Wednesday, July 01, 2015


On one day of our Orkney holiday we visited the Italian Chapel. This was built round two Nissen huts out of cheap materials - plaster, concrete, driftwood, scrap iron - by Italian prisoners of war during World War 2. Various of them were tradesmen and one was an artist. It's amazingly lovely and touching.

This is just a trompe l'oeil window on flat plasterboard.

You can see the love, effort and faith that went into the building and decorating of the chapel, to make a reminder of their homeland.

And this is Skara Brae, a Neolithic village (5000 years old) that was (partly) uncovered in a storm in 1850 and subsequently excavated. There are Neolithic remains all over Orkney; this was the first we visited, but we saw quite a few more, and they share similar features. There are no trees to speak of on Orkney and so the people had no access to wood except perhaps driftwood. So they used stone, which is plentiful and which lends itself to being split into slabs (though without metal - this was still the Stone Age - it can't have been easy to do this).
Most of the houses have these "dressers" opposite the doors. Whether the people put ornamental things on them (it's so tempting to imagine that they might have put their favourite pot on the shelf, filled with some of the beautiful wild flowers that grow on Orkney) or simply used them for storage - or possibly some devotional objects - no one knows. The inhabitants also seem to have had stone beds - presumably filled with bedding made of heather or straw and covered with animal skins - and fireplaces in the middle of the rooms, and stone storage boxes and possibly stone fish tanks.
You do half-wonder if it's some elaborate hoax and you may see Barney Rubble driving along in his stone car... . But assuming that it's not, it's just so amazing to see how people might have lived so long ago. It makes you realise how like Neolithic people we must be... and how lucky we are in comparison.
This is a tomb, which bears some resemblance to the houses. We saw various tombs and they were all quite similar. The people seem to have put only bones in the tombs, on stone shelves - not whole bodies or even complete sets of bones. There's a theory that they may have moved bones in and out for some reason - maybe something to do with the stages of a journey to the afterlife, but no one knows.
The entrance to this tomb is very low, so a trolley is provided for you to lie on and push yourself backwards inside. Mr Life did this, though I, being shorter, just crawled.

These are the rocks just outside the tomb. I imagine they haven't changed a lot in the past 5000 years and you can see how they form natural slabs. It seems likely that the bodies were exposed on the rocks until the bones were picked clean by birds and animals.
And these are the Stones of Stenness, one of various henges (or at least bits of henges) on Orkney. Just as with Stonehenge, there are various theories about why they were erected, but no one actually knows.
It's all very humbling. We're here for a brief time and then we go. I'm not sure that our generation will leave anything so permanent behind.


  1. That is fascinating! I have long wanted to go there. What a great experience!

  2. Oh -- now I must add Orkney to my loooong bucket list. It looks wonderful and the little WWII church is very unexpected. We tear things down and rebuild so often that I fear you're right -- there won't be much here to say who we were in a few hundred years. Even our quilts aren't going to last THAT long! ;-D

  3. Thank you for the pictures, makes me even more sure I want to visit the Orkneys.

  4. I will never get there, but am enjoying your photos and anecdotes. I haven't got anything of interest on my blog lately, it is all doom and gloom at my end, so don't bother going there, it will only depress you after such a lovely trip, lol!

  5. I missed you. Speaking of Orkney -- there was a Dick Francis book that had a character with the first name Orkney. He said he had his name because he was conceived there. I don't believe he was a good guy.