WHEN writing her novel set in Orkney and inspired by wartime events, Caroline Lea found herself captivated by the story of the Italian Chapel that stands on the small uninhabited island of Lamb Holm.

The Metal Heart, published later this month, draws on the real-life history behind the building – famously made from two Nissen huts joined end-to-end – with its distinctive whitewashed facade and highly ornate, hand-painted interior.

The chapel, created by the Italian prisoners-of-war brought to Orkney during the Second World War to construct the Churchill Barriers in Scapa Flow, has since become a much-beloved symbol of peace and hope.

“I wanted to write a story about the more domestic side of the Second World War and the way that must have shifted allegiances within a small community,” says Lea. “I am fascinated by small communities and islands. I come from Jersey and that may have something to do with it.

“When I was mulling over the idea, I came across this amazing chapel. The story behind it and the resilience of the people was instantly appealing.”

Lea felt a connection to something which runs deep in her veins. The landscapes of Jersey, where she was born and grew up, still bear the scars of the Second World War when the Channel Islands were under German occupation.

That was a subject she tackled in her 2016 debut When the Sky Fell Apart. By contrast, says Lea, The Metal Heart was an opportunity to examine how the war affected life on a markedly different set of islands, hundreds of miles to the north.

More than a thousand men, mainly captured on the battlefields of north Africa, were brought to Orkney in 1942, where they spent the next three years living in prisoner-of-war camps.

HeraldScotland: Author Caroline Lea has written The Metal Heart set on Orkney during the Second World War. Picture: Bill WatersAuthor Caroline Lea has written The Metal Heart set on Orkney during the Second World War. Picture: Bill Waters

The 40-year-old author spent many hours researching and exploring Orkney. It soon became evident, says Lea, that while her latest novel would be based on historical events, the characters contained in its pages should be fictionalised.

“I am always wary with writing historical fiction about the line between fact and fiction,” she says. “I taught creative writing at Warwick University and would tell people, ‘As soon as you start writing about anything, even if it feels like fact, you are fictionalising.’

"I wanted to have the freedom to create something where I didn’t feel tied down by loyalty to a particular real-life person or worrying about misrepresentation. It was a deliberate decision.”

It is part of island life that you never know what perils – or would-be invaders – might wash up on your shores. The Metal Heart is told through the eyes of two Orcadian women who find their reclusive way of life uprooted by the arrival of Italian prisoners-of-war.

The siblings – Dorothy and Constance – have been ostracised by the close-knit community in Kirkwall and fled the mainland for the fictional Selkie Holm (a larger and more untamed version of Lamb Holm) to live in an abandoned, crumbling shepherd’s bothy.

After a British warship is torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in Scapa Flow, they learn that their island is to be used as a POW camp whose thousand-odd inhabitants will be put to work quarrying stone and building the formidable Churchill Barriers in a bid to stop a repeat attack.

Lea deftly taps into an age-old theme: suspicion and mistrust of outsiders. Woven throughout The Metal Heart is the overarching thread and potent reminder that – on both sides of enemy lines – there are always innocents caught up in the cruel, unforgiving machinery of war.

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“I wanted that idea of closeness between the two sisters, a link between these girls who have had to survive, fend for themselves and are outcasts within this small community,” says Lea. “Then you bring in other people – the soldiers – who are also outcasts.

“I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be in a prisoner-of-war camp in the north African desert, then being taken to what must have felt like a northern wilderness and being made to build these barriers on Orkney.”

Her novel sees the sisters overcome their fears to volunteer as nurses, caring for the prisoners who become sick or injured building the barriers. Friendships are formed and kindred spirits are found. There comes a seed of hope with plans to build the chapel.

That was something Lea felt when she stepped inside the Italian Chapel on a research trip to Orkney.

“I did get goosebumps,” she says. “And I had a little cry. It is so beautiful; I felt a sense of awe. What I found inspiring is that it was created in the midst of all this darkness and despair. The act of creation itself is such a hopeful act.

“Creativity during any time of oppression is hard because it is about visualising a time beyond the darkness. Being in the chapel, that came across so strongly. The attention to detail and beauty is contrasted against the fact that so much of it was created using scrap from warships. That in itself is beautiful but also brutal.

HeraldScotland: The Madonna and Child painting inside the Italian Chapel in Orkney. Picture: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/GettyThe Madonna and Child painting inside the Italian Chapel in Orkney. Picture: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty

“I loved the idea of remaking and reinvention and taking something that was originally for such a dark purpose and changing it into something that is full of optimism and light.”

The Italian Chapel, which stands proudly on Lamb Holm, is innovative in its design. The entrance facade was created out of concrete, concealing the corrugated iron huts beneath, while the interior was transformed into a tiny basilica-style space.

Other clever features include light holders made from corned beef tins, with the baptismal font created from the inside of a car exhaust covered in a layer of concrete.

Among those in Camp 60 on Lamb Holm was a talented artist, Domenico Chiocchetti, who was tasked with transforming the two Nissen huts into a chapel. He was assisted by other tradesmen, including Giuseppe Palumbi, a blacksmith, and Domenico Buttapasta, a cement worker.

Chiocchetti carried with him a small prayer card, depicting an image of the Madonna and Child by Nicolo Barabino, that he had been given by his mother before leaving his home in Italy.

