Long Read #2: This Island Life by Maggie Ferguson

Italian Chapel
The Italian Chapel. Photo by Damien Shields via 1843.

Instinctively I distrust nostalgia. I consider it a dangerous feeling based on fantasies of the past that are simply not true. Two examples that come to mind are the fantasy of a sovereign England and of a white United States. Neither of these things ever existed. No country is sovereign because it must exist with its neighbours, but persuaded that it can take back control of its borders, Britain is leaving the European Union, apparently forgetting that Ireland, not to say its neighbours across the Channel, may want a say in the management of the shared border. Wishing to “Make America Great Again”, the United States has arrived at the point where its President cannot repudiate Nazis with guns. It can have perverse consequences: so burnished is the image of Dunkirk in Britain’s wartime memory, it is a struggle to recall that Dunkirk was a retreat.

My skepticism of nostalgia was upset though by reading Maggie Fergusson’s article about Orkney and its image of the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. Although I grew up in the north of Scotland I have never been to Orkney and despite hearing much about it, I do not think I’d ever seen a picture of the Italian Chapel.

To explain: the Italian Chapel was built by 200 Italian prisoners-of-war captured in 1942 in World War II’s Desert War. They were provided with two Nissen Huts for the purpose and with limited material started work on a highly ornate, if improvised, chapel in the Italian style. Their work was not finished by the end of the war in 1945, and so the decorator, Dominico Chiocchetti remained to complete the work. In 1960, he returned for restoration work.

It is a staggering story in which the understandable impulse to nostalgia takes on a quite different meaning. I don’t know if it was a labour of love or love of the divine that motivated Chiocchetti to delay his return, but one can imagine how their labour gave solace to the Italians during their imprisonment, probably making a difficult situation easier on all sides, while today Orkney is left with extraordinary remembrance of that difficult time as well as of human ingenuity and dedication.

Fergusson’s article is about Orkney in general. She has written about the islander and writer George Mackay Brown on a number of occasions in the Economist. Although an important writer in Scotland, his relative obscurity in the international agenda of that magazine is one of the eccentricities that make it a favourite. This article is from its sister magazine, 1843.



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