Positioning an Italian town as the most Scottish town in Italy
Italian towns have a tradition of festivals – often the festivals [sagras] celebrate the local food or produce – I have been to onion, watermelon, chestnut, olive, wine, and palenta festivals. However, a town having a festival dedicated to ‘fish n chips’ does seem a little out of the ordinary – for italy. The town in question is Barga and the reason behind this unusual festival is quite extraordinary – locally the festival is known as Sagra del Pesce e Patate. For 36 years the festival has been celebrated from late July to mid August and brings together the Italian and Scottish identities that make Barga the ‘most Scottish town in Italy’.
Barga is a town of 10,000 people located in the north-west of Tuscany about 30 kms from the beautiful walled town of Lucca, although, the winding roads seem to make it feel longer. Historically and for a number of centuries, there was sunstantial trade between Barga and the larger Lucca. Whilst Lucca is on the west coast plains, Barga is in the mountains. I was told, by a local Bhargese businessman, that up to the end of the 19th century Barga was a major silk producer and that the mills were powered by the water from fast-flowing streams.
However, with time, industrialisation, and two world wars the silk industry declined and many of the residents of Barga emigrated to Scotland. Why Scotland? This is a little unclear, I was told that the Duke of Argyll brought Italian forest workers to Scotland in the 1890’s. This makes a little bit of sense when you consider the similarities between the Barga and Inverary countrysides. However, the National Records of Scotland web site identifies the location of Italian migrants in Scotland [for the period in question] and their natal Italian region and it would suggest from the locations and clusters that there was a process of chain migration in place. Chain migration was a common practice; in simple terms a pioneer, usually male, would leave the village and find work [a village is often referred to as a ‘paese’ and a fellow member of a village may be referred to as ‘paesano’]. Often, in what could be described as micro-crowdfunding, the pioneer male had to pay back the cost of the fare and then meet his obligation to sponsor others paesani from his village [often before his wife and family]. The chain migration system explains why there are many settlements of Italians from the same villages or ‘paese’ in different parts of the world. The National Records of Scotland suggests that by 1930 many of the Bhargese immigrants had become self-employed – shop keepers, café owners, ice cream vendors, confectioners are listed as common occupations. Furthermore, it could be cautiously assumed, by the recurring surnames and their 1930s Scottish location, that many pioneer males had sponsored other family members.
Interestingly, the 1930 National Records of Scotland does not indicate a pocket of Italian-Scottish people in the lands owned by the Duke of Argyll or the surrounds as you would expect. Nevertheless, an online search of the Duke of Argyll and Italian farm workers uncovered a few recent newspaper articles which suggests that this story has entered into the legend of Barga – and could be accurate.
Given our Scottish and Italian heritage it was natural that Anna and I visited Barga on a road trip to France. Over the years Anna has mentioned a desire to go visit Barga a few times after watching a BBC documentary on the Sagra del Pesce e Patate.
We booked a room at the Villa Moorings online. When we arrived we were welcomed by Beatrice who gave us an overview of the history of the building. The building was constructed by Leonello Castelvecchi, who after started a small ice-cream shop in Scotland built a large and successful business. However, his love of his paese remained strong and in 1924 built a villa as his summer residence. According to Beatrice the building is a Tuscan Liberty style building [a style made popular by the founder of Liberty London] which includes pictorial art décor, high quality marble floorings, a Carrara marble staircase, wrought iron balustrading adorned with cut crystals, Murano chandeliers, plaster wall mouldings, and Florentine fabrics and furnishings. Although this was his ‘holiday home’ it sent a message to Bhargese that he, and his family, had worked hard and accumulated a fortune.
Beatrice explained that Leonello was her great-grandfather and that her mother Leitizia had purchased the villa from other family members to preserve the building and the history. Leitizia had the vision to renovate the building to its former glory and to a standard suitable for a luxury small a hotel. Fortunately, the home remains in the family and the building has an income to preserve its future – this is an exquisite achievement.
We were given Leonello’s original room and as you would expect it was magnificently furnished, that night I enjoyed a bath in the biggest bath I have ever had in a hotel room.
As we wandered around the old town we encountered Red phone boxs, Scottish flags, tartan wearing waiters, and Italian people speaking English with broad Scottish accents.
We walked through the steep and narrow lanes up to the church on the top of the hill and took in the beautiful view. At one time the church yard must have been a village market as there is a standard metre for market customers to check their purchases embedded in the church wall. There are many courtyard gardens and the framed views through the lanes are stunning. We discussed why anyone would wish to leave such a pleasant place. However, economic migrants seldom have a choice.
Around an outdoor fire in the square people were roasting chestnuts. We hung around the fire and were fortunate to meet a mother and daughter on holiday from Scotland. Although neither had an Italian heritage the daughter Lorraine had a friend in Scotland who had a home in the old town of Barga. Through her friend, Francesca, Lorraine had fallen in love with the town and had brought her mother as a birthday celebration. Lorraine and her mother had beautiful soft Scottish accents and cringed when they heard a woman speaking English in the broadest Glaswegian accent [this has largely disappeared for Scotland except for stand-up comedians]. Their reaction, particularly the mother’s reaction, reminded me of how my own mother would react in similar situations. I guess there are things we love about our culture and things that make us cringe. What is particularly humourous about this event was that this woman was Italian and English was her second language.
Later that evening we went to a bar and a chap with a piano accordion played ‘Flower of Scotland’ the unofficail national anthem of Scotland and a song adopted by a number of Scottish national sporting teams. We met a couple from Edinburgh who had an appartment in Barga and had been regular visitors for 12 years. The next day we chatted with the local jeweller, Daniele, who regularly went to Scotland to play golf, although he had no Scottish heritage he had been introduce to the game by a ‘Scots/Italian who spent 6 months year in both countries.
Economic migration is bitter-sweet and often there is a sense of liminality of belonging to two countries – someone once described this feeling to me as having two mothers a birth mother and an adopted mother – and told me that she loved them both. Barga demonstrates that people can have multiple identities and have a sense of not truly belonging to one place or another.
What is also interesting is that by promoting itself as ‘the most Scottish town in Italy’ place can be like a metaphor – similar to finding an Irish Pub in Modena