They’re Italians? Sort of. They’re Scottish? Mostly. Well, they’re Italo-Scots -- and that is a story in itself.
When we think of Scotland, diversity doesn’t come readily to mind. Yet Italians, many of whose ancestors came to Scotland in the late 19th century, make up a vital and vibrant segment of Scotland’s population -- about 100,000 people in a country of 5 million. They weren’t always welcome and they’ve been persecuted -- but not anymore. Now, Scotland is eagerly embracing and even celebrating its Italian heritage in food fairs, music festivals, neighborhood tours and public events -- to the point of romanticism, as some observers see it.
The saga of the Italo-Scots has come to the fore again recently because immigration is about to impact the United Kingdom in a big way again in the next 12 months. The country is bracing itself for an influx of unwanted immigrants from Romania and Bulgarian in early 2014 when EU rules restricting the emigration of citizens of those Balkan nations expire.
As many as 50,000 Romanian and Bulgarians are expected to travel to Britain every year until 2019 seeking work -- a flood of primarily unskilled migrants who will, according to some, severely tax the U.K.’s housing shortage and still-fragile economy. The official position from U.K. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is that “any influx from Romania and Bulgaria is going to cause problems.”
Of course, the U.K. has never been particularly immigrant-friendly. After World War II, hundreds of thousands of people from India, Pakistan, Jamaica and other former parts of the British Empire flooded into Britain, which at that time desperately needed cheap labor to work, for example, as bus drivers, as floor sweepers and in foundries. However, even after gaining residence and citizenship rights, Asians and Africans in the U.K. have continued to suffer from discrimination in housing and jobs, which led to race riots in the early 1980s.
Assimilation -- the ultimate goal of immigration -- remains a remote dream of many non-white immigrants in Britain, like the huge and impoverished Bangladesh community in the East End of London or Jamaicans in Brixton, South London.
To the Italo-Scots, that description of the obstacles in the way of Asians and Africans in Britain is all too familiar, the stuff of family lore and cautionary tales.
Fleeing poverty and famine at home in the 1890s, Italians moved eastward to the much richer and more globally powerful British isles. Many Italians ended up in Scotland, rather than England, in order to seek out business opportunities away from crowded marketplaces like London.
“They moved to where they could set up shop,” said Wendy Ugolini, a lecturer in British history at the University of Edinburgh.
Which is precisely what many of them did, opening up small restaurants, ice cream parlors and fish-and-chip outlets. Indeed in 1905, there were 337 Italian-owned cafes and takeout places in Glasgow alone, up from 89 in 1903, according to EducationScotland.
"It could be fairly argued that the Italian community popularized the 'fish supper' in Scotland," Stuart Atkinson, Scottish executive councilor with the National Fish Friers Federation told BBC. “To this day most Scottish towns still have an Italian chippy [fish-and-chip shop].”
However, life for Italo-Scots was not all friendly storefronts and chippies.
Given their somewhat darker features, foreign language and Roman Catholic faith, Italians were perceived by many of the Protestant Scots as unclean and irreligious. People complained publicly that the Italians kept their places of business opened longer than pubs and on the Sabbath. According to reports in the Glasgow Herald newspaper from the early 20th century, some church officials even condemned Italian ice cream shops as “immoral,“ “corrupt” and encouraging licentiousness.
Ugolini noted that even though they were white, European and Christian, Italians were regarded as a “lesser” people by many British, in an inferior position in the nation’s emerging racial/ethnic hierarchy.
“The British viewed themselves at the top, with the Irish, Jews and Italians beneath them,” she said. “Italians were often called ‘dirty and filthy’ and were viewed as a different or lesser part of the ‘white race.’”
Also, it appears that there was little interaction between the Italians and the large Irish population in Scotland at the time, despite their shared Roman Catholic faith. Indeed, Italians often felt alienated by Irish domination of the church.
Things only got worse from there. As fascism began to make headway in Europe, including Italy, in the 1920s, the Italians in Britain were linked to the movement, intensifying their image as an “alien, outside people.” And by the time Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies in 1940, Italian immigrants in the U.K. were officially classified as “enemy aliens.”
Under orders from Prime Minister Winston Churchill, thousands of Italian men -- many of whom had lived in Britain for decades -- were arrested, separated from their families and dispatched to internment camps on the Isle of Man, among other places. In addition, Italian shops and homes were attacked and vandalized, as recalled by author Joe Pieri, in his book "River of Memory" about his Glasgow youth.
The least fortunate Italians were marked for deportation on a ship called the Arandora Star headed for prison camps in Canada. In a cruel twist, in July 1940, the vessel was sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast, killing hundreds of captive passengers, including at least 400 Italians. Some of the survivors were transferred to another ship which took them to camps in Australia -- a treacherous two-month journey.
The sinking of the Arandora remains a bitter memory for British-Italians and only now are survivors and their children able to discuss it.
At the 70th anniversary of the incident, Bruna Chezzi, secretary of the Arandora Star Memorial Fund, stated: “For the first time in nearly 70 years, families affected by this tragedy of war, which is partly a tragedy linked to immigration, have felt confident enough to share their memories and [suffering] with the public, without being ashamed or afraid of misjudgment.”
Now today, while Scotland (and all of Britain) struggles with integrating and assimilating immigrants and asylum-seekers from far-flung corners of the globe, Italians are firmly established in the country as doctors, politicians, businessmen and artists -- mixing to such an extent with the British-Scottish population that the very notion of a separate Italian identity has become almost irrelevant.
As the 20th century progressed, and Britain witnessed the massive immigration of people from the Commonwealth -- that is, largely non-white, non-Christian -- the established Italians, as well as Jews and Irish, have generally blended into the dominant white majority.
Now with another European tide on the way, immigration will become a hot topic again in Britain. If the attitude about immigration that we hear today holds, these new arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania will feel the lash of bias as the Italians did. As the U.K.’s population ages, immigrant workers are critical to the nation’s future. But the way the British see it is: They may need the help, but they don’t have to like it.