By Charlie Wellingham
The conclusion of the Scholars’ month in Scotland was a short tour of the Orkney Islands, marking the most northerly point achieved during our explorations of the British Isles thus far. Orkney’s strategic position of defence against sea-faring foes has seen it under attack at many stages in its history; from Viking long boats to German U-Boats, each age leaving indelible marks on the fascinating narrative of such a small population. The projects we visited are particularly interesting as they exemplify some of the contrasting approaches to managing historical sites that we have experienced so far after six months of our Scholarship. They illustrate the vast spectrum of conservation philosophies, and how the application of each can either be rationally justified or crudely inappropriate, depending on the case by case circumstances of the site.
4000 years before the Vikings, and 5000 years before today, the Neolithic population of Orkney lived in close-knit communal groupings of roundhouses – such as those discovered at Scara Brae in 1850, when a powerful storm blew the top off of the turfed mounds just beyond the garden walls at Skaill House. The site was analysed and recorded by renowned archaeologist Professor Gordon Childe, and awarded UNESCO World Heritage status as one of the most complete examples of a Neolithic settlement in Europe. Scara Brae is just one of a chain of sites across mainland Orkney that would have been inhabited concurrently in approx 3000 BC; including ceremonial standing stone circles and cairns. The Scholars also visited Maes Howe burial chamber, a confined stone enclosure below a mound in the earth, accessed by a low 10 metre tunnel. Further to the astonishing prehistoric structure, the surfaces of the interior were covered in engraved Viking runes dating back to the 12th century, when marauding invaders sheltered in the cairn for survival.
The upkeep and presentation of these sites shows a ‘preservative’ approach to a historic site; where survival of original fabric is of paramount importance, and all efforts are taken to retain the atmosphere of the sites upon their discovery as archaeological relics, without compromising their authenticity with imitation or conjecture.
In a bid to entrap German submarines that circumnavigated the northern tip of Scotland (and in response to the sinking of HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow), Winston Churchill ordered the immediate construction of causeways between several of the islands in the Orkney archipelago between 1940 and 1944. To facilitate the speedy construction, 550 Italian prisoners of war were sent to Orkney, and housed in a P.O.W camp on South Ronaldsay for 2 years.
Although numerous interesting and often unique structures survive from this militarised chapter of Orkney’s history – the most evocative is the ‘Italian Chapel’ that the P.O.Ws built for their own use so they could practice their Catholic faith; the chapel is housed in a typical Nissen hut bequeathed to them by their allied captors. The entire front of the utilitarian military structure is hidden behind a sculpted concrete facade, complete with crocketed bellcote and doric portico, which is just a small taster in preparation for the exquisitely painted interior. Several panels inside the chapel explain how the building was left to the people of Orkney upon the decommissioning of the camp and mobilisation of the prisoners back to Italy in 1944. Twenty years later the Italian artist responsible for overseeing the decoration of the chapel was invited back to South Ronaldsay in order to advise on the careful conservation and cleaning of the interiors.
This restoration of the serene space under the watchful eye of the original artist follows a ‘restorative’ approach to a historic site; where the significance of the original aesthetic vision is considered to transcend the intrinsic patination of the aging brick, concrete and paint surfaces that compose it, and it is conserved intact as the artwork that it truly is.
Designer, Maker, Orkney
Some 50 years after the discovery of Scara Brae, the island of Hoy was chosen as the location for a new house in the Arts and Crafts style by William Lethaby, fresh from his apprenticeship in the Studio of Richard Norman Shaw. Lethaby did not complete many built projects, and a large part of his legacy was his academic writing and pioneering approaches to architectural education that sought to unite the separate disciplines of ‘designing’ and ‘making’ (indeed the SPAB Scholarship continues to champion this philosophy, and as such is named in his honour). From the quiet solitude of the arched chapel, to the carved symbology of the distinctive triple gable; Melsetter House on Hoy is considered by many to be Lethaby’s most accomplished built work.
The homely welcome of Melsetter and day to day activities of the family that dwells there exemplify what I consider to be the best way of ensuring the survival of our historic sites – through use, life and love. There is no need to emphasise the story of the house as a ‘survivor’, or overtly celebrate the century-old craftsmanship; both are self evident in the cups and saucers, paintings and photographs, desks and lamps, letters and fountain pens. Trophies of a life well lived and a house well loved.