Saturday, 8 June 2013

Orkney Island Brough of Deerness

Today we started early to get the Pentland Ferry from Gills Bay in Caithness to St Margaret's Hope on South Ronaldsay Island in the Orkney Islands.

Leaving Gills Bay

Arriving at St Margaret's Hope

Views over the Orkneys
Our first stop on the island was to see Tomb of Eagles perched above the dramatic South Ronaldsay cliffs, the Isbister Chambered Cairn - better known today as the ‘Tomb of the Eagles’. Discovered by chance by local farmer Ronnie Simison in the 1950s, the Stone Age tomb revealed an amazing collection of bones and artefacts, placed here some 5,000 years ago. Roughly half a mile inland from the tomb is a Bronze Age site. It comprises a mound of burnt stone and the remains of a stone building, named after the ‘Liddle’ farm where Ronnie uncovered them. Excavations at the site have led to important discoveries about how people lived and worked in Orkney 3,000 years ago. What he had at first thought might be a dwelling place was later confirmed to be a 5,000 year old Neolithic or Stone Age tomb. The maritime heath and grassland is alive with birds and wild flowers. Inland from the Stone Age tomb, Ronnie discovered a 3,000 year-old Bronze Age site. Excavations revealed a building complete with stone trough, water system and hearth, adjacent to a mound of burnt stone. Archaeologists agree that water was heated in the trough but there is much debate about how it was used. The passageway into the Tomb is 28” (70 cm) wide and 33” (85 cm) high. The quickest option is to crawl along the 3 metre entrance. The roof is 3 metres high with skylights providing light.

Inside the museum not at all related to the site was this beautiful Bird Goddess from France 4,000 BC 

The burnt mound was it a ceremonial gathering place, a sauna or a washing place?
 We continued along the walk to the Brough of Deerness.

Entering the tomb through the very small opening

The excavated side of the tomb.

The children's graves were on the outside of the tomb opposite the doorway facing the ocean

There are many eddies and currents running through the Pentland Firth and you see whirlpools and eddies depending on the tides and winds. One such whirlpool just north of Stroma is the Swelkie which according to Viking legend is caused by a sea witch turning the mill wheels to grind the salt to keep the sea salty.

In 1914 the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet moved to a new base in Scapa Flow. They needed somewhere suitable to take on a German Fleet based in the Baltic and this atoll-like stretch of water, one of the largest sheltered harbours in the world, was ideal for the needs of the Admiralty. On arrival the Navy found a wonderful harbour, but no defenses at all in place. Approaches were rapidly defended, and steps taken to close the narrow passages between five islands on the eastern side of Scapa Flow by sinking blockships. At the start of WWII the WWI defences were brought back into use and further blockships sunk. But they proved inadequate. On 14 October 1939, The German U-Boat, U-47, took advantage of a high tide to get past the blockships and into Scapa Flow. Once there, U-47 torpedoed HMS Royal Oak before leaving the way it had entered. 833 members of the Royal Oak's crew were killed. Within a month, Winston Churchill visited Orkney and ordered that work begin on the construction of four permanent barriers linking together the chain of islands from Mainland in the north to South Ronaldsay in the south. The contract began in May 1940 and formally opened on 12 May 1945: ironically just in time for the war's end. As a result their lasting role was not as a defense for Scapa Flow, but as a series of causeways linking the five islands together. The other lasting legacy of the building of the barriers came from the employment here of over 1300 Italian Prisoners of War, captured in North Africa. It is usually forgotten that 800 of these men were housed in camps on Burray. Much better known are the 550 who were housed in Camp 60, on the northern slopes of Lamb Holm. Today the site of the camp is marked by a statue of St George constructed from barbed wire coated in concrete. And it is also marked by a true masterpiece, the Italian Chapel. This was constructed by prisoners to serve the camp, and remains a lasting monument to the prisoners and to the Orcadians who befriended them. The total length of the four causeways was 9150 feet, or not far short of two miles. 40,000 cubic metres of rock was encased in wire cages and dropped into water up to 70 feet deep from overhead cableways. These were topped off with 300,000 tonnes of concrete blocks, the part of the structure most readily visible today. Material were quarried on Orkney, and concrete blocks were cast on an industrial scale on the islands before being brought to the cableways by a network of railways. Today, the three most northerly barriers remain much as built, though the roads crossing them have been upgraded over the years. The most southerly, Churchill Barrier No 4, no longer looks artificial. Over the years dunes have accumulated on the eastern side and as a result Burray and South Ronaldsay are no longer really separate islands. 

