25 June 2010

The Shorkneys: Orkney (and Shetland) in the World Wars; the Italian Chapel

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

Orkney is probably best known for its neolithic sites, and rightfully so--they're undeniably haunting and unspeakably old. (Don't worry, we'll get to them in an upcoming post.)

But Orkney also had a major role to play in World War I and World War II, largely thanks to Scapa Flow, the enormous natural harbor bounded by the southern islands of the chain.

(Trust me, it's a big harbor. That's not more than 1/4 of it!)

During World War I, Scapa Flow was designated the main base of operations for the British Grand Fleet. Previously, British naval forces in Europe had been based along the English Channel, across from France, Britain's traditional enemy. But as the threat of war with Germany loomed, the British decided to move their forces to the north to make it easier to patrol Germany's various routes of access to the North Sea.

In fact, after World War I, the German fleet was moored in Scapa Flow while the belligerents were negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. Before the fate of the fleet was determined, however, the Germans scuttled all 78 ships, partly in protest over their extended captivity (the sailors' comrades in other branches had long since been sent home), and partly to prevent the ships from falling into British or French hands under the terms of the peace. The nine German sailors who died (under British gunfire) during the action are widely regarded as the last casualties of World War I.

Today, many of the German ships still lie on the floor of Scapa Flow, making Orkney a popular destination for scuba divers, despite the very chilly water. You can also see many of the blockships the British sunk in the approaches to Scapa Flow to prevent German raiders from entering the harbor.

For most of World War II, the British Fleet was in constant fear that a German U-boat might slip into Scapa Flow and wreak havoc on the ships moored there. It didn't take long for British fears to be realized: only a few weeks into the war, a German submarine did sneak into the harbor and sunk the HMS Royal Oak.

After the sinking of the Royal Oak, the British worked hard to seal off the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow. The results of these efforts can still be seen today: the Churchill Barriers, four causeways connecting the Orkney mainland to some of the southern islands.

The Italian Chapel

But the physical legacy of WWII isn't limited to sunken ships and military architecture: the Italian prisoners of war who helped build the Churchill Barriers also built the beautiful Italian Chapel on the tiny island of Lamb Holm.

The Italian Chapel is one of those unexpectedly wonderful little human-interest stories that litter the history of the Second World War. The bones of the building are two quonset huts joined together, and from the side the building is kind of mundane.

The rest, though, is anything but. The Italian prisoners, using bits of scrap metal and various tools and paints donated by their British captors, adorned the building with an elegant facade . . .

. . . elaborate painted walls and ceilings . . .

. . . altarpieces and candlesticks . . .

. . . lanterns (from corned beef tins, seen hanging in the long photos above), and a baptismal font (built around the bottom of an oil drum and a huge spring).

The majority of the Italian prisoners were sent home before the chapel could be finished, but the primary architect and artist, Domenico Chiocchetti of Moena, stayed on to complete his work.

A Further Note: This post has been mostly about the enduring physical legacy of the wars, seen in natural features like Scapa Flow or buildings like the Italian Chapel.

But it should also be said that, in terms of lives, Orkney and Shetland also contributed more than their fair share to the wars. We haven't read anything to confirm the hypothesis, but Nana supposes this is because in-demand naval skills were simply much more common in Orkney and Shetland than elsewhere, meaning that young men from these areas were more likely to find themselves in dangerous situations.

This legacy can be seen today at sites such as the memorial archway outside St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall . . .

. . . and at the cemetery in Lerwick, Shetland overlooking the Knab.

23 June 2010

Soccer Scandals

If you're following the World Cup, you may have noticed that today, and tomorrow, several critical matches are scheduled for the exact same time. That's a bit of a head-scratcher: after all, you only get so many World Cup matches. Why not let us see all of them - and of course benefit from the increased ad revenue?

You're going to need a bit of soccer background here.

The World Cup plays in two stages: a seeded tournament, in which the top two teams (of four) in each group advance, and a sudden death elimination tournament. We're nearing the end of stage 1. Each team in the group plays the other once - this year, the USA plays Slovenia, England, and Algeria. You get three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss. At the moment, this group is completely up in the air. Basically, whichever teams win tomorrow will advance, except Algeria, which will need a little outside help. When points are equal (for instance, two teams both have three points), the tie breaker is goals scored.

Right, you're saying. That makes it even dumber that the Slovenia-England happens at the same time as USA-Algeria. I can't watch the other game I care about because the game I care about is on!

Well, there's a reason for it.

