Auld Alliance loses its va va voom

The relationship between Scotland and France is not quite as special as politicians in Paris this week will try to have us believe, writes Kenny Farquharson

Something is not quite right in the French town of Aubigny-sur-Nere. Tartan wallpaper adorns the local tabac. Tubs of purple heather can be had for five euros in the fleuriste. Macsween haggis is on the menu in the corner bistro. And outside the bibliotheque stands a flagpole with a giant saltire and a 10ft sculpture of a claymore.

Aubigny-sur-Nere thinks it is Scottish, and don’t try telling it otherwise. Even the local gendarmerie has a picture of a kilted soldier painted on its wall. The town sits snug at the east end of the Loire Valley in an area known as “le coeur de France” -the heart of France -but the deluded inhabitants seem to believe they live in a misty Highland glen where the only sounds are the skirl of the pipes and the clink of whisky glasses in the gloaming.

On the eve of this week’s visit to Paris by Jack McConnell, the first minister, who will spend three days being glad-handed by senior figures in the French government, Aubigny is the ideal place to ponder the state of the centuries old relationship between Scotland and France. And, nursing a midday glass of Saumur-Champigny in the town’s Cutty Sark bar, retired hotelier Andre Masse is delighted at the opportunity to hold forth about his town’s love of all things Scottish.

Masse boasts of its 20-strong kilted pipe band, its two tartans, the annual four-day Scottish festival in July, when bemused tourists have to remind themselves they are still in France.

In halting English, Masse recommends 12-year-old Aubigny whisky, made locally using water from Loch Katrine. On its label is a picture of a thistle entwined with a lily, a symbol of an ancient amity. As with the town’s ersatz Scottishness, the whisky is not quite like the real thing but has a beguiling taste of its own.

“Our links with Scotland are very important to us,” says Masse. “It is part of who we are. Many in this town believe they have Scottish ancestors. Whether it is true or not, they still believe it. Cheers!”

The slogan on Aubigny’s tourist brochures says: “Scottish since 1423.” That is when Charles VII of France rewarded Scottish allies who had helped him fight the English during the 100 Years War. He gifted Aubigny to the Scottish nobleman John Stuart of Darnley, who promptly took up residence andrule. Scottish control of the town ended more than 300 years ago, but the local people cling to their proxy Scottishness, a living symbol of a wider international alliance that will come under new scrutiny this week.

As any Scottish school pupil can tell you, the Auld Alliance is the celebrated link between Scotland and France that goes back to October 23, 1295, when John Balliol, king of Scotland, signed a treaty with Philip IV of France, each promising to come to each other’s aid in any dispute with the hated English. The alliance was the definitive proof that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

Diplomatic, educational, cultural and trading ties deepened over centuries, toasted by Scots with the finest French claret, landed in Leith.

The assumption of a special bond with the French has become part of the received wisdom about being Scottish, and the potency of this idea will be demonstrated during McConnell’s visit this week. Officially he will be there as part of the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France, which has turned into more than just the marking of a date. The Blair and Chirac governments are using the anniversary to repair cross-Channel relations after the falling-out over the Iraq war.

Scotland plays a crucial role in this diplomatic salving of wounds. As the British ambassador to Paris, Sir John Holmes, admitted in a recent speech to a Scottish audience in Edinburgh: “You can use your renewed autonomy and identity to play on the ties of affection and history which are so much stronger between Scotland and France than between France and England.”

This week’s ambassadorial receptions will bring predictable warm words about Franco-Scottish fraternity. Likely to be reprised are the words of General de Gaulle on a visit to Edinburgh in 1942 -when there was again a pressing diplomatic reason to play the alliance for all it was worth. “I do not think,” he said, “that a Frenchman could have come to Scotland at any time without being sensible of a special emotion: awareness of the thousand links, still living and cherished, of the Franco-Scottish alliance, the oldest alliance in the world.”