Driving from South Ronaldsay Island over the barriers – causeways you go to Burray then Glimps Holm then Lamb Holm then to East Mainland.

We then stopped to see the Italian Chapel. Prisoners of war were prevented by treaty from working on military projects, so the barriers became causeways linking the southern islands of Orkney together, which is what they remain today. The causeways are not all that remains to remind us of this period. On a bare hillside on the north side of the little island of Lamb Holm, overlooking the most northerly of the Churchill Barriers, is what has become known as the Italian Chapel. The Chapel, together with a nearby concrete statue of St George killing the dragon and an Italian flag fluttering atop a pole are all that remain of Camp 60. Camp 60 was home to the Italian prisoners from 1942 until early 1945. The camp comprised 13 huts, which the Italians improved with concrete paths (concrete was never in short supply during the construction of the Churchill Barriers) and gardens, complete with flower beds and vegetable plots. In the center of the camp, one of the prisoners, Domenico Chiocchetti, produced the statue of St George you can still see today, fashioned from barbed wire covered with concrete. The prisoners also worked to produce a theater and a recreation hut, complete with a billiard table made, perhaps inevitably, from concrete. One thing Camp 60 did lack was a chapel. In 1943 the camp acquired a new commandant, Major T.P. Buckland. He favoured the idea, as did Father Giacombazzi the Camp Padre. Late in 1943 two Nissen huts were provided. They were joined together end to end, with the intention of providing a chapel in one end and a school in the other. The work of turning the Nissen huts into a chapel fell to the prisoners themselves, led once more by Domenico Chiocchetti. The interior of the east end was lined with plasterboard and Chiocchetti started work on what is now the sanctuary. The altar and its fittings were made from concrete and were flanked by two windows made from painted glass. The gold curtains either side of the altar were purchased from a company in Exeter using the prisoners' own funds. Chioccetti then set to work on the painting of the interior of the sanctuary. The end result is a work of art that is magnificent even to jaded 21st Century eyes, and must have been utterly stunning to those imprisoned here in 1943. Another prisoner, Palumbo, who had been an iron worker in the USA before the war, spent four months constructing the wrought iron rood screen, which still complements the rest of the interior today. This showed up the plainness of the exterior of the chapel, so a number of the prisoners built the facade you can see today, again largely from concrete. The new facade had the effect of concealing the shape of the Nissen huts behind it, and came complete with a belfry, decorated windows, and a moulded head of Christ above the door. At the same time the metal exterior of the huts was thickly coated in concrete.

We then drove on to the Brough of Deerness and The Gloup at Mull Head. We walked along the coastline for 1 1/2 miles from The Gloup to the Brough of Deerness. The Gloup is a deep cleft linked to the sea: it was once a sea cave but much of the roof collapsed.

The Brough of Deerness are the remains of a settlement on the top of a large rock stack standing detached from the nearby cliffs, beyond the low remnants of the narrow neck of land that once connected it to the cliffs. The exact use of the Brough of Deerness has yet not fully been answered. Some feel it started life as an iron age clifftop fortification. Some feel the focus was as a pre-Norse Christian settlement and point as evidence to a number of circular features found in the 1930s: others suspect these date back only to the use of Mull Head as a naval gunnery range in the First World War! Excavations in the 1970s unearthed the one structure visible on the stack today, the remains of a chapel. This dates back to the pre-Norse period, but later fell into disuse. It was re-established on the same site in the Viking era, in the years around 1100, and continued in use until the 1500s and still later as a place of pilgrimage. Reasons for its abandonment are unclear. Perhaps the collapse of the neck of land providing the direct connection with the clifftop made access too difficult. The remains of the chapel stand four of five feet high. Dating from the late Norse period, this chapel is the focus of a complex archaeological mosaic, consisting of a bank and wall and a tight cluster of an estimated 30 structures.
The Gloup the viewing platform at the landward end gives an especially striking view along The Gloup and through the remaining part of the cave to the sea.

Stopping to rest on the steps through the dry stone wall

The Brough of Deerness Chapel

Wildflowers are growing everywhere on the island where there are no pesticides used to destroy them

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