A Scottish Compliment

 

999.jpg

The Orkney Chapel – built by Italian prisoners of war from two Nissen huts

Here is an example of the Scots technique of passing a compliment.

It took time to track down all the remaining former Italian prisoners of war that built the famous Italian Chapel on Lang Holm, Orkney. If you know little of it Google it and see the work they created out of two Nissan huts, imagination, and purloined materials.

I am a non-believer, but there is a humanity, a community spirit in that shared effort. It must have given them hope.

By the time I made their acquaintance most of the prisoners were in their late seventies, a few their eighties. Only seven were left out of five hundred and fifty.

The designer and artist of the chapel, Domenico Chiocchetti, lived quietly in the north of Italy, in a mountain village, too infirm to travel, but still painting, easel and glass jar full of artist brushes by his side. He seemed to have found a sort of peace, a solace in knowing he had survived the war and created something that had survived with him, on that windy, treeless island, the chapel now a heritage site and tourist destination,

Against all myths of the island as a cold place the day I arrived to visit the chapel and survey locations coincided with summer’s balmy heat. Fish really were jumping, and the wild cotton growing around flinty pools was truly high, well, a foot or so.

A Scot, mio padre e  Siciliano,Don Carlo Bernini, I was there to direct a documentary bringing back the prisoners to contemplate an unforgettable time in their lives. For many it was their last visit. For me it was my first. They were happy to see each other again, clasping each other, embracing, kissing – full on the mouth, dammit! – and pumping handshakes while chattering excitedly in Italian. Scottish old pals they were not.

To the point of this tale: a noticeable characteristic of Scots is reluctance to offer a fulsome compliment. We fall back on nods, thumbs up, wry observation, part praise, part terse remark.

“Dae Ah like yir noo shoes, hen? Well … they’re … unusual.”

“Go on son, you can do it. Make me proud of you, or at least less disappointed.”

We are not uncaring or ungenerous. To know how swiftly we can lay aside old emnity one has only to remember our world renown Highland hospitality. It’s the same that led to Clan MacDonald allowing their mortal enemies, the Campbells, to billet a regiment in Glencoe for the worst of the winter, and the Campbells tragic and brutal exploitation of that hospitality. The consequences brought dishonour to the Campbell clan.

As this recounting is to provide a humorous example of the Scottish spirit of generosity I need to switch to California to provide a comparison before returning to Orkney.

I learned the art of a generous compliment from my Californian friends. We often describe them as shallow when they praise folk but we do them a disservice. Their “Hi there! Give me a high five,” and, “Have a nice day,” is just as much daily etiquette genuinely meant as our, “How’re yi doin’, pal?” and “Safe hame.”

While we might opine an individual cannot be as talented as he’s made out to be because we “kent his faither,” a Californian will say, “We are truly honoured to have you among us this day, blessed that such a gifted person accepted our invitation to talk to us.” Americans have an endearing naivity in the manner in which they make friends.

So …

Back in Orkney: As well as the last living Italian prisoners, I engaged the serves of “Dante,” a chef of good humour who owns a fine eatery in Colinton, Edinburgh, employed not for his cooking but for his gravelly godfather voice perfect as narrator.

A brief announcement on Orkney Radio and I managed to find the last remaining prison guard who kept watch on the passionate, warm bloodied, sallow skinned, far-from-home Mediterraneans, he now a retired dentist, still spritely, moustache, full head of hair, spectacles, suit and tie, a customary pipe smoker.

With film crew I chose to have him interviewed as he walked along the beach’s edge near the chapel, reminiscing about his days watching over Mussolini’s  throng, soldiers captured in North Africa and sent by Churchill to shift heavy rocks into the sea to stop U-Boats passing between the outcrop of islands gaining access to Scapa Flow. The barriers are now roads, topped with tarmac.

My retired dentist was keen to talk to camera, a memory not dulled by age. He trotted at a leasurely pace expounding on his days in charge of a reluctant but docile group of opera loving prisoners stealing  anything they could find to turn a Nissen hut into a chapel, Catholic deceiving Prebyterian, the vanquished out-smarting the victorious.

“Action!” The cameraman moved backwards as the dentist walked forward.

“Aye,” he began, “It was bitterly cold days an’ freezin’ nights, diggin’ up an’ dragging field boulders tae the water’s edge, and, yard by yard, pushed them, one ower thi ither, to form sunken barriers, jist one small bulldozer between us to dae the Lord’s work. You couldnae say life wis eventful; naw, it wis hard, monotonous, back breaking work we did. An’ worse, Ah wis awa frae my wife an’ family weeks oan end-“

“Cut! Cut! Cut!”

I shouted “cut” three times, perplexed. I walked over to him from the camera position.

“I apologise for interrupting your flow – you’re doing fine, just fine – sound level good. It’s just that I’m a bit confused. You talk as if it was you doing all the work away from your loved ones, but with respect, surely it was the Italian prisoners freezing to death, up to their butts in sea water, thinking thoughts of their wives and children back home?”

He listened in silence, pausing a long time, introspective, mulling the distinction.

He look up at the cerulean blue sky, took a few puffs on his pipe, blew smoke from the side of his mouth, and uttered what I now know to be a classically typical Scottish compliment.

He said: “Aye, weel, Ah’ll gie them half o’ it.”

The moral of this tale ought to be as plain as the nose on your face. We can all be our worst enemy, and surely have plenty of competition.

Life is short; better to tell someone they’re a fine friend now, not wait until their funeral.

999

 

Advertisements
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Scottish Compliment

  1. Helena Brown says:

    I probably saw that programme, very moving it was to.
    I have no idea what it will take to change the Scots, we always said with my Brother in Law that his highest accolade was “No Bad” which covered everything from excellent to all right.
    Those I know in the US are unfailingly polite, now that is something I would like see happen here, we are not.

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    “No bad,” aye, that’s true. I like American politeness. They have a chivalry in driving too.

    • Aye, maybe it’s time we did learn to wear our hearts just a wee bit more on the sleeve. To be fair, I do find among my Scottish friends that there is a just bit less reticence on that score than used to be.
      Being away in England (if only just) this last two decades perhaps I notice the subtle changes more when I’m among them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s