Italians on Bute: The Bonaccorsi Family

Two brothers, aged 15 and 10, made their way from their Tuscan hometown of Barga to join their older brothers in Rothesay, Isle of Bute in 1901. Word had clearly gotten back to the Bonaccorsi family in Italy that the food industry in Scotland offered a goldmine for Italian migrants. Ice cream parlours, chip shops and confectioneries were sprouting up across Scottish towns, offering a much appreciated variation to Scottish society. It’s difficult to imagine why parents would be comfortable sending such young boys on a ship to a foreign country, but the wretched reality was that they were left with very little choice. At this time, Italy was facing an economic stagnancy and many parts of the country were experiencing famine. It was the duty of the Bonaccorsi brothers to become successful business owners on Bute and send the money back home to aid their parents and remaining family in Italy. For many Italians, the plan was to return to their home country as the economic hardships settled, or move on across the Atlantic to chase the ever-sought-after American Dream. However, the two young Bonaccorsi brothers went on to live the rest of their lives on the Isle of Bute and with an incredible legacy at that. The eldest of the two was Pietro Enrico Bonaccorsi; my Great Grandfather.

In an article by The National, the growing population of Italians in Scotland is shown by a compelling comparison. In the 1881 census, there were a mere 328 Italians residing in Scotland and by the start of the First World War, this had grown considerably to about 5500. These communities had been established in major cities such as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen – but with Bute gaining the reputation as an idyllic holiday spot, there is little wonder as to why many Italians seized the economic opportunity on this small but thriving island. Some of these families include but are not limited to: Biagoni, Foschetti, Barbi and Zavaroni. The latter being another Italian family relation of mine. My Grandmother Bonaccorsi’s great niece was the famous Lena Zavaroni, making her my third cousin.

Notice how many of these families have surnames ending in ‘i’. This was a common characteristic of Northern Italian surnames, thus indicating that a majority of Italian immigrants were moving from the North (at least in the first wave of migration). For example, the family name ‘Bonaccorsi’ stems from the Southern alternative ‘Bonaccorso’. Not only this, but whole villages from Italy were essentially relocated to Scotland in a clan-like fashion and, of course, the most famous being the Northern province of Lucca in Tuscany. This is where my Great-Grandfather’s hometown of Barga is situated. In fact, according to the same article by The National, Lucca is known as the most Scottish town in Italy and it’s estimated that around half of its residents have Scottish relatives, some that they of course aren’t even aware of: “It was perhaps the best example of the phenomenon in which Italians did not so much mass migrate as come in bunches from particular towns and villages and then supported each other when they got here, remaining quite clannish.”

The Italians and Scots Relationship

The Scots coined a nickname for them, ‘Tallies’, which was often used in a warm, adorning way. However, Italians were known for mingling mostly amongst themselves, except for when it came to business. Intermarriage with other nationalities was practically unheard of, mostly due to their religion. Pietro Bonaccorsi was a slight exception. He married my Great-Grandmother Helen McStay, an Irish immigrant of Roman Catholic religion, which overcame the cultural barrier. The National states that: “Though almost all Italians were Roman Catholic, the Italo-Scots also did not suffer the level of discrimination and downright bigotry expressed towards the Irish Catholics, and as people who were usually involved in family businesses they could not be accused of taking Scottish jobs.”

As with most bigotry, if a migrant ‘doesn’t have anything to offer’ such as businesses, profitable skills and/or culture, then that’s when the natives often rear their ugly bigoted head. Italians brought a welcomed diversity to Scottish cuisine and thus remained, at least in the early years, free from such slurs and tension. In my opinion, in the eyes of the Scots, Irish culture was almost too similar to their own – offering nothing of value and only populating their country more with socio-economic competition such as jobs and housing.

However, the peaceful assimilation of Italians in Scotland did not last too long. Benito Mussolini encouraged global Italian communities to engage in Fascism by forming clubs across all of their countries of residence. Scotland was no exception. Italians within the country began joining Il Duce’s Fascist party but much worse was yet to come.

War broke out in 1939 and the Italian communities across Scotland were immediately under suspicion. Neighbours and other good friends began distancing themselves and keeping a wary and watchful eye on their former Italian friends. The tensions eventually came to an explosive head when Il Duce declared war on Britain in the Summer of 1940. No Italian was safe in Scotland. Shop windows were smashed, businesses were looted and Italians were physically attacked, cases nearing the 100s in Edinburgh alone. The attacks weren’t limited to just Italians, but their Scottish born children and relatives. It wasn’t until the RAF bombed regions of Italy that both countries knew that every remaining hope of peace had vanquished. This meant war.

Winston Churchill soon directed the Internment of every Italian man between the ages of 17 and 60 (though, varying sources say 18 and 70) and were deemed as “enemy aliens”. They were either forced to work on war defences or be transported over the Atlantic to countries such as Canada.

Pietro Bonaccorsi was no exception to this rule. After making a life for himself on Bute as a confectioner firstly at the Glenburn Hotel before becoming the owner of the Electric Bakery, he was interned at the age of 54 on the Isle of Man POW camp. The internment left many women to take over the business responsibility and face alienation by their Scottish co-inhabitants. My second cousin, Ray Kennedy, who is in the process of writing a book on our family writes that: “Outcries in Parliament lead to a change in policy and the first releases of internees in August 1940.  By February 1941 more than 10,000 had been freed, and by the following summer, only 5,000 were left in internment camps.  Many of those released from internment subsequently contributed to the war effort on the Home Front or served in the armed forces.

My Grandfather [Pietro Bonaccorsi] never forgave Churchill; his hatred was made worse by the fact that some of the Bonaccorsi family was at that time fighting in the British army including his nephew Raffaello and his sons Umberto and Aldo.”

