By Force of Nature and Hand of Man
The Old Man of Hoy has what you might call a younger brother on Mainland Orkney. Yesnaby Castle is a sea stack in the middle of one of the most beautiful bays on Orkney in the parish of Sandwick and thankfully there is no long arduous trek to get there. Parking by some WW2 gun emplacements there is a gentle walk along the cliff tops with a wide view out to the ocean. The cliff face here is scarred by the pounding surf and several sea stacks rise like fingers pointing to the sky.
One of these in particular drew our attention – Yesnaby Castle. It stands on a plinth for all the world like some kind of sporting trophy. And I suppose it is, in a way, for Yesnaby is often used by climbers as a practice piece for the taller and more imposing older brother over there on Hoy.
Smaller it may be but, looking at it, we couldn’t work out how climbers would actually get onto the rock in the first place. There is no link to the adjacent cliff face and the sea surrounding it was roiling and boiling. How on earth could you ever get onto the rock in the first place? It was impossible wasn’t it?
On the way back to the car I noticed a couple of blokes coming towards us carrying heavy backpacks. One of them was wearing bright pink lycra pants and the other a vivid red top. It was two of the guys we had seen climbing the Old Man. We stopped and chatted to them; it seemed they had topped out on Old Man and were now heading to Yesnaby Castle to climb that. ‘How on earth are you going to get over there?’, we asked. ‘Timmy here is going to swim over and throw a line’, said Mick. Well, good luck with that we thought, having seen the surf.
‘Say hello to Erik’, said Timmy, ‘he’s following us.’ He was the third member of the team we saw climbing in Hoy. And sure enough there he was, trekking along with a woman sporting a massive coil of climbing rope around her shoulders, leading a dog and carrying a little hand bell. We stopped to chat with Erik and the reason for the handbell became apparent. He was blind! Wow! Doesn’t it make you feel humble when you come across someone who is able to conquer their disadvantage (NOT disability) and succeed at such an extreme sport? What an inspiration.
Yesnaby is but a little way distant from another pile of rocks, these ones placed not by the force of nature but by the hand of man at least 4,500 years ago. As to how Skara Brae was discovered makes for interesting reading. In 1850 a great storm blew across Orkney. It blew away some of the sand covering the site and in the morning local villagers found the remains of house walls standing exposed.
The local landowner, William Watt, explored two of the exposed houses and then in the 1860s further excavation work took place but it wasn’t until the early years of the 20th century that proper archaeological surveys were conducted when it was recognised that this was the best preserved Neolithic settlement in the whole of Europe.
House 7 is the most complete dwelling on the site, being almost intact, but you can’t visit it at the moment. Back in the 1920s the house was on display but in order to protect it the Office of Works (now Historic Scotland) built a glass dome over it. Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect to what was intended because the weight of the glass compressed the walls and the range of temperature and humidity that resulted caused the wall to crack. The house is now turfed over and the doorways sealed but in the long term there is the hope that it will be open again.
In the meantime a replica of the house has been constructed so that you can wander around it and get an idea of what life might have been like all those years ago. What is so special about Skara Brae is that some of the stone furniture in the houses still survive. Orkney does not and never did have much in the way of trees but the local flagstone is easily split, even with rudimentary tools. So opposite the doorway of each house you find a structure which has been described as a dresser. They dominate the view of anyone entering the house so the supposition is that they were used to display valuable objects.
The houses also have stone box beds projecting from the walls. These would have been filled with material such as animal fleece and bracken for warmth.
Each house also contains a central hearth. Some houses also have stone boxes which at one time were sealed with clay and it is believed that these were for soaking limpets to use as fish bait. Living by the sea the inhabitants of the village would almost certainly have been fishermen.
The passageways are very narrow and the doorways small. But archaeologists tell us that this wasn’t because the inhabitants were so much smaller than us but that it was a way of keeping wind and weather out and the warmth in.
Skara Brae is a fascinating place to visit and there is so much more to it than I can relate here so you can look it up online if you want to find out more. We came away with a feeling that, though they lived at least 4,500 years ago and only had rudimentary tools, our ancestors were sophisticated and very skilled, were organised, may have had some form of religion or worship, and were capable of works of art. I don’t for a moment expect that one of them would have been called Boris – they were too highly evolved for that!
Orkney abounds in ancient ruins. The Broch of Gurness dates from about the 1st Century BC and was occupied by both Picts and Vikings. A broch is a fortified house or tower. There are numerous chambered tombs and cairns. There are Norse settlements and the site of the last battle to be fought on Orkney at Summerdale in 1529.
And there are reminders everywhere of more recent battles; the lookout posts and gun emplacements on any high ground. The sunken ships in Scapa Flow and, of course, the Churchill Barriers which are such a very visible reminder of conflict. But even the terrible tragedy WW2 has its softer side, one which we nearly didn’t visit because we thought it might be a bit too crowded.
Italian POWs captured during the North Africa campaign were sent to Orkney to help construct the Churchill Barriers and were housed in Camp 60. The camp consisted of 13 cheerless huts but the Italians constructed paths and planted flowers to prink it up. A theatre was built and a recreation hut , complete with concrete billiard table.
The one thing the camp lacked was a place for religious worship but, with a new camp commandant, an enthusiastic padre and a talented artistic prisoner Domenico Chiocchetti, a plan emerged to build one. Two Nissen huts were joined end to end and Chiocchetti gathered a band of fellow prisoners to construct what was to become a truly magnificent and beautiful building.
The prisoners had to use the materials to hand, of course. A facade was erected to hide the outline of the huts.
Inside, the unsightly corrugated iron of the hut was hidden by plaster-board, the altar, altar-rail and holy water stoop were constructed from concrete, candelabra were made from scrap iron and brass and an amazing sanctuary screen was fashioned by a talented smith from wrought-iron. For the entrances on either side of the sanctuary a pair of gold curtains were purchased from a firm in Exeter and paid for out of the prisoners’ welfare fund.
But what stops you in your tracks as you enter this building is Chiocchetti’s artwork adorning the walls and ceiling. The vision of this one man is staggering. With the help of his small band of men he painted the walls to look like brickwork with a dado rail that imitates carved stone. He painted replica stained glass windows which really do look as though the sun were shining through them. Angelic figures are painted on the curved roof of the sanctuary but the crowning glory is the altar piece depicting the Madonna and Child. It is a true masterpiece which Chiocchetti based on a holy picture he carried with him all through the war.
I am not at all a religious person but this simple chapel does take your breath away and make you stand still in awe and wonder. And it has rightly become a place of reverence for many, many people in Orkney, in Italy and throughout the world. For something we were not at all sure about wanting to visit it became a wonderful experience and a reminder that, even in the depth of conflict and pain, still there can be beauty created.
I realise that for many the Italian Chapel will be a testament to the works of God. But for me it has a much more human scale to it. The chapel is testament to man, and to the vision and artistry of one man in particular – Domenico Chiocchetti : 15.05.1910 – 07.05.1999