Joseph Farrell is Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde. His books include a cultural history of Sicily and biographies of Dario Fo and Leonardo Sciascia. He is also a renowned translator from the Italian, whose translations include works by Leonardo Sciascia, Vincenzo Consolo, Dario Fo and Valerio Varesi. He lives in Glasgow. He took us on a journey round the byways of links between Scotland and  Italy which he promised would steer clear of the usual calling-points – so no Romans or ecclesiastical history. 

In Europe: The Emergence of an Idea. Denys Hays writes that the idea of Europe emerges with the opposition between Christianity and Islam, and he identifies The Song of Roland as crystallising that idea. We should remember that Robert the Bruce wished his heart to be carried to the Crusades in Holy Land. One of the aims of this talk is to re-place Scotland as an independent member of a Respublica Christiana.

The Piccolomini Library, in fact a chapel in Siena Cathedral, is decorated with frescos by the great Renaissance master, Pinturicchio which depict the life of Enea Piccolomini, later Pope Pius 11. The palace and city in the first of the series look as though they portray an Italian court, but in fact the city is Edinburgh and the palace is Holyroodhouse. Enea Piccolomini of Corsignano, (1405-1464), Pope Pius II from 1458, was author of De Duobus Amantibus, verses, and wrote in the third person an autobiography Commentaries in Latin. At the 1435, he was sent from the Council of Basle on mysterious mission to Scotland, possibly to enlist Scotland’s intervention on the French side in the Hundred Years War. The Scots king was King James 1, the poet-king. He encountered a storm at sea and landed Dunbar where he fulfilled a vow that if he survived, he would walk barefoot to the nearest shrine to the Virgin Mary which was eight miles distant at Whitekirk, giving him rheumatism from which he suffered for the rest of his life. His Commentaries included the observation that ‘in conversation, nothing so pleases the Scots as to hear the English abused.’ The men of Scotland, he found, “are short and fat, the women are fair, charming and easily won. Women there think less of a kiss than do of a handshake in Italy.’  He didn’t hit it off with James. He fathered in Scotland a child who died in infancy, leading him somewhat callously to remark that children regularly die young, “as lambs do more regularly than sheep.” 

The Holy House in Bethlehem was the site of Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, but in1219, as last Crusaders were leaving, the house took flight to Dalmatia, then Ancona, finally Loreto where the house is now enclosed in a basilica. It became a place of pilgrimage, with explanatory plaques on wall in Italian, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic and Scots, not English, making a ‘document’ one of some historical importance for the Scots language. No idea why it is there.

At the Royal Court in Edinburgh in 1508 could be found a presence of Joculatores Italiani, actors from Bologna whose names were registered in English. In 1515 four giullari were paid  £78, 14 shillings to allow them to make a visit to Bologna.  The relationship between Scots and Italian is interesting in itself but what could be of great significance is that it was only in 1545 that the first professional company of what would be known as commedia dell’arte was registered in Padua. Were these players in Scotland an even earlier troupe?

Janet Hamilton 1795-1873 was a poet from Coatbridge where a monument to her now stands. She possibly never travelled further than Glasgow, but was plainly internationalist in her outlook. She wrote poems to Kossuth and Garibaldi, and on receiving a gift of gold nugget from an admirer in the Leadhills she, who lived in poverty, donated it to Garibaldi, who wrote to thank her. Perhaps as a symbol of Scotland’s links with Italy that gold nugget could not be bettered? 

Michael Scott of Balwearie 1175-1236 was the only Scotsman in Dante’s Hell. Was he buried in Melrose, and should he count as Scott’s ‘last minstrel?’ A wandering Scot, he could be found in Oxford, Paris, Toledo, Palermo and at the court of Federico 11 (stupor mundi). A man of many parts, he was an astronomer, astrologist, philosopher, translator of Aristotle and author of Ars Alchemiae, Ars Phisionomiae etc.  On moving to Scott’s (presumed) home town Tayport, Douglas Dunn protested cheerfully at Dante’s treatment of Scott:

The wizard, Michael Scott, was born near here…

alchemist, polymath, astrologer

to the Holy Roman Emperor; Tayport’s son

mastered all knowledge, too controversial

for Dante who invented his damnation

in the inferno: ‘Tayport Man in Hell,’

they’d say in the Fife Herald: “Sorcerer

from Tayport slandered by Tuscan poet”. 

Giovanni Damiano de Falcucci or John Damian, known as ‘French Leech’, i.e. physician: courtier, alchemist was fascinated by flight. He served as Abbot of Tongland in Galloway before going to the Court of James IV, and was definitely there in 1501, possibly until Flodden. In 1507 he donned wings and leapt from ramparts of Stirling Castle to fly to France ahead of Scottish embassy but … alas he fell headlong to the ground! He was thus ridiculed by William Dunbar in Ballad of the False Friar of Tongland, How he Fell Flying to Turkey, and contemporary poet David Kinloch refers to this event.

