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Blair Douglas – Italian Chapel Suite

Inspired by the chapel created by Italian prisoners of war that has become Orkney’s most visited tourist attraction

domenico chioccetti painting

domenico chioccetti painting

While imprisoned on Orkney during World War II, Italian prisoners of war built this chapel: Mediterranean Catholic church in front, quonset hut in back.

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Blair DouglasBack in 2009 (article here) Blair Douglas, one of Scotland’s foremost musicians,  penned a composition in honour of the Scots- Barga footballer, Giovanni or Johnny Moscardini, who though born in Falkirk, Scotland  in 1897, took to the field a total of nine times for ‘Azzurri’ between 1921 and 1925.

The tune “Il Saluto di Giovanni Moscardini”, (Johnny Moscardini’s Salute)-  a reel for pipes and drums, brass band, strings, and percussion. Whilst composed in the Scottish traditional idiom, had distinct Mediterranean influences. Il Saluto is up-tempo and exhilarating as would befit a tune named for a prolific striker such as Johnny Moscardini.

This morning another CD from Blair Douglas arrived in the barganews offices and once again there is a distinct link between Scotland and Italy. The title of his latest work – Italian Chapel Suite.

To understand what it was that prompted the musician to compose this music we have to take a trip back in time to Scotland during  the Second World War.

The Churchill Barriers – On 14 October 1939, the Royal Navy battleship HMS Royal Oak was sunk at her moorings within the natural harbour of Scapa Flow by the German U-boat U-47. Shortly before midnight on 13 October U-47, under the command of Günther Prien, had entered Scapa Flow through Kirk Sound between Lamb Holm and the Orkney Mainland.

Although the shallow eastern passages had been secured with measures including sunken block ships, booms and anti-submarine nets, Prien was able to navigate the U-47 around the obstructions at high tide. He launched a torpedo attack on the Royal Navy battleship while it was at anchor in Scapa Flow. The U-47 then escaped seaward using the same channel by navigating between the block ships.In response, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill ordered the construction of several permanent barriers to prevent any further attacks. 

Around 500 Italian prisoners of war were transported from the heat of the North African desert to the freezing cold of an Orkney winter at the beginning of 1942 and were sent to Camp 60 on the tiny island of Lamb Holm in order to work on the Churchill Barriers, sealing the eastern entrances to Scapa Flow, harbour of the British Home Fleet.

They requested a proper place of worship and in 1943, it was agreed between Major Thomas Pyres Buckland, Camp 60’s new commandant, and Father Gioacchino Giacobazzi, the Camp’s priest, that a place of worship should be built. Two nissen huts were joined end-to-end with the intention of creating a chapel at one end and a school at the other.

Domenico Chiocchetti did most of the interior decoration. The other principle men that worked on the chapel were Buttapasta, a cement worker; Palumbi, a smith; Primavera and Micheloni, electricians; Barcaglioni, Batto, Devitto, Fornaiser, Pennisi, Sforza and many others.

A labour of love, artistic skill, and craftsmanship transformed the two huts into a moving monument to faith and peace.” The Italian Chapel (La Chiesetta Italiano di Orkney).


What is it that made prisoners of war work so feverishly with partially or totally inadequate means at their disposal? It was the wish to show to oneself first, and to the world then, that in spite of being trapped in a barbed wire camp, down in spirit, physically and morally deprived of many things, one could still find something inside that could be set free – ex-POW Bruno Volpi


Fascinated by the story of the origins of the Chapel, Scottish musician and composer Blair Douglas has composed a  fitting tribute to the dedication of the prisoners.

The music was performed and recorded in St Magnus Centre in Kirkwall. 

The album includes fiddle, viola, harp, cello and flute arrangements, two pieces by the City of Kirkwall Pipe Band and a beautiful ‘a Capella’ song by The Mayfield Singers.

The CD can be bought on line here 

12 Tracks: Orcadian Welcome * Regina Pacis (Queen Of Peace) * On This Rock * La Stella Della Speranza (The Star of Hope) * Chiocchetti’s Waltz * St Catherine’s Tears * Sunset On The Flow * Orcadian Salute To Camp 60 * Little Iron Heart (Palumbi’s Love) * Jesu, Jesu, Prega Per Noi (Jesus, Pray For Us) * Lambholm Addio (Lambholm Farewell) * St Mary’s.


Its form and instrumentation, featuring largely harp, violin, viola, cello and flute, might be different from some of Douglas’ other work, which won him the Scots Trad Music Awards Composer of the Year title in 2008, but the actual notes are yet another example of his ability to capture places and people with soulful feeling. That Douglas is affected by the prisoners’ personal stories as much as their efforts is clear but equally impressive is his command of material, including a choral hymn, in bringing it all together with a unity of purpose in a handsome package designed by his wife, Marion.

Rob Adams – Herald Scotland




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