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Italians settled in Scotland and loved the plaice

ONE story told about Italians who eschewed poverty in their country and settled in Scotland was of the seven young statue makers from Tuscany, who brought 1000 little figurines of the Virgin Mary to Paisley intent on selling them to make their fortune.

Whether Paisley Buddies are less God-fearing or less interested in the veneration of the Madonna than elsewhere, I know not, but the statues did not sell.

Disheartened, six of them sold their stock at a knock-down price to the seventh, and returned home. The seventh, a chap called Nardini, refashioned the 1000 Marys as Santa Clauses, and sold the lot - opening a cafe in Largs with the profits.

Other Italian settlers in Scotland had even more chequered lives. Antonio Pacitti arrived in Scotland in the 1890s, and sold ice cream from a cart in Falkirk. He opened a cafe in Camelon, but in a heated argument with a fellow Italian, a cobbler, he accused the man with the last of having an affair with his wife, and shot him.

Today it may simply be seen as a crime of passion, but in the Scotland of the early 20th century, Antonio was declared insane, and deported to Italy, where he settled back in Cassino. During the Second World War the Germans ordered him out of his home. He refused, and was shot dead by an SS officer.

Antonio's story is told just now on the wall of Hillhead Library, where there is a photographic exhibition of the Pacitti family and its connections with Glasgow. A grandson, also Antonio, won the Glasgow Corporation Gold Medal in drawing in 1940 before going to Glasgow School Of Art. Called up before finishing his studies, he fell out with an officer over a disastrous embarkation exercise in which colleagues drowned, and he went Awol back to Glasgow, where he worked as a scenery painter before the Military Police picked him up and shipped him off to the army in India.

Goodness, it does make catching the same train every night back to the suburbs seem dull in comparison.

The rough estimate is that some 20,000 Scots are of Italian heritage. The big growth in Italian immigration was the 1880s to the 1920s, when young men from mainly Barga in Tuscany, and Picinisco in Lazio, left to find work.

Although some were skilled stonemasons, or the makers of figurines, they had to take work where they could find it. The previous wave of immigration in Glasgow, the Highlanders, had moved into shipbuilding and other heavy industries. Working long hours they needed cheap and instant nutrition, which is why many Italians saw the opportunity in fish and chip shops, and ice cream parlours.

The Pieri family from Barga ran The Savoy chip shop in Cowcaddens, Glasgow, which then, before the current Herald office civilised the place of course, was a warren of squalid tenements with The Savoy's late night customers often being drunks and ladies of the night. Joe Pieri later wrote the book Tales Of The Savoy, in which he recalled they had to employ a "chucker-out" - Big Steve - who kept order. Wrote Joe: "Disturbances would be quickly and efficiently dealt with by Big Steve. If the offender was standing, Steve would approach smilingly, lean over as if to impart a confidence, then stamp the heavy heel of his boot on the man's toes. The ensuing howls of anguish would then stop suddenly to be replaced by gasping, gargling, noises as a sharp blow was delivered to the solar plexus, after which the culprit, now reduced to an ineffective mass of jelly, would be deposited none too gently on the pavement." Yes, happy days.

These connections still exist. When Italian rock legend Zucchero, less well known here, was appearing at the SECC a few years back, the Scottish Italian community was out in force. An older Italian-looking couple arrived, and as they took their seats, the gentleman surveyed the audience and exclaimed: "Jeez oh. How's anyboady in Glesga gonnae get a fish supper the night?"

The temperance movement supported the Italian cafes as it kept folk out of the pubs. Others, though, saw them as dens of iniquity, especially if they opened on a Sunday, tempting young people to meet members of the opposite sex and indulge in smoking, and even dancing.

Writer Sergio Casci, whose film American Cousins, about Mafia members hiding out in a south side cafe , is one of the funniest films made about Glasgow, says the sense of identity in the Scottish Italian community is still very strong, although the community itself is not as close-knit.

"One of the differences," says Sergio, "between Scottish Italians and those who settled in America and Australia is that it was easier for those in Scotland to keep in touch with their roots, as it was only one or two days travel to go back to Italy. Folk often went back to meet wives or husbands or to go on holiday.

"The Scots and the Italians got on pretty well. Going to get fish and chips or ice cream tended to be a positive thing and made the Italians popular. They were often happy, friendly, outgoing people, which the Scots liked."

Fish and chips, though, was not brought over from Italy with the Italian immigrants. It was unheard of in the land of the Mediterranean diet.

But now so many former Italian fish fryers have retired to their native village of Barga, that they now have an annual fish and chip festival, frying the stuff up in big vats on the local football pitch. It's good to give something back - just a shame it's coronary artery disease.

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