But when these sentiments are celebrated this week, will they ring true? In 2004, is there really a special relationship that goes beyond a general feeling of goodwill and a memory of a shared foe?

Cynics say only the Scots believe the Auld Alliance exists these days, and that few French people have even heard of it. In the trendy Marais district of Paris, I put this to the test. Standing outside the Auld Alliance pub, I ask the first 10 people who speak English what they know of the Auld Alliance. The result? Not encouraging. All the interviewees are polite and try to help, but not one has a clue what I am talking about. “The old on-line? It is a website?” asks one earnest young man in trendy specs.

One man well-placed to judge the state of Franco-Scots relations is Jim Haynes, the American who helped found the Traverse Theatre in 1962 during a 10-year stay in Edinburgh. Haynes went on to co-found the hippie bible International Times, counting among his friends John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger, Germaine Greer and William Burroughs.

For the past 30 years, Haynes has lived in Paris. These days he is best known for his Sunday night dinner parties for up to 100 strangers, where to get on the guestlist you simply phone up and ask if you can come. Over microwaved coffee, Haynes declares it is a rare Frenchman who will even have heard of the Auld Alliance. But he can understand the Scots’ need for it still to exist. The explanation, he believes, is that the idea of England as an enemy still exists in Scotland but has diminished greatly in France.

“In the last 30 years the number of French people speaking English has risen massively,” he says. “When you learn another country’s language, you become sympathetic to them. You learn their literature, you travel there. A lot of French businesses have moved to London because they get better tax benefits in England.

“What’s also interesting is that a number of the star French footballers now play in the English Premiership. So the animosity breaks down, and there is almost a tenderness that has developed.”

While Scotland’s view of the world beyond its borders is dominated by England, according to Haynes, France looks in many more directions -to London and Edinburgh, certainly, but also to Germany, Brussels, Africa and the Far East.

Haynes believes it will be more than just politeness that leads the French authorities to enthuse about the Auld Alliance at this week’s events, but for reasons much greater than the Scottish dimension. “France right now needs friends,” he says. “The feeling is that they have to mend fences and get back in with Britain and America. It’s going to be a big love-in.”

But nothing can diminish the alliance’s importance to the minority who keep the flame burning. People such as Monique Guillemin, a retired executive “approaching 70” who for the past 50 years has spent every Friday night during winter enjoying Scottish country dancing at the Scots Kirk in Paris.

In the small church hall in the high-rent area between the Champs Elysees and the Seine, about a dozen dancers are gathered the night I visit, a range of ages and nationalities. All wear ballet pumps. This is no wild ceilidh, rather a stately and courtly evening conducted according to the strict rules of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Association.

Guillemin’s love of Scotland and the Scots began as a 15-year-old. “I fell in love with Mary Stuart -it was the romance of her story,” she says. “When studying post-war in London, all the people she befriended were Scots, and she found their character complemented that of the French.

“Before I went to Scotland my granny used to say that she was Scottish,” she says.

“There was an old law written saying that every French person was Scottish and every Scottish person was French. That law only disappeared in the early years of the 20th century. But my granny was born in the 1880s, so she kept on considering herself Scottish. The alliance is alive for me.”

Such loyalty to a 700-year-old treaty is impressive, but Guillemin remains an exception. On his visit to Paris this week, McConnell will be savvy enough to know Scotland has much to gain by allowing the French to exaggerate the contemporary significance of the Auld Alliance. If it opens doors, great. But let’s not fool ourselves, especially so soon after Valentine’s Day. Give or take an Aubigny or a Guillemin, the Scots’ affection for the Auld Alliance in 2004 is an unrequited love.

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Columnist and senior writer with @TheTimes in Scotland. Using Medium to archive some of my writing from 35 years in journalism.

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Kenny Farquharson

Kenny Farquharson

Columnist and senior writer with @TheTimes in Scotland. Using Medium to archive some of my writing from 35 years in journalism.

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