In the mizzle of an Edinburgh morning Saltires swirl; chants of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are flung rhythmically back and forth across the grey streets by impassioned, but good natured crowds ; politicians polish their sound-bites and wave their tartan-trimmed promises. But we, sequestered in a medieval walled town high in the Tuscan hills, are a world away from referendum fever, surely? Wrong. Sitting outside a cafe in the mellow September sun, we are served dainty shortbread with our espressos and San Pellegrino by the kilt-clad owner. We’re not hallucinating, we’re in Barga, population ten thousand, twinned with East Lothian and dubbed ‘the most Scottish town in Italy’ -- though who knows what competition there is for that title. In the corner of the bar, a group of locals are gathered round the small TV, transfixed by the ongoing drama in what, for many, is a country with which they have strong roots.
Browsing the narrow, shady streets of this quintessentially Tuscan town, surrounded by olive groves and chestnut forests, we’ve not only heard Scottish accents, but seen photos of the Celtic football team in the window of a florist and an advert offering bagpipe lessons on a notice board outside the town hall.
The Scottish/Barga link dates back to around the mid nineteenth century, when rural poverty sent many young Barghesi overseas in search of work. Many ended up in Scotland labouring as forestry workers on estates like those of the Duke of Argyle. Others opened ice-cream parlours or fish and chip shops. Over the years, a steady ebb and flow of families between the two countries ensured the ties remained strong.
In one of the town’s art galleries, we get chatting to Maggie, a recent émigré from Dundee whose ancestors were amongst the first to leave Barga. She tells us that had we visited a few weeks earlier, we could have participated in one of the most celebrated examples of this link. The ‘sagra’, or communal meal, is a common feature of Italian rural culture: several hundred people will congregate in the open air, often in a vineyard or farmer’s field, to share in a supper of local produce. In Barga, each August, they hold a celebration known as ‘sagra del pesce e patate’ (fish and chips) in honour of the Scottish connection. Every day over a period of three weeks around five hundred people sit down to this feast. Maggie jokes that deep fried Mars bar does not appear on the menu and the meal is washed down with Chianti rather than Irn Bru!
Appetites sharpened, we decide on a pre-prandial climb to the Duomo. From the highest point in the town we look down across terracotta roofs over a bucolic landscape that those first Barghesi emigrants must have left behind with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. As we walk back down, we are glad we have nothing more onerous to vote on than where to have lunch.