Over forty years ago I came up from London to my native land to help set up Shelter Scotland, the housing charity, in Edinburgh. At that time, to my knowledge, there was only one pizza oven in the city at Valvona & Crolla on Elm Row, the Italian Deli we visited on pay-day to sample their delicious take-away pizzas. Little did I imagine that I would return to a city awash with all things that Italians do best; ice-cream, fish suppers, pizza parlours, glorious restaurants, and bars selling Peroni, Prosecco, and Aperol cocktails.
Salute … on Portobello Beach
Suffice to say that my romance with Italy and, of course, Edinburgh has had a long and eventful history.
Retiring here two years ago, my first night was spent in Hotel Missoni on George IV Bridge. If you were given the choice of a double room in the youth hostel at the top of Leith Walk or a room in the elegant Hotel Missoni for almost the same price, what would you do? We even got an upgrade because I just happened to be wearing a Missoni coat (second- hand, you understand).
It will therefore be no surprise to learn that when visiting the World Premier of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry at the 3 Harbours Arts Festival, held in Prestonpans Community Centre in June, my attention was immediately drawn to the Italian section. The exhibition comes to Edinburgh between 6th and 31st August at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, where you will be able to see, in all their stitched beauty, the Italian tapestries depicting Scotland’s historical links with Italy.
Barga, the most Scottish town in Italy
Today, around two thirds of the population of this small community in Tuscany have relatives resident in Scotland. The town is host to an annual Scotland Week, which includes a fish and chip festival and various music events which attract many Scottish visitors. Famous Italian-Scots descended from the town include classical violinist Nicola Benedetti who will be performing at the Queen’s Hall as part of The Edinburgh International Festival. Born in West Kilbride in Ayrshire, she is proud of her Italian roots and supports a scholarship for postgraduate Italian studies in Scotland. Another is Paisley-born Paolo Nutini, on stage at Glastonbury 2014, who was awarded a St. Christopher Medal by the town of Barga for his work in raising its profile abroad.
The first emigrants in the 1860s from Barga were statue makers, travelling across Europe to Scotland with barrows of moulds, plaster and paint. This gave them the means to earn a living by casting religious statuettes. Trade for such iconography was limited so some of the more enterprising workers painted the saints to look more like John Knox, or Giuseppe Garibaldi for the Protestants (though why, I do not understand) or St. Patrick for the Catholics.
Moving on in time the workers became ice cream or fish and chip sellers, with many family-run businesses still flourishing today. For a more detailed overview of the Italian-Scots, and the part women played in keeping family businesses thriving over the decades, go the the National Library of Scotland archives for information about their exhibition “A Century of the Italian Community in Scotland” which was held in 1991.
Fish and Chips and Ice Cream
The brands that have survived are testaments to their family’s sacrifice, hard work and integrity. In the Edinburgh area, the firms of S Luca and Di Rollo in Musselburgh, and Valvona & Crolla with various urban outlets, are all worth visiting.
In fact, after taking American students from Wisconsin University, Megan and Sierra and their tutor Dr. Kathy Callaghan, who were based at Dalkeith Palace this summer studying Scottish History, to see the tapestry, it would have been rude not to introduce them to the delights of Italian-Scottish ice-cream at Luca’s.
DRBs Lorraine Doig and myself went to Dalkeith Palace recently to give a talk about our exhibition held at the Museum of Edinburgh : Women on the Platform ( a free booklet can be downloaded from the sidebar) and share experiences with our sisters from across the pond.
An ice cream at Luca’s
The picture below was a late entry to the exhibition, relevant to this post, and illustrating the fact that there are still tapestries finding their way back to the homeland.
Just One Cornetto
Despite not being particularly fond of ice-cream, a visit to Musselburgh on a cold and wet Sunday afternoon in February, during my first winter back in the old country, was full of surprises. Firstly, there was actually a queue of people outside Luca’s, obviously a Scottish Sunday afternoon tradition. Also I was persuaded to purchase a second ice-cream from Di Rollo, to compare tastes and not because I was in desperately in need of more cold confectionery. However, I was happy to be supporting a shop established in 1899 bearing a woman’s name on the shop front. Locals have split loyalties to each establishment and it would be partisan of me to reveal which product I preferred. Test them yourselves.
Whilst I am away travelling this summer, I will be posting regular blogs using the Diaspora Tapestry as my theme, choosing a couple each week which have inspired me to find out more about the rich and varied stories behind the beautiful tapestries.
For the past two years volunteers in twenty five countries around the world have been stitching their stories of their Scottish roots as part of Scotland’s Year of Homecoming 2014
As explained in the excellent exhibition booklet: “Understanding their Journey: What the Tapestry can teach us.” by Fiona and Arran Johnston (Prestoungrange University Press):
“This tapestry transcends national boundaries by celebrating and recording the heritage and achievements of individuals and communities of Scottish descent across the globe….. It reaches beyond the symbolic tartan trappings of visual identity and shines a light on personal experiences and human stories.”
Do take the opportunity to visit and form your own bond with this splendid living, breathing work of art.
Unable to attend this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival (9th- 25th August), don’t feel too sorry for me; I’m island-hopping in Greece with my Kindle and an infamous Panama-hatted Paisley Boy as companions.
Curious to know what I might be missing I sat up into the wee sma’ hours for several nights creating my wish-list. I should however, have been learning Greek (How to Speak Greek in 6 weeks from the Oxfam second-hand bookshop in Raeburn Place), or planning how to get shoes,books (just in case the Kindle dies on me) and the insect repellent into a rucksack that complies with budget airlines weight requirements.
I’d loved to have seen the groundbreaking theatre commission: Letters Home – A verbal and musical journey around Charlotte Square. Working in partnership with the multi-award winning promenade theatre company Grid Iron, the festival has commissioned four writers to produce brand new pieces of short fiction, each of which takes the form of letters.
The writers are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, best-selling author of ” Half of a Yellow Sun” , Kei Miller, the acclaimed Glasgow-based Jamacian-born poet, Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani-British author, and Christos Tsiolkas, the Australian author of the best-selling novel: ” The Slap”.
Free events include:
Ten at Ten, a chance to join one of the Festival authors each morning for a reading. Possibly worth getting out of bed early each morning to soak in the atmosphere with a first cup of coffee ?
Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers Series – Each day tribute will be paid to writers who have been persecuted for their words, thoughts and opinions.
I would not have been able to resist (Saturday 9th) Sue Lawrence – A Commonwealth of Cookery :
What does Scottish food have in common with baking in other Commonwealth countries ? According to acclaimed cookery writer Sue Lawrence, coconutty shortbread in the Caribbean, Cape Brandy pudding in South Africa and Homespun Pie in Canada are strikingly similar to Scottish favourites.
I’ll be feasting on delicious Greek yogurt and honey and the Paisley Boy on baklava, as there most certainly will not be room in the rucksack for Tunnocks caramel wafers, Jaffa Cakes, or Scottish shortbread.
I’m sure my fellow DRBs will be out and about enjoying Festival events and will keep me posted on my return.