It was on this that Chiocchetti based his painting above the chapel altar. When his fellow prisoners were released shortly before the end of the war, Chiocchetti remained on the island to finish decorating the chapel.

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Likewise, The Metal Heart – from which the novel takes its title – was also a real object created by skilled blacksmith Palumbi. It can be seen embedded in the floor of the chapel.

According to Lea’s research, which she shares in the addendum of the book, Palumbi made it as a symbol of his love for an Orcadian woman. “He had a wife and family in Italy, so left his heart behind in Orkney,” she explains.

While this story provided inspiration for her writing, Lea is keen to emphasise that she didn’t base the character of Cesare – the charming Italian POW who paints the chapel’s intricate frescoes in her novel – upon any single prisoner.

That is a line that Lea has tried to tread with great care. The complex boundaries of historical fiction are something we return to throughout our conversation.

“It is still one of my main worries about the novel,” she admits. “I have fictionalised with the best of intentions – because I don’t want to hijack history – but I am painfully aware of how the fictionalisation itself might feel like a repossession. Do you know what I mean?”

Equally, though, those blurred lines are something she is able to make a virtue of while conjuring the fierce and mesmerising landscapes in The Metal Heart. Renaming Lamb Holm as Selkie Holm allowed Lea to pay homage to another Scots legend.

Growing up surrounded by the sea, the author had heard stories about selkies – mythical “seal folk” who are able to shed their skin, or coat, and become human – but it wasn’t until researching The Metal Heart that she delved deeper into the origins.

“There were intricacies to do with the myth I wasn’t aware of,” says Lea. “I had assumed it was something to do with women and seals and that idea of sailors confusing the two.”

HeraldScotland: Author Caroline Lea has written The Metal Heart set on Orkney during the Second World War. Picture: Bill WatersAuthor Caroline Lea has written The Metal Heart set on Orkney during the Second World War. Picture: Bill Waters

She soon learned there was a bit more to it. The fable goes that a young man – typically a fisherman or crofter – sees a selkie disrobed and dancing on a beach. He steals and hides her coat. With the seal skin held hostage, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man.

Several years pass, but eventually the selkie finds her coat and finally escapes back into the sea – leaving the man heartbroken and alone.

“The idea of a man taking the seal skin and keeping it, that idea of possession, was something I found a bit chilling,” says Lea. “But I loved it as an overlay, this idea of possession and ownership and transformation.

“It is beautiful to have this myth that has captivity and escape within it. I liked weaving that in alongside some of the darker myths, such as the nuckelavee, a skinless creature that comes out of the sea and can breathe poison over the crops.

“Then, alongside that, I invented some myths about the island because I used Lamb Holm as an inspiration but fictionalised around that.”

There are details in the novel that do relate to actual events. On October 14, 1939, the German submarine U-47 entered Scapa Flow and torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak, which sunk with the loss of 835 lives (this moment looms large in The Metal Heart, albeit with Lea changing the ship’s name to HMS Royal Elm).

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Sir Winston Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the construction of barriers that would block off the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow, sealing the defences and making the Royal Navy Home Fleet base more secure.

The Italian prisoners-of-war were used for much of the work. However, with the use of POW labour for war efforts prohibited under the Geneva Convention, the barriers were instead justified as being “causeways” that would bring “improvements to communications” for the Orcadians.

Today, the Churchill Barriers still link the Orkney mainland to South Ronaldsay, via Lamb Holm, Glimps Holm and Burray.

“The prisoners did protest against building the barriers,” says Lea. “A compromise was reached and the barriers were renamed in a way that made them sound less military. Part of that renaming meant it was then seen as building something for the islanders.”

The construction ushered in a sea change in other ways too. “I was struck by how much the process of building the barriers must have entirely changed the experience of island life afterwards,” she says.

“Before then, you had these separate places where, although you might know someone on a neighbouring island, unless you had a boat and chose to go there, you were quite cut off from them.

HeraldScotland: Interior of Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, OrkneyInterior of Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, Orkney

“The idea that the barriers would have forced people from different islands to mingle far more really struck me as something positive in terms of forging a wider community.”

Community, though, is a construct Lea challenges and redefines throughout her novel. The sisters, Dorothy and Constance, have holed up on Selkie Holm to escape the whispers that pursue them.

“A small community can write your history for you,” she says. “You have no control over that. There is almost a parallel with social media and the way it has shrunk our community.

"It has opened up things, but it also means you can’t put a foot wrong on social media because otherwise you will have this story told about you. You lose control of that story and suddenly you are this person.

“That is something which has perhaps always been present in small communities, having your story written for you. I was quite drawn to writing about people who are trying to escape from that.”

When penning The Metal Heart, Lea was struck by the juxtaposition of the stories she was telling and the challenges of stoking her own creativity during the current pandemic.

“The biggest takeaway was creation in this time of darkness,” she says. “That was brought home and has seemed more relevant over the past year.

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“Not that I am trying to compare lockdown to a prisoner-of-war experience, but it is that idea of your world shrinking and trying to do something which reaches beyond that. The way that a creative act brought a community together.

“Art and creativity are quite often the things that survive, that we remember and inspire us. The chapel is more than 75 years old, yet it is still an inspirational place that would give you chills and tears when you walk in because it represents so much more than it physically is. It reaches beyond itself.”

The Metal Heart by Caroline Lea is published by Michael Joseph on April 29, priced £14.99.