The south islands of Orkney are home to a road trip like no other. Born from a time of conflict and tragedy, the Churchill Barriers are a relic from Orkney’s role in the Second World War. A series of 4 concrete causeways stretch between the isles of Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm, Burray and South Ronaldsay, linking up the isles to the Mainland. Take a drive down the A961 from Kirkwall to Burwick and discover the story of these remarkable structures as you travel a unique winding road steeped in history.
The Barriers were built under order of Winston Churchill, as a means of protecting the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow, which was an important naval anchorage during the war. Until the building of the Churchill barriers, blockships (ships that had been deliberately sunk as a defence) and anti-submarine netting were the only defences protecting the channels into Scapa Flow, but they proved severely inadequate when the German submarine U-17 crept undetected into the Flow in October 1939 and sunk the HMS Royal Oak, resulting in the loss of 834 lives.
Work on the Churchill Barriers began just months later in May 1940 and took over 4 years to complete; ironically being officially opened in May 1945 – just as the war was drawing to an end. As a result, their lasting role was not as a defence but rather to serve as a vital link between island communities and the Mainland.
The other lasting legacy from Barriers’ construction can be found on the island of Lamb Holm and is not at all what you’d expect to find on an island in the North of Scotland – the strikingly beautiful Italian Chapel.
The construction of the barriers was a massive engineering undertaking, and much of the labour was provided by Italian prisoners of war who had been captured while fighting in North Africa. A total of 550 prisoners were transported to a camp on Lamb Holm, named Camp 64. Following a request from the camp priest, Fr Giacobazzi, two Nissen huts in the camp were allowed to be joined together to provide a chapel. Among the prisoners was artist Domenico Chiocchetti, who undertook the task of painting the interior of the Chapel, while the exterior was transformed with the help other tradesmen in the camp. The result is a timeless masterpiece – a stunning work of art standing as a symbol of peace and kindness from a time of war, that continues to inspire thousands of visitors each year.
As you cross each barrier you can still see the wrecks of the blockships in the shallow bays created by the causeways, and there are fantastic golden sandy beaches to enjoy along the way. The blockships also provide and incredible place to snorkel or dive if you don’t mind the cold water! Enjoy the outstandingly scenic drive across all 4 barriers as you meander from island to island along Orkney’s most iconic road.
Words and Photographs by @rachelvisual