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) was an Italian poet. He is best known as the author of the romance epic Orlando Furioso (1516). In an episode of his work, Rinaldo and Ginevra, Rinaldo, cousin of Orlando, is blown ashore in Scotland, where he finds refuge with monks who ask him to champion the cause of Ginevra (a very Scottish name), He is falsely accused of adultery, a transgression viewed severely when committed by women, but not by men:

The law of Scotland, harsh, severe, unjust,

Decrees that every woman who in love

Bestows herself (except in marriage) must

Be put to death, quite irrespective of

Her rank, if she is thus accused of lust;

And the dread sentence no appeal can move,

Unless a knight will come to her defence

And boldly champion her innocence.’

Rinaldo offers himself as that champion and defeats Ginevra’s slanderer in a joust.

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) was the ultimate Renaissance Universal man, being an algebraist, alchemist, physician, engineer (the cardan shaft is named after him). In 1552 he was summoned to Edinburgh to tend Archbishop John Hamilton, half-brother of the Earl of Arran, Regent during infancy of Mary. He wrote that ‘The Scots are the most courageous of all the British, and will take a piper with them as they go to the stake, who plays them, dancing to their death.’ He healed Hamilton who later intervened to have Cardano released from Castel  Sant’Angelo, where he had been imprisoned by Inquisition. Hamilton himself was however hanged in Scotland.)

John Law (1671 – 1729) was a noteworthy Scottish economist who significantly influenced the field of finance in the 18th century by introducing paper money. He founded France’s first central bank and also the disastrous Mississippi Company whose collapse led him to flee France, wandering Europe before spending his last years in Italy, where he died in poverty at Venice. His tomb, outlining his origins, is near the main entrance of San Moisé.


The Admirable Crichton, born in 1560 in Perthshire. was a scholar, linguist, swordsman, horseman, musician and poet, who worked for Duke of Mantua and was killed at just 21 in a duel by Duke’s son Vincenzo Gonzaga. Italian author Scaligeri wrote that James Crichton “knew twelve different languages, had studied the Fathers and the poets and had disputed de omni scibile, and replied to his antagonists in verse. He was a man of wonderful genius, more worthy of admiration than esteem.”


During a Grand Tour to Italy, James Boswell received this in a letter from his father Lord Auchinleck: ‘Your conduct astonishes and amazes me. You solicited liberty to go for four months to Italy. I opposed it as altogether useless, but upon your pressing importunity, contrary to my opinion, I agreed to it… Now you tell me you are to stay there three weeks or a month, and this in order, as you write, to learn the Italian language … I must suppose you intend fixing in Italy, where that language can only be of use to you; for in this country it is no better than Arabic.’

 In his “The Golden Age” Kenneth Grahame wrote that all roads led to Rome: “I had once heard somebody say, and I had taken the remark very seriously, and puzzled over it many days… Rome! It was fascinating to think that it lay at the other end of this white ribbon that rolled itself off from my feet over the distant downs. I was not quite so uninstructed as to imagine I could reach it that afternoon: but some day, I thought, if things went on being as unpleasant as they were now … some day we would see.”


Patrick Brydone (1751-1836) was born in Coldingham and in 1770 went as travelling preceptor to English novelist, art critic, planter and politician William Beckford. The author of A Tour Through Sicily and Malta, 1773 which was translated into many European languages, Brydone judged Bourbons and their rule by standards of Scottish Enlightenment. He has given us a magnificent description of ascent of Etna, and of festivities (festino) of Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo, and was mentioned by Scott in Marmion.


For his Travels in France and Italy published in 1766, Tobias Smollett had one helluva time.  ‘In Sestri di Levante – we had a very bad supper, miserably dressed, passed a very disagreeable night and paid a very extravagant bill in the morning, without being thanked for our custom. I was very glad to get out of the house with my throat uncut.’ Of Siena he could “say nothing from my own observation but that we were lodged in a house that stunk like a privy, and fared wretchedly at supper.’


Walter Scott delayed his Italian travels so that they happened almost too late. Having longed to go to there, he finally went on medical advice in 1831 after two strokes, and was an old man. Escorted by Sir William Gell, he was lionised in Naples, where he met the king, impressed by Vesuvius even if there was no eruption. He visited Pozzuoli, Cumae, Lakes of Avernus, Agnano Pompeii and the tomb of the Stuarts in St Peter’s. He inspired an Italian obsession with Scotland, seen above all in Opera where many plots were based on his novels. Alessandro Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi (The Brethrothed) expressed his debt to Scott as inventor of the historical novel.

Bonnie Prince Charlie would have been the ultimate symbol of Scots-Italian links had his campaign succeeded. The Stuart grave is the only ‘political’ tomb in St Peter’s, ccontaining the resting place of his father (The Old Pretender) and his brother, Henry Cardinal Duke of York. The family was also associated with Frascati whose fortress in 1761 changed to a princely palace under the patronage of the Cardinal. 

Among the inspirations brought about by the Grand Tour to Italy was the development of Italianate architecture by the Adams brothers.

Italian immigration into Scotland began in the late 19th century – from Barga in Tuscany to Glasgow and the west of Scotland, and from Picinisco in the south of Italy to Edinburgh and the east of Scotland. Their alcohol-free cafes gave women safe spaces, and their fish and chips became a staple. Francis Henry Newbery (1855–1946) was a painter and art educationist, best known as director of the Glasgow School of Art between 1885 and 1917 who used Italian models because of their strong bones.  Arrivals on our shores from Italy were to have a notable impact on Scots life in all spheres.