Some of the Bonaccorsi family were forced to change their surnames to ‘Brown’ during the war in order to fight on the side of the British and escape suspicion, but my grandfather Aldo, his brother Umberto and cousin Raffaelo, refused. Unfortunately, Raffaelo, the son of Pietro’s brother Celestino, was eventually taken as a Prisoner of War to Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf.

My Grandfather Aldo Bonaccorsi in the middle WW2, approximately 17 years old. Source: Avril Lax, Rothesay Remembered.

The Bonaccorsi Family Crimes on Bute

The Bonaccorsi family was no Italian mob and my Great Grandfather was no Al Capone, but both him and his family did have their fair share of run-ins with the law on Bute. According to the Buteman Newspaper and family recollections, Pietro Bonaccorsi found himself in court in 1926 facing charges of owning an illicit still. There was a lot of laughter in the court as Pietro insisted on calling the judge “Senor Presidente” and stating that a prosecution witness by the name of Antonio Barbi had “a big mouth”. Consequently, he was found guilty and fined £50, which back then was a large sum of money.

Pietro Bonaccorsi (right) with his brother (left) and their wives.

Pietro’s eldest son, Arturo, was the only one of the Bonaccorsi children that could speak Italian fluently. He was put in charge of one of his father’s businesses: The Electric Bakery on Watergate. One day, Arturo found some of his colleagues and friends gambling illegally at the back of the shop on a Sunday. My mother tells me at this time there was strictly no gambling on a Sunday. Arturo’s colleagues scoffed at his attempt to scold them. That was until he brought out a gun and again, insisted that they stopped. For some reason, the men listened this time. However, it was too little too late. After a tip-off, they were all arrested and court proceedings were carried out.

The Impact of Italians on Bute

The Italian culture has had a massive impact world wide, and a small piece of that can be seen in Bute. Zavaroni’s Cafe, even after all these years, is still a thriving business showcasing the Scottish love for a chippy and ice cream; a love that shows no sign of slowing down. Many of the people on Bute who were teenagers in the 70s reminisce about ‘Gaby’s’ or ‘Joe Foschetti’s XL cafe’.

One of my favourite parts of Italian culture that I got to experience throughout my childhood on Bute came from my Grandpa Aldo; Italian music. My niche party trick is knowing every lyric to Santa Lucia and Luna Mezzo Mare, and also being able to name each of the Three Tenors. My mother passed down a lot of small but heart-warming Italian customs, like saying Buonanotte and having to watch the Godfather Trilogy (which is unsurprisingly my favourite trilogy of all time). I hope one day, in the not-so-distant future, I eventually get to visit my Bonaccorsi family in Barga. It’s clear to see that Italy hasn’t just left a small part of itself on Bute, it’s also left a huge part in me.

Above is a picture of my Grandpa Aldo performing like the fantastic tenor he was. The next picture is of me as a child with my Grandpa Aldo and my Nana Catherine Bonaccorsi nee Crawford.

Published by

Ailsa Gillies

23 Years Old. MSc International Journalism. BA (Hons) Film, Media and Journalism. Freelance Journalist and Content Creator for BBC Scotland's 'The Social'. Former Columnist and Music Feature Writer for The Weekender.

10 thoughts on “Italians on Bute: The Bonaccorsi Family”

  1. Brilliant Ailsa. I’m sure, many years ago, I was going through the old Buteman in the library there was a local bylaw on Bute forbidding Italians from selling ice cream after 8o clock during the summer!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the article Ailsa. Thoroughly enjoyable read. Aldo was the brother of my late grandpa Joe. Spitting image of Joe in the WW2 photo aged 17.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ailsa I really enjoyed reading your family legacy. My granpa used to frequent your papa’s bookmakers. I now live on Bute too. My grandpa worked over in Ardbeg during the war and my gran and mum were decanted to Kilchattan Bay where they had fond memories of the island.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Outstanding!!!!!

    This truly is a fantastic piece of writing and needs to be shared with the whole family!

    I have been to Luca twice but, had no idea that’s where the family came from. So close!!! And didn’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t realise Joe was your Great Grandpa! I’m currently working on the entire family tree online so that’s really helpful to know! Hopefully I can do a bigger piece soon with everyone. So many stories and people to go through!

      Like

    2. Very interesting Ailsa.
      I attended st Andrew’s p s on Rothesay and my classmates were Catherine and Victor bonaccorsi, the pellagrotti girls and wee Lena and Carla Zavaroni , who were friends and neighbours.
      My dad, Jim Martin was a barman in the pubs and he knew everyone lol.
      Sadly, we had to leave Rothesay before I started the academy and moved to Stirling.
      To my surprise, at my new school, st modans, there was a bonaccorsi there, Catherine s cousin!
      You have a very rich seam of history to research, look forward to discovering more, thank you

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed reading your article on the beginning of your families lives on Bute. Very interesting.
    I went to school with a good few of your relatives (50 and 60’s) and was surrounded by neighbours, mostly Bonaccorsi, and Zavaroni. Have many happy memories of my friendship with Peter and his sister(Joe), Helen and Maria (Aldo). Good days! Sheena (Cummings)

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  5. Very intersting Ailsa. I grew up and still stay in Rothesay, born 1946. Do you happen to know if my name (Gaston) may have originated in Northern Italy? In the 80’s I worked in South Carolina but spent some time in North Carolina. There is a Gaston County and a town Gastonia. I spoke with a few locals and they seemed to think the name derived from Italian immigrants in the 19th century. Just wondered if you had any info. Nice to read about Italian characters I knew growing up. My fathers shop was two doors away from the XL cafe.

    Liked by 1 person

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