Kirkwall, Orkney Islands…. North of Scotland! 59 Degrees North
Can you imagine, today we are at the far northern end of Scotland in the Orkney Islands. We are at the same latitude as Oslo, Norway, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Juneau, Alaska.
As we come into the port at Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, our first thought is how much the countryside looks like the Falkland Islands, except there is more elevation here….lots of green rolling hills, windswept and treeless. The port is along Scapa Flow an inlet from the North Sea which was home to the Royal Navy’s fleet during both World War I and II. Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468, although it was founded by Norwegians.
We hopped aboard a bus and headed out on an hour’s trip across the rolling windswept hiss. Past sheep and more sheep until we reached the Highland Park Distillery. As on past trips we have found that 9 or 10 am is the perfect time for a glass of whiskey, this was no exception… LOL Geez ;-) We toured the distillery, which has been producing Scotch whiskey since 1796. They have 2 kilns…the old one has been in continuous
use since 1796 and the “new” one was built in 1926! The entire process to make the alcohol was so interesting, and the flavor of all these single malt Scotch whiskeys comes from the fire used to dry the malt. The malt comes from barley imported from other parts of Scotland as the moisture of the malt grown on this island is too moist. The flavor of the final product is a result of the peat used to fire the drying process. The peat is hand-dug locally on this island, dried, and then burned. The smoke provides the unique flavor for this specific brand of whiskey. The whiskey gets its light golden color from the casks in which the alcohol is stored for 12 years before being shipped to Glasgow for bottling. Burning peat is used to “toast” the insides of the whiskey storage casks when they are made in Spain...the casks at his distillery cost 700 pounds each and are made from 20% American oak and 80% Spanish oak. Since Jean is ½ Italian, after our whiskey break we head out over the plains to a place that has been on her bucket list. The Italian Chapel.
Italian Chapel was built by Italian prisoners during World War II. Churchill ordered Italian prisoners captured in North Africa to be transported to these windswept islands to construct concrete barriers tween the islands (gaps), to keep German U boats out of the harbors and to protect the British Navy stationed here. Over time the Italians were allowed to build a chapel. They were given two Quonset huts which were put together to form a single building. During regular work hours, the Italian prisoners would build gigantic concrete blocks and then transport them to the “gaps” between the islands and dump them into the water, to form barriers so enemy boats could not enter. There were 4 of these barriers built between the gaps in the islands. The chapel was made of leftover materials from the camp. The inside is simply beautiful and looks like it is made of brick and plaster…but not at all… it is all painted to look that way. When the war ended and the Italian prisoners were sent home.
An interesting thing about the Italian Chapel was that one of the prisoners stayed on after the war, after he was released, to complete the interior
of the Chapel. 16 years later in the 1950’s he returned to help restore the chapel as it was deteriorating badly. The people of Orkney, jumped in to help him and ever since, it has been considered a chapel of peace and good will with people from Scotland going to Italy and vice versa.
On the way back to port we also had a chance to tour the St. Magnus Cathedral and cemetery. Some of the tombstones date back to the 12th
Century. The cathedral was founded in 1137. After the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the cathedral was used for Protestant worship, but today the cathedral belongs to the people of Orkney and can be used by any Christian denomination. We never even thought about these islands before (well, Jean did as she wanted to see the Italian Chapel) but…this is really a lovely place. Hope you get to
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