In 1983, another group was in a near lock. Algeria had already defeated Chile, and was waiting for West Germany to play Austria. If Germany won and scored more than three goals, Germany and Algeria would advance. If Germany and Austria drew, or if Germany lost, then Austria and Algeria would advance. And the goals-scored tiebreaker system left one weird loophole in the middle. If Germany won and scored precisely one or two goals, both Germany and Austria would advance, leaving Algeria out.

Would you be shocked to find out that the final score was Germany 1, Austria 0?

And this wasn't even subtle: Germany scored 10 minutes in, and the teams just futzed around for another 80 minutes. The Algerians were incensed; German and Austrian fans were incensed (with one fan reportedly burning his own German flag); and the game-watching general public were incensed. FIFA (that's the ruling body for the World Cup) decided to allow the game to stand, but in all subsequent World Cups, the final games have been played simultaneously to avoid this sort of "gentleman's agreement" (which, to my historian's amusement, appears to be nicknamed the "non-aggression pact.")

So tomorrow, if you are watching and grumbling about changing channels to check both scores, look at it this way: At least if Algeria gets eliminated this year, it will have happened honestly.

22 June 2010

The Shorkneys: Getting to Orkney, Shetland, and Back

(Note: "Shorkney" is not a real word. We're just using it to write about our recent trip to Aberdeen, Orkney, and Shetland.)

Last week, Nana and I made the long trek from Edinburgh to Orkney, Shetland, and back.

It's not easy getting all the way up to 60° N, but that's part of the charm. There are regularly scheduled flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Kirkwall in Orkney and Lerwick in Shetland, but they cost a lot and tend to fill up fast in the summer. The more popular route involves a train or a drive and some combination of ferries, mostly operated by Northlink.

The shortest ferries run between Caithness (the northern tip of the Scottish mainland) and Orkney, crossing the very unpleasant Pentland Firth, where the North Sea and the North Atlantic meet, creating some pretty violent currents. A longer route runs overnight between Aberdeen and Shetland, stopping off in Orkney on the way.

We took the latter option, both because we were told to expect calmer seas and because Aberdeen is easier to get to than Caithness.

The ship itself (the "Hjaltland," using the Old Norse for "Shetland") was surprisingly nice. You never know what you're going to get when you hear the word "ferry," but the Hjaltland was less like a boat than it was like a small floating hotel.

When you board the Hjaltland, you enter a small lobby area, complete with an abstract sculpture of a Viking.

(With horns! Tut, tut: Vikings didn't wear horns!)

In addition to an array of cabins, the ship also had a cafeteria, a fancy sit-down restaurant, a gift shop, a "cinema" (chairs arranged around a large flat-screen), and two bars. The ship also had a misleadingly-named "sun deck," which was nevertheless a great spot for watching our departure from Aberdeen.

Our first leg of the trip took us from Aberdeen to Kirkwall in Orkney. It was an evening run, from 5pm to 11pm, so we didn't book any assigned space--we just camped out in the bar and watched the World Cup. There was a little difficulty getting from the ferry terminal to our guest house, as both Google and Lonely Planet seem to think that the Northlink ferries arrive at the small pier in the middle of town, not the larger pier on the outskirts. But Nana saved the day by hailing a bus!

Our second leg, from Kirkwall to Lerwick in Shetland, was a short overnight run. The cabins were all full by the time we booked, so we had to settle for sleeper seats in the recliner lounge.

The chairs were pretty comfy (Nana adds: So was the floor!), and certainly a whole lot better than you would get in coach on an overnight flight. But an airplane has at least one advantage over a ferry: the noise. On a plane, the jet engines drown out all the disgusting sounds people make when they sleep. On a ferry, you get to hear the symphony of farts, belches, and snores in their full glory.

The last and longest leg of our trip, from Lerwick back to Aberdeen, was also the comfiest. We were lucky to book a small twin cabin with a little window out onto the sea.

The cabin also came with a bathroom, complete with the world's smallest shower!

Bonus Fact: Did you know that you get less motion-sick if you're lying down?

Bonus Bonus Fact: After you spend a night on a ferry and then three hours on a train, you feel like the earth is shifting under your feet the following day! Whee!

21 June 2010

Getting our land legs back!

Nana and I just returned today from a week-long trip to Orkney and Shetland, two island groups on Scotland's northern fringes.

And I'm proud to report that, after even a very calm overnight ferry between Shetland and Aberdeen (compounded by three hours on the train), the ground has almost stopped shifting beneath my feet!

Look for a bevvy of "Shorkney" posts in the near future, plus a little dash about Aberdeen, capital of Scotland's North Sea oil industry.