874 miles from Lands End, John O'Groats is a well known village and ferry port near to the extreme north-eastern tip of the Scottish mainland. The village overlooks the Pentland Firth across which lie the Orkney Islands.
A tombstone preserved in the church at nearby Conisby is that of one John De Groot, a Dutchman who settled in the area in the 15th century. He ran a ferry across the Pentland Firth for which he charged a fare of 4d and this little silver coin became known as a ‘groat.’ So this man not only gave his name to a coin but he also gave it to that famous village known today as John O’Groats. De Groot built an octagonal house, now demolished, on a small mound there – the story goes that in order to settle a dispute and quarrels over precedence amongst his seven sons, he built the house with eight doors to enable himself and each of his sons to enter the house by his own door, and he furnished it with an octagonal table so that each could sit at the ‘head’. The site in marked by the mound and a flagpole. In 1875, a hotel with an octagonal tower was built nearby.
Orkney is an archipelago 70 islands some 12 miles across the Pentland Firth of which only 20 are inhabited. The ferry from John O' Groats reaches South Ronaldsway, one of several smaller islands now connected by road to the Mainland which is in turn surrounded by the other islands mainly to
South Ronaldsway and the other small islands to the east of the natural harbour known as Scapa Flow, were connected during WW2 by what is known as The Churchill Barriers.
These barriers are a series of four causeways which link the Orkney Mainland to South Ronaldsway via the islands of Burray, Lamb Holm and Glimps Holm, a total length of 1.5 miles. They were built in the 1940’s at the instigation of Winston Churchill as naval defences to protect the naval anchorage in Scapa Flow. They now carry the A961 road from Burwick To Kirkwall.
In 1939 the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Royal Oak was moored in Scapa Flow and on 14 October she was sunk in a night time attack by a German U-boat which had entered this natural harbour between the mainland and Lamb Holm island. 833 lives were lost and the sunken battleship is a designated war grave marked by a buoy next to Scapa Beach where there is a Memorial Garden.
Although the shallow eastern passage into Scapa Flow had been protected by sunken block ships and anti-submarine nets the U-boat was able to navigate around them at high tide and escaped the same way. The barriers were constructed using Italian prisoners of war to provide the labour. The use of POW labour for war effort work was prohibited under the Geneva Convention but their use was justified as ‘improvement to communications between the islands’ which resulted in the present day A961.
Gabions enclosing 250,000 tons of broken rock from local quarries were used as foundation and were covered by 66,000 locally cast 5 ton concrete blocks with 10 ton blocks alongside to act as wave breaks.
As a war grave, the remains of the Royal Oak are protected by a ‘cage’ and diver’s are forbidden to trespass. However a diver did recover the ship’s bell and after a period of time he handed the bell over to the authorities and it is now preserved in Kirkwall Cathedral as a memorial
The Italian Chapel is a very fine ‘tin tabernacle’ is situated on the tiny island of Lamb Holm.
During WW11 550 Italian prisoners of war, captured in North Africa, were housed on this previously uninhabited island between South Ronaldsway and The Mainland. They were to be involved in the construction of The Churchill Barriers.
Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, ordered four defensive concrete dykes to be constructed across the eastern approach to Scapa Flow and they became known as The Churchill Barriers. Today they carry a road linking the various islands, including Lamb Holm, to The Mainland.
The prisoners were housed at Camp 60 in 13 Nissen huts and they enhanced the camp themselves with the use of the readily available concrete and in 1943 the camp commandant authorised the use of two Nissen huts to provide a chapel for the prisoners. The huts were placed end to end and the interior was lined with plasterboard. The prisoners built a concrete façade complete with belfry to conceal the shape of the Nissen huts which they thickly coated in concrete. One of the prisoners, Domencio Chiocchetti, assisted by his fellow prisoners, painted the interior which resulted in a magnificent and spectacular work of art.
In 1960 Chiocchetti returned to Lamb Holm to restore his paintwork. This category A masterpiece is now under the auspices of a preservation committee.
This tiny metal heart can be seen on the floor of the chapel close to the altar rail. The story goes that one of the Italian POW's fell in love with a local girl. He was a married man and when the war was over he was forced to return to his homeland. He left a note for his lover telling her that he had left his heart in the chapel.
Chiocchetti also fashioned a statue of St George from barbed wire and concrete which still stands near to the church.
Kirkwall, Orkney's capital, stands on the Mainland and is dominated by its red sandstone cathedral.