brochure showed a mannequin and we’ve generally found that the more mannequins and diorama scenes there are, the less interesting the exhibit generally is to us. Or, to put it in the vernacular, they’re cheesy.

This, however, was not remotely cheesy. Tomb of the Eagles was really great and contained a personal, hands on talk with a very well-informed guide who spent lots of time with our small group. We were able to handle actual artifacts recovered from the tomb, including stone axe heads, scrapers, pounders, and even some of the actual talons from sea eagles that had been recovered from the tomb.

From the sea-eagle talons found in the tomb

She also showed us some of the 100 recovered skulls and explained how analysis showed that the people were in very good health overall and didn’t suffer from malnutrition or related disorders. There was even some evidence that some of the buried had significant congenital mental defects based on skull formation but they had lived at least until their late teens which meant that the tribe had taken care of them and not abandoned them.

Skull from the Tomb of the Eagles of a woman in her late teens with significant developmental defects

We also learned the story of how the tomb had been discovered by a local farmer who asked the correct departments to come and investigate but after 15 years when no one had showed up, he became a self-taught archaeologist by watching other excavations and handled the site himself, even giving all the tours personally for over 30 years.

We hiked out to the tomb and stopped at a Bronze Age site along the way which had a purpose which still isn’t completely confirmed. One of the best (or most amusing) theories is that it’s a big kitchen with a sealed area suitable for filling with water from a nearby stream that can be sluiced and blocked, and then stones are heated in a nearby hearth and tossed in to boil the water and then cook the meat. Total time, start to finish: Approximately 9 hours. It was the world’s first crock pot.

Layout of the boiling water pit which can be refilled form an inflowing stream that was sluiced with a flat rock

A bit further on at the Tomb of the Eagles, we had to slide inside by lying down on a giant skateboard and pulling hand over hand on a rope to get in.

Tomb of the Eagles

Bear sliding in on the giant skateboard

Checking out the side chambers

The hike back went along the cliff’s edge and the weather was really beautiful (although if you just wait 10 minutes, it’ll change again).

Cliffside panoramic

In November/December seals can be found sunning themselves here. (LuSeal was back at the hotel, eating biscuits and watching telly.)

We realized we had just barely enough time to make it back to Maeshowe and that’s when Bear uttered those fateful words: “I’m hungry.” Bear doesn’t really have a concept of a packed lunch or snacking to ward off hungry. It’s 0 to 60 and he would prefer it to happen with a waiter and cloth napkins. None of the above were options in this case. We thankfully compromised and got him a prawn sandwich from the bistro next to the tomb which also had its own cairn they had discovered in the middle of the parking lot and they were offering guided tours of it as well. (Yes, you read that right.)

Bear drove at unmentionable speeds and got us back to Maeshowe perfectly on time and we didn’t have to miss the tour twice in one day.

Apparently the sheep are running this particular sacred site while the druid rabbits are busy elsewhere.

No photography is allowed inside of Maeshowe (although plenty of things are available to purchase in the gift shop!) but the tour was nice and thorough, including highlighting all the Norse runic inscriptions on the walls and explaining the probable stories behind them. In particular, we got a very close look at the Maeshowe lion carving (and the seal and entwined serpent).

Maeshowe lion engraving

After the tour, Bear and I chatted with the tour guide who is studying science and geology about her particular interests and some about the Ness of Brodgar site they’re still excavating. She told us how to find it and that a billionaire had bought the house that sits over part of the dig and donated it so it could be fully excavated. (Not sure who, but we’re voting for Richard Branson.)

The tides were right now to go back to the Broch of Birsay so we could hike across the exposed causeway.

Broch of Birsay, low tide

(Audio is bad at first, but hey, you can watch and wonder where all the water went!)

Once on the other side, we visited the Viking settlement on Birsay. Broch basically means fort and we saw the remnants of a Pictish settlement as well. No pun intended, all that’s left is a well.

Pictish well

The Viking settlement

We hiked up to the lighthouse at the summit and it was closed but it gave good views o the headland and the Kitchener memorial where we had been that morning.

Birsay lighthouse

Hiking back, we had to be careful because of the plant growth on the exposed rocks.

Since we were on the northwest corner of Mainland then and decided to hop over to the Broch of Gurness which is an Iron Age site that turned out to be much, much more extensive than I’d realized.

