The Auld Alliance

We are off to Scotland tomorrow morning to visit Madame’s parents. Flight times dictate that this means a trip to Paris this afternoon and an overnight stop at a hotel in Charles de Gaulle airport. Ryanair used to fly direct from Poitiers to Edinburgh, but that awfully nice Mr O’Leary stopped this service a few months after we arrived.

Because of Covid, this will be the first time we’ve seen them in over two years, and we are really looking forward to it. They live in Blairgowrie, just on the edge of the Highlands, and an added bonus is that the scenery there is particularly stunning at this time of year.

We have our own little bit of Scotland here in Poitiers, in the oddly named Rue des Écossais (Street of the Scots) not far from the main square. It has the Prefecture at one end and the police station at the other, but I have learnt to my cost that any remarks about needing to keep an eye on the Scots are best avoided at home.

In view of our trip, I’ve been looking into why the street is so called, and it turns out that it’s all due to a man called Robert Irland. Born in Scotland, he was a professor of law at the University of Poitiers, and in 1502 he bought the land on which the street now stands. He planted it with trees and vines and built a house which he called ‘Les Écossais’.

The only other remotely Scottish link in the street I can find is that the building now housing the police station was once La Collège des Écossais. Built in 1923, it was a college for young girls, dedicated to teaching them what used to be known as domestic science. Above the door of the police station, one can still see the initials VP for Ville de Poitiers and the words Enseignement ménager (Home education). I quite like the idea of a Madame Jean Brodie teaching her crème de la crème how to bake scones.

I also discovered that during the last war, the SS set up their local headquarters at no. 13 Rue des Écossais but, again, I think it best not to make any flippant remarks about this at home.

***

Quite by chance, on Monday I came across another Poitiers/Scottish link in the church of Saint-Porchaire in Rue Gambetta. I’d gone in to take a photo of the confessional box, as I’ve lately become slightly obsessed by these bizarre little structures. Looking both quaint and oddly sinister, they bring back memories of a Catholic childhood, when from the age of nine or ten, you were expected to enter one of them and ‘admit your sins’ to a man behind a screen. I can remember frantically trying to come up with two or three things that were sufficiently reprehensible to earn my penance of an Our Father or three Hail Marys but innocuous enough not to require any further cross-examination – ‘swearing’ and ‘losing your temper’ were always reliable. It was about that time that I first came across the phrase ‘having impure thoughts’. At that age I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I figured it was best avoided in the confessional.

‘Impure thoughts! Moi?’

Anyway, there I was in Saint-Porchaire taking my photo, when I noticed this stone set into the wall just by the confessional.

It’s a memorial to Adam Blackwood, who was born in Dunfermline in 1539. Orphaned when very young, his education was sponsored by his great uncle, Robert Reid, Bishop of Orkney. He studied at the University of Paris and then, thanks to the patronage of Mary, Queen of Scots, became a practising lawyer in Poitiers. He was a loyal servant to Mary and published various works criticising her treatment in England, along with volumes of poetry and religious meditation.

Robert Irland died in 1561, while Blackwood was still studying in Paris, so it’s unlikely they will have met, but I’m beginning to wonder how many other links there may be between Scotland and Poitiers. According to the memorial stone, the Blackwood line survived in Poitiers till 1754, so I think a trip to the archives in Rue Blaise Pascal might be interesting.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The medieval French made up their own saints, such as St Coquette, the patron saint of talkative women, and St Jambon, the patron saint of ham.

General Franco kept the mummified hand of St Teresa of Avila on his bedside table until his death.

The word papa means ‘pope’ in Italian, ‘shark’ in Swahili, ‘potato’ in Quechua, and ‘arse’ in Maori.

2 thoughts on “The Auld Alliance”

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