Barga, Italy: A little piece of Scotland in Tuscany

Alison Campsie visits the charming town of Barga in Italy, and discovers a little slice of Scotland in the Tuscan hills.

Monday, 14th May 2018, 11:43 am
Updated Monday, 14th May 2018, 4:05 pm
The medieval town of Barga in Tuscany has forged deep connections the Scotland since the 19th Century.

It’s a beautiful evening in Barga as the sun blasts its last light off the pink and yellow buildings that wind up to the church of San Cristoforo. Out of nowhere comes the sound of the bagpipes, the notes of Scotland the Brave trembling over the warm Tuscan air.

However foreign it may have sounded in the moment, pipes and Barga are, however, not an odd pair.

The town has forged a deep connection with Scotland over at least 180 years, with the push and pull of migration creating flow of families between Barga to towns and villages up and down Scotland, with the majority settling on the west coast.

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A piper from Pisa plays in Barga on a warm Spring night.

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By-products of this long connection are all around. In Barga, you’ll find Irn Bru and oatcakes in the traditional bakery and the football boots of Celtic striker Moussa Dembélé hanging up in Bar del Paologas, whose owner grew up on Byres Road. Glaswegian accents pop up at every turn.

You are hard pushed to find someone without a connection to Scotland. A trip to the vineyard on the outskirts of the town brings a story from the assistant of the three happy months he spent peeling potatoes at a chippie in Irvine, which is owned by friends of his parents.

Adele and Riccardo Pierotti, whose families both hail from Barga, met and married in Glasgow but moved back to the Tuscan town more than 30 years ago.

The piper playing in Barga that night was found outside Villa Gherardi, a hostel set in a 16th Century mansion that is run by Adele Pierotti and her husband.

Adele’s great-grandfather left Tuscany for Scotland in 1886 to work in the mines of Lanarkshire with her parents later born in Scotland. It was in Glasgow that Adele met her husband, Riccardo, also from the Barga area, at the Casa d’Italia social club in Park Circus in the 1970s.

The two married and ran a restaurant in Bearsden for more than 10 years but the couple returned to Barga in the late eighties, drawn by family ties.

Adele said: “Barga is my home but you don’t really have to choose between here and Scotland, both are part of you.

Irn-Bru and porridge oats for sale at a traditional Tuscan bakers in Barga.

“All my children were born in Italy but they feel that Scottish connection very strongly. They feels Scots Italian. When I go to Glasgow to see my mum, I feel I blend in very quickly.”

It is said many Barghigiani left home intending to travel to America, but ended their journeys in Scotland after seeing industry and opportunity.

Families set up fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours while others sought jobs in mines, docks and textile factories with the post World War One period signalling a great movement of people.

Among those with Barga connections are the Nardini family of the Largs ice cream empire and singer Paulo Nutini, whose great grandfather set up the family fish and chip shop in Paisley.

Ralph Ercolini, owner of the bakery, moved to Barga from the southside of Glasgow in the 1980s. His parents were from the town.

Such was the scale of this new community, Glasgow was one of the few places outside of Italy to produce a daily newspaper in Italian.

In time, Barga called many back.

Ralph Ercolini, 62, has run La Bottega del Pane in the town for more than 20 years. He was born in Glasgow but his mother and father are both from Barga, with the couple meeting in Glasgow after travelling there separately.

He said: “They met in Scotland and the aunt came over to look after me. She is still in Scotland and always says to me ‘it’s your fault that I am still here’.

“Me and my sister decided to come to Barga in the 1980s. It was easy because its always been part of our family. My dad would rent out the shop for two months every year and we would come here to pass the summer. It’s always been part of my life.”

Mr Ercolini recalls days and nights at the Casa D’Italia, where parents would spent hours over dinner in the restaurant upstairs and the young ones would meet in the discothèque.

New beginnings: Cristoforo and Elvina Guidi were among the thousands who moved from Barga to Scotland. They are pictured in Kelvingrove Park in 1913. PIC: Contributed.

The private members club sought to promote Italian culture through language classes and societies.

Mr Ercolini said: “We used to meet there every Sunday. As you got older were used to race with our Fiats and Alfa Romeos from the Casa’ D’Italia to Glasgow Airport. The police were always chasing up.”

The bakery owner said he spoke no English when he started school as his father always spoke Italian at home.

“I feel a bit more Italian than Scottish. I have always have as my father brought me up that way.”

Others were more reluctant to fully express their Italian side out of the confines of their community with it now known Mussolini compiled a secret census of Scotland’s Italian community between 1933 and 1940.

The “Censimento”details 1,400 households and includes specialist shopkeepers and skilled craftspeople who were working in Scotland while maintaining strong connections to Italy.

Numbers of Scots-Italians were rounded up after Mussollini declared war on the Allies and sent to internment camps. The community’s businesses suffered. Cafes were smashed up by mobs and anti-Italian riots left a painful mark on those who had settled in Edinburgh.

In Barga, Mr Ercolini said the Scots Italian community was still bonded through language and shared heritage but is less cohesive that it was. Events like the three week Fish and Chip Festival, organised in tribute to the townspeople who went to Scotland, refresh the connections.

Every year, the School of Scottish Song, Music & Dance meets in the town, which was long promoted by late artist John Bellany, whose studio and gallery in the Piazza Angelio is now marked with a plaque.

The respect in reciprocated in Scotland. Last year, the football team, Gatti Randaggi -or Wildcats- were welcomed to Celtic Park with the players then hosted by the Lord Provost.

Mr Ercolini added: “I remember going on a bus from Glasgow to Wembley in 1973 to watch England play Italy. We were all in Trafalgar Square, having a good time, and someone turned to me and said ‘are you English or Scottish?’. I said we were both.”

Although after 20 years in Barga, his Italian roots now feel stronger than his Scottish ones.

“To be honest, the last time I went to Scotland, which was now 12 or 13 years ago, I got lost,” he added.

Giovianni Renucci and his family left Barga to set up a fish and chip shop and bakery in Glasgow. They are pictured in 1905. Giovanni's son Mario became a professor of maths after studying at Glasgow University. PIC: Contributed.