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The integration game: how Italo-Scots shaped Scotland

The integration game: how Italo-Scots shaped our nation - article by Joseph Farrell in The National newspaper and website in Scotland

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The first immigrants from Italy in the modern era arrived more than 100 years ago, a long enough time to allow them to form a community of Italo-Scots, to integrate and make their mark. Theirs is a story of success, but the community has also experienced episodes of intolerance and discrimination, as well as moments of deep tragedy.

Even after several generations, there is no avoiding the issue of identity, and the question has been raised powerfully by some writers from the present, highly literate generation. The problem is to reconcile loyalty to a culture and identity which is in the blood with the courtesy and acknowledgement due to the chosen country of residence. Someone with a name like Maggie O’Farrell could never be mistaken for a person of Mediterranean origin, but in her novel The Distance Between Us, these questions trouble the two sisters, Stella and Nina, who have been brought up in Edinburgh.

Something in her skin colouring, in her speech and behaviour as well as her name marked Stella out from her school friends, so when she was asked who she was she replied, as was expected: “I’m Scottish-Italian.” The description did not satisfy her, since “the hard sibilants of the first repelled the soft vowels of the second”, but it served its purpose of putting in words her “ever-present feeling of being not quite right, not quite convincing, not quite like everyone else”. But did she want to be like everyone else, or to maintain some sense of cultural distinctiveness? How far can or should integration go? What remains of an Italian heritage when the first language is English?

The question “who are we?” recurs in other works featuring Scottish Italians. Mary Contini has published three books (Dear Francesca, Dear Olivia, and Dear Alfonso) which give a fond and poignant account, interspersed with recipes, of her family history and of the celebrated Valvona and Crolla café and delicatessen in Edinburgh. Anne Pia has over the past two years published a collection of poems, Transitory, and a memoir with the significant title Language of my Choosing. The poems are of pure, lyrical intensity, some granite-hard in their evocations of landscape, others more wistful or occasionally bitter in their recall of moments in her life, and her autobiography does not present some idyll of loving and loved childhood. She writes of being glad to move away from the Italian family background which was for her stifling and restraining. When she talks of the “joylessness which was a feature of our life as cousins”, she is plainly referring to her own experiences, and her deepest sense seems to be of “living between two cultures”. However, she glories in Italian experiences, especially those related to the preparation and serving of food. Her account of the cooking of pasta is imbued with felt passion which peeps through in her poetry.

This bicultural sense is life-enhancing. There is little to be envied in the outlook of someone marooned in one culture, with one language and one set of values. The Italian Scots have shown themselves to be resilient, enterprising and remarkably gifted, and their impact on Scottish life has been profound. Those who moved here came overwhelmingly from two small towns, the Glasgow Italians from Barga in Tuscany and their Edinburgh counterparts from Picinisco, near the famed Abbey of Monte Cassino. Relations with Barga have remained strong. I once walked through the gate into the walled town to see an antique shop window displaying a plate bearing the words Souvenir of Troon. Barga now has a fish-and-chips festival. The artist John Bellany went in the opposite direction and settled there.

The earliest arrivals in Scotland were skilled craftsmen, who manufactured little statuettes or worked in marble. Of the parents of Mario Conti, recently retired Archbishop of Glasgow, one came from Barga and the other from near Picinisco, thereby uniting a sometimes divided community. His father was a craftsman who created figurines and the family made its way to Elgin. This generation was followed by a more varied group, some street musicians, some general labourers but all driven by the unromantic forces that make the plucky and determined emigrate – lack of opportunity at home and the hope of self-betterment elsewhere.

This cluster in the Scottish cities is explained by what sociologists call the “chain effect”. Once a family establishes itself and sets up a business, it contacts the folks back home, or more commonly the local priest, asking them to send on some reliable youth who can work with them. However, in looking into this process some years ago, I received a fascinating letter from Mary Sturrock, daughter of the celebrated Fra Newbery, the director of the Glasgow School of Art who commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design the present, ill-fated building. Newbery claimed to be responsible for the spread of Italian cafés.

He was in the habit of employing male Italians as models for life classes, since Italians were believed to have a strong bone and muscle structure which made them particularly suitable for the task. The grandfather of Richard Demarco – who as artist, visionary and champion of innovative arts, has perhaps had a deeper impact on Scottish life than any other individual Italo-Scot – was such a model for a London college. The family later moved to Portobello and set up the grandly named Maison Demarco. Sturrock wrote: “After a year or two, the first model told my father he was going to retire to set up an ice-cream shop but that he would introduce a friend from Italy to fill his place.” This arrangement was accepted, but when the second man was due to be paid, the initial model turned up to say: “No, you pay me. I introduced my friend and paid his fare from Italy. Until he has repaid me, I hold the money!”

This system worked, with the second man leaving in due course to set up his own café and bringing over another from Italy to to fill the vacancy. Sturrock added: “The connection between art and ice-cream may have been known only to an inner circle.” Even without that link, the initiative of immigrant Italians in moving into the catering trade must be viewed in social and cultural terms as an improvement of Scottish life, especially for women. At a period when the pub, from which women were usually barred, was the main focal point for social gatherings, the Italian café offered similar facilities for women and young people. The fish and chip shop followed. To the surprise of soldiers who landed in Italy during the Second World War, the dish was unknown in Italy, but the principle of “give the people what they want” applied in Scotland. Its advantage for the owner was that it required very little outlay – a gas ring and a pan.

BUT the history was not all sweetness and light. In the troubled thirties, Italians found themselves subject to discrimination both as outsiders and as Catholics. The situation deteriorated to the point of tragedy when Mussolini declared war on Britain. Overnight people became “enemy aliens”, including some who were born here, and seemingly it was Churchill himself who issued the unlovely edict “collar the lot”. Many men were rounded up, some destined for an internment camp in Canada, while the women and children were required to leave their homes and seek accommodation in places where they were deemed less of a security risk. The Arandora Star, the vessel carrying some of the men to Canada, was torpedoed by a German submarine with the loss of 700 lives. Some bodies were washed ashore in the Hebrides, where they are buried, and the tragedy left a scar on the memory of the community. There is now a monument in the grounds of the Catholic cathedral in Glasgow, and the disaster is the subject of such plays as Anne-Marie Di Mambro’s Tally’s Blood and Raymond Ross’s more recent Arandora Star.

The post-war generation integrated into Scottish life. It would be possible to find Italian names in every sector of professional life: lawyers, accountants, teachers, professors, churchmen, sportsmen and women, journalists, politicians and artists. There has been a remarkable flourishing of artistic work among Italo-Scots. To mention only the most outstanding, theatre has been enriched by the work of Di Mambro, Marcella Evaristi and Peter Capaldi, poetry by Anne Pia, film by Sergio Casci, Rico Cocozza and Armando Iannucci, photography by Oscar Marzaroli. Among artists, Alberto Morocco stands out, as does Eduardo Paolozzi in sculpture. Who can doubt this wave of immigration has improved Scottish life?

Full article by Joseph Farrell here

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