Orkney is full of fantastic sights and attractions, from Neolithic stone circles to stunning sandy beaches; towering cliffs to beautiful, bustling towns and villages.
But there is one place in particular that Orcadians are incredibly proud of, a place that also plays an important role in the relatively recent history of the islands.
The Italian Chapel sits on the uninhabited island of Lamb Holm, at the end of the first Churchill Barrier. Those concrete causeways were constructed during the Second World War to help protect Scapa Flow, the great Royal Navy anchorage. Italian prisoners of war were interned in Orkney to help with the mammoth – and dangerous – engineering project.
The prisoners of Camp 60 on Lamb Holm were given permission by the authorities to build a place of worship – a small piece of Italy on this tiny island in Orkney. Led by Domenico Chiocchetti, they transformed two Nissen huts into a stunningly simple chapel using materials scavenged from the camp. The walls inside are adorned with beautiful artwork, hand-painted by Chiocchetti himself.
Nowadays the Italian Chapel has become a reminder of Orkney’s wartime heritage and a symbol of peace. The building and its interior reflect the talent and commitment of the men of Camp 60.
But the Chapel is in constant need of care and attention. Its fabric is fragile and a lot of hard work is required to protect it from the wild Orkney elements. That’s where Antonella Papa comes in.
Antonella is a professional art restorer from Rome. She’s a regular visitor to Orkney, but only discovered the Chapel and its story a few years ago. She soon realised how special it was and decided she wanted to do something to help preserve it.
She has been travelling back to the islands on a regular basis, armed with a pack of paintbrushes and small tins of paint, volunteering her time to carry out painstaking and intricate restoration work on the Chapel’s interior.
It’s a job she’s proud to give up her time to do. ‘The Chapel is a really moving, special place, and I’m so happy to be here in this beautiful location and to do this work,’ she said. ‘I love my job and to be able do it here, in Orkney and in the Chapel, is an honour’.
The restoration process is a challenge but it’s one that Antonella is keen to tackle head-on. ‘The Chapel is so fragile and so easy to damage, but the story behind it is so moving and tells of desperate times, but also of hope, love and friendship. Helping with its restoration is my way to say thank you to Orkney and all the people here for being so friendly and special’.
The care of the building is managed by the Italian Chapel Preservation Committee, which has been delighted to welcome Antonella back to Orkney. One of the Committee members, Morag Ewing, is a local art teacher and has been working with Antonella over the last few weeks to watch her at work and learn some of the restoration techniques for herself.
‘Morag is very talented and we have been working together so I can share my experience with her,’ said Antonella. ‘Restoration requires a different approach and the original painting needs to be respected. Morag is sensitive about the preservation of the paint work at the Chapel and it’s fantastic that she’ll be able to carry the work on’.
The legacy of the Italian Chapel and the men who created it will last long into the future, especially with people like Antonella, Morag and the Preservation Committee involved, ensuring the building and the story can continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.
The Italian Chapel is open at the following times:
April and October - 10am - 4pm.
June, July, August - 9am - 6.30pm.
May, September - 9am - 5pm.
November, December, January, February and March - 10am - 1pm.
To make a booking phone 01856 781580 during opening hours. Admission is £3.00 per person, with free entry to those 12 and under. A season ticket is also available, costing £10 for one year from date of issue. Payment is by cash (sterling) only.