Broch of Gurness

A very nice gentleman from Historic Scotland let us know that we’d come too late to be admitted but I think he took pity on our accents and let us take a run around the interior and wouldn’t even take any money. (I promised him we belonged to English Heritage and we gave the secret handshake.)

The walls are projected to have been as high as ten meters (over 30 feet) and the village layout seemed as complex in ways as the Skara Brae settlement which pre-dated it.

Bear says this was an artist’s palette for people with really strong wrists

We drove back to Stromness and took a walk along Victoria Street which is closed now for works (repairs) and saw a really extensive charity shop dedicated to care for cats in the area.

Pedestrian zones — nice when you don’t need to drive anywhere

We realized we had more time and wound up at Unstan Chambered Cairn which is distinctive for having the first documented occurrence of Unstan War pottery (later also found at the Tomb of the Eagles). It’s located on private land but there’s a path and a parking area and they don’t seem to mind people going in and out.

Entrance to Unstan Chambered Cairn

Tall enough to stand — more green mossy growth here than at any other cairn

We headed back through Kirkwall for dinner and stopped at The Shore which had a very nice restaurant where I had a spinach remoulade and Bear went for salmon again. (I know that isn’t eternally interesting, but if I don’t note it then someday he and I will have a raging disagreement about what we ate that night and this blog will save a huge amount of time and, perhaps, our marriage.)

On the drive back we sneaked over to the Ness of Brodgar site that’s being excavated currently and is promising to be a really amazing archaeological find once all the data is in. It’s located between several of the major known sites (the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness) and is positioned in a way that’s suggestive that it has to be related. You can see the black plastic sheets covering everything, held down with bags of soil, but not much more at the moment.

It was still light when we headed to the hotel and passed the Italian Chapel so we pulled in and got much better photos and had a chance to read about it at length. I had gotten the bare bones on the first stop and learned more about the lead artist and planner  Domenico Chiocchetti who had remained behind after his fellow POWs were transferred to finish work on parts of the chapel.

Altar in daylight–thank God we left LuSeal at the hotel or she’d be ripping the place apart, looking for the Altar to the Seal God (or the “Seal-a-phim” as she calls them)

What touched me the most was his choice of this figure for the altar as the Christ child is extending an olive branch, symbolic of peace, and it was painted in the midst of a terrifying war by someone who was technically the enemy.

Side wall painted to look like tile with depth

When Chiocchetti finally left to rejoin his POW company, the Lord Lieutenant of Orkney promised him that Orcadians would always look after the chapel for him and it’s a promise they’ve always kept.

Lantern made from leftover rationed beef tins

After the war, the BBC made efforts to locate Chiocchetti again by broadcasting over their Italian channel until he was located and he was invited to come back to help restore the chapel and the whole thing was unbelievably touching.

He came several times after that with his wife and bringing gifts for the chapel from his hometown. When they had their first full mass there, he was the first to receive communion and when he passed away at 89 they had a full requiem mass for him there in Orkney. (Eight other Italian POWs had come back 50 years after the war to reunite at the chapel.)

Statue of St. George and the Dragon made by the POWs out of a barbed wire frame and  concrete

When he passed away finally, a requiem mass was held at the chapel which Orcadians attended and a letter was read from the family including this excerpt:

“[Chiocchetti ] had carefully prepared his departure from this world; his thoughts always went beyond the daily matters and, in leaving us, he said; “Say goodbye to the friends from Orkney and to all those who loved me.”

We are deeply moved and extremely grateful for the affection you showed us in this painful moment as on many occasions in the past, and on our part we will always love these places and your people as our father wished.”

I don’t imagine there was a dry eye in the chapel when that was read and they said goodbye to their Italian friend.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that after everything we did in our big Mainland day, I passed out pretty quickly once we got back to the hotel.


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The interesting thing about “Eday” is that it doesn’t rhyme with Sunday — it’s pronounced “Edie” like the woman’s name (or the ice cream, depending on your priorities). We had picked to spend the day on that remote island though and since we weren’t likely to run into anyone, it didn’t seem to matter if we got it right the first time.

(Here’s a hint: Eday is in green)

The blessed hot water I was looking forward turned out to be there, but in very weak quantities but I’ll trade water pressure for heat any day of the week. The room came with a nice cooked breakfast and they let us even make extra tea to take in our thermos mugs for the expedition. Graham, the chief cook and practitioner, had also packed lunches for us to take and I crossed my fingers that Bear wouldn’t have the same bad reaction he seems to have to all box lunches. I have no idea what happened to him at some point in his life to make him so averse to a basic bag lunch.

