A Scottish Compliment


The Orkney Chapel – built by Italian prisoners of war from two Nissen huts

I have an example of the Scots technique of passing a compliment.

I raised money to tell the story of the Orkney chapel on film for international television transmission. It took a long time to track down the remaining former Italian prisoners of war who helped build the famous Italian Chapel on Lang Holm, Orkney. If you know little of it, Google it to see the work they created out of two Nissan huts, imagination, and lots of purloined materials when their guards were not looking.

I am a non-believer, but there is a humanity, a community spirit in that shared effort. It must have given them hope.

By the time I made their acquaintance most of the prisoners were in their late seventies, a few their eighties. Only seven were left out of five hundred and fifty.

The designer and artist of the chapel, Domenico Chiocchetti, lived quietly in the north of Italy, in a mountain village, too infirm to travel, but still painting, easel and glass jar full of artist brushes by his side. He seemed to have found a sort of peace, a solace in knowing he had survived the war and created something that had survived with him, on that windy, almost treeless island, the chapel now a heritage site and tourist destination,

Against all myths of the island as a cold place, on the day I arrived to visit the chapel and survey locations it coincided with summer’s balmy heat. Fish really were jumping, and the bog cotton growing and in around flinty pools was truly high, well, a foot or so.

A half-Scot, mio padre è Siciliano, Don Carlo Bernini, I was there to direct a documentary bringing back the prisoners to contemplate an unforgettable time in their lives. For most it was their last visit. For me it was my first.

They were so happy to see each other again, clasping each other, embracing, pumping handshakes while chattering excitedly in Italian – and kissing full on the mouth, dammit! As well as bringing together the last living Italian prisoners, I engaged the services of “Dante,” an Italian chef of good humour who owns a fine eatery in Colinton, Edinburgh. I employed him not for his cooking skills but as narrator of the documentary. He had a wonderful gravelly godfather voice, suitable to give the proceedings gravitas.

To the point of this tale: a noticeable characteristic of Scots is a reluctance to offer fulsome praise, or just a plain compliment. We fall back on nods, thumbs up, wry observation, part praise, part terse remark.

“Dae Ah like yir noo shoes, hen? Well … they’re … unusual.”

“Go on son, you can do it. Make me proud of you, or at least less disappointed.”

We are not uncaring or ungenerous. To know how completely we can lay aside old enmity one has only to know our world renown Highland hospitality. It’s the same that led to Clan MacDonald allowing their mortal enemies the Campbells to billet a regiment in Glencoe for the worst of the winter, and the Campbells tragic and brutal exploitation of that hospitality.

Scene set, I need to switch to California to provide a comparison before returning to Orkney and the tale specific.

I learned the craft of a making generous compliment from my Californian friends. We describe them as shallow when they praise folk but we do them a disservice. Their “Hi there! Give me a high five,” and, “Have a nice day,” is just as much daily etiquette genuinely meant as our, “How’re yi daein’, pal?” and “Safe hame.”

While we might opine an individual cannot be as talented as he’s made out to be because we “kent his faither,” a Californian will say, “We are truly honoured to have you among us this day, blessed that such a gifted person accepted our invitation to talk to us.” Myself, I was taken by surprise to hear often “I just love your Scottish accent. It is so authoritative!” Until then, I was led to believe a Scots accent was uneducated, not English enough. Americans have an endearing naivety in the manner they make friends.


The folk art interior of the Orkney Italian chapel

So … this is where the story really starts, back in Orkney.

For my documentary, I needed both sides of the  chapel’s history. A brief announcement on Orkney Radio managed to locate the last remaining prison guard who kept watch on the passionate, warm bloodied, sallow skinned, far-from-home Mediterranean men. He was a retired dentist, still spritely, mustachioed, full head of hair, spectacles, suit and tie, a customary pipe smoker.

With film crew I chose to have him interviewed as he walked along the beach’s edge near the chapel, reminiscing about his days watching over Mussolini’s throng, soldiers captured in North Africa and sent by Churchill to shift heavy rocks into the sea to stop U-Boats passing between the outcrop of Orkney islands and gaining access to Scapa Flow. The barriers are now roads, topped with tarmac.

My retired dentist was keen to talk to camera, a memory not dulled by age. He trotted at a leisurely pace expounding on his days in charge of a reluctant but docile group of opera loving prisoners, fly guys stealing anything they could find to turn a Nissen hut into a Catholic chapel, Catholic deceiving Presbyterian, the vanquished out-smarting the victorious. I asked him to walk along the sand shore where he had marched prisoners to and from work each day, and recount his experiences.

“Action!” The cameraman moved backwards as the dentist walked forward.

“Aye,” he began, “It was bitterly cold days an’ freezin’ nights; diggin’ up, draggin’ field boulders tae the water’s edge, an’, yard by yard, pushin’d them, one ower thi ither, intae the watter to form sunken barriers – jist one small bulldozer atween us to dae the Lord’s work. You couldnae say life wis uneventful; naw, it wis hard, monotonous, back breakin’ work we did. An’ worse, Ah wis awa from my wife an’ family weeks oan end-“

“Cut! Cut! Cut!”

I shouted “cut” three times, perplexed. I walked over to him from the camera position.

“I apologise for interrupting your flow – you’re doing fine, just fine – sound level good. It’s just that I’m a bit confused. You talk as if it was you doing all the work away from your loved ones. With respect, surely it was the Italian prisoners freezing to death, up to their butts in sea water, thinking thoughts of their wives and children back home?”

He listened in silence, pausing a long time, introspective, mulling the distinction.

He looked up at the cerulean blue sky, took a few puffs on his pipe, blew smoke from the side of his mouth, and uttered what I now know to be a classically typical Scottish compliment. He said:

“Aye, weel…..Ah’ll gie them half o’ it.”

Chapel in Orkney built by Italian prisioners of war, during the war. 04/06/1992

The remaining Italian prisoners now free men

The moral of this tale ought to be as plain as the nose on your face. We can all be our worst enemy, and surely have plenty of competition.

But, you know, life is short; far better to tell someone they’re a fine person now, while they are alive than wait to express it at their funeral.




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3 Responses to A Scottish Compliment

  1. Helena Brown says:

    I probably saw that programme, very moving it was to.
    I have no idea what it will take to change the Scots, we always said with my Brother in Law that his highest accolade was “No Bad” which covered everything from excellent to all right.
    Those I know in the US are unfailingly polite, now that is something I would like see happen here, we are not.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    “No bad,” aye, that’s true. I like American politeness. They have a chivalry in driving too.

  3. Aye, maybe it’s time we did learn to wear our hearts just a wee bit more on the sleeve. To be fair, I do find among my Scottish friends that there is a just bit less reticence on that score than used to be.
    Being away in England (if only just) this last two decades perhaps I notice the subtle changes more when I’m among them.

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