LuSeal personally overseeing the day’s travel plans

We drove back up to Kirkwall and got to see some of what we’d zipped past in the dark the night before.

One of the ship wrecks in Scapa Flow by the Churchill Barriers that link some of the lower isles

The ferry dock was easy to find and we lined up and were on the ship in no time, heading northward up to the Northern Isles and to see Eday.


I had picked Eday to visit out of everything else because of the number of archaeological sites on it as well as the difference in the natural landscape. After a blessedly uneventful ferry ride over, compared to the roller coaster of the ferry from Scrabster, we landed and hit the road exploring. The stated goal was to drive on every road on the island and we definitely accomplished that.

Moss in the graveyard right on the southern coast of Eday

Supposedly there are 121 people living on the island now. I saw 2. I don’t know if the other 119 were just sleeping in because it was Sunday or if they were all at some kind of secret clan meeting but there wasn’t sign of hide nor hair of any of them.


Our hopes of seeing a puffin were unfulfilled as the best area for birdwatching can only be reached by a hike and by midday the temperature had plummeted and the intermittent rain combined with the wind was making any kind of lengthy hike not such a good idea.

Bear and the Setter’s Stone

We found the Setter’s Stone around midday, the third highest of the standing stone sites in Orkney.

Druid Bunny HQ

I also found definitive evidence that the stone circles are being maintained by rabbits. The little devils are apparently direct descendants of the druids and are maintaining a complex social network centered around the neolithic sites. Who knew.

Setter’s Stone

After a valiant effort to locate the Vinquoy cairn, we surrendered to the elements and ate lunch in the car to wait out the rain which was occasionally turning to sleet. Either Bear really did like the lunch better or he decided to be polite and lie.

Either the coastline is shrinking or people just liked building things as close to the water as possible

No signs of seals either, which we were afraid LuSeal was going to take badly but in typical egocentric fashion she decided that this proved how special and unique she is so she was really happy in the end.

Again, ignore much of the video commentary as the wind carried away about a third of what was said, but if you’ve ever wanted to see the ferry dock, well, here’s your chance.

Having literally driven the entire island and being down to reserve fuel (no gas stations in sight), we parked back by the ferry and I won Wife of the Year points for a) having gotten all of the 4th season of Southland onto the iPad, b) having bought the video player app to do so, and c) having bought the iPad in the first place two years ago. Overlooking the bay, watching the waves and the gulls, eating snacks and watching a great show in the warm comfort of your own car was a really nice topper on the day’s field trip.

Sleepy Bear on the ferry (much calmer in the area between the Orkney islands than out in the open North Sea)

Back on land, we went to Helgi’s for dinner, a well-established spot in Kirkwall by the harbor. Bear had spiced salmon and I had linguini with Mediterranean vegetables and a really nice side of hummus. Bear also had a mojito which he said they did fairly well (ironically, the worst mojito he ever had was at Ted’s which you think would make a really great mojito).

Since it’s staying light until very late, we had time to go out by Mull Head to look at some really cool cliff formations and try to do see some birds as well. For once you can hear the audio because the wind had died down. (I am still vaguely disturbed that based on the video footage from this trip I seem to be channeling Hugh Grant.)

The name of this thing is, brace yourself, The Gloup. It’s a sea cave whose roof has collapsed

On the way home we stopped at the Italian Chapel which is on the same island as our hotel. I had read a little about the Italian Chapel and it sounded a little odd but since we had to drive right by it, I said we should stop. The back story is that Orkney was home to a number of Italian prisoners of war during WW2 and they performed a number of important jobs, like building the very causeway bridges we were driving over to reach St. Margaret’s Hope. The prisoners also wanted a place to worship though and asked permission to build a chapel. All must’ve been going very well because they were given permission and two metal Nissen huts which they spliced together into one single building. And then they got busy doing what Italians do best which is making gorgeous architecture.

The altar end of the chapel

I guess this is what happens when you’re Italian and bored. We decided to go back later in daylight because the pictures needed to do it justice.

Bear spent some time on his own making secret plans when we got back to the hotel so tomorrow should have some more really cool things to see in our first full day on Mainland.

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