I was quite taken aback to notice this week that St Duthus FC now have an Italian following! Modest though it may be in size, I found it quite a surprise to see that our little club in Tain had caught the interest of football enthusiasts in the heart of the Mediterranean sea. With that in mind, I felt a blog entry was long overdue, and that one which pertains specifically to the Saints’ Italian connections might be of interest to our new fans.
Overlooking a beautiful expanse of grape vines, chestnut trees and olive groves is the Pania della Croce of the Apuan Alps, a dominant yet striking mountain of over 6,000ft which towers over the Tuscan town of Barga in central Italy. It is home to buildings of attractive Romanesque architecture such as the Duomo cathedral and several historic pieces by Renaissance sculptor Andrea della Robbia. At the end of the 19th century, Barga was also home to a man named Florindo Pieraccini, and his wife Ida.
From 1890 to 1915, it is believed that some three million Italians made their way to America in search of a better life. Changes in Italian politics and the economy had seen Northern Italy industrialize only to leave the rest of the nation poverty stricken. One alternative to poverty was to travel to the United States, where jobs and opportunity were aplenty. The majority of those who emigrated were farm labourers or “contadini”, or craftsmen such as carpenters, tailors or barbers. Florindo on the other hand went to New York to sell his wares, in the form of plaster statuettes. Like many who took the gamble though, he eventually found himself moving on again, this time to Scotland where he arrived in Glasgow prior to the onset of the First World War, making the city his home for many years.
Back home in Barga, a twelve-year-old Emilio (affectionately known as Leo) Pieraccini, son of Florindo, was preparing to make the move that would change his life forever. Accompanying his step-uncle Luigi Seraphini, he left Italy for Scotland to join his father in 1918.
After four years in Glasgow, the Pieraccini family moved north where they would make their home, and business, in the Caithness fishing town of Wick. Florindo became a shopkeeper, taking advantage of the thriving “take-away” culture, selling ice cream, confectionary and fish and chips in a style typical of many early 20th century Italian run cafes throughout Scotland. Florindo’s sons, Leo and his older brother Primo were able-bodied assistants, spending their teen years learning the trade. By 1928, Leo and Primo had gone into business of their own together, buying a café in Tain.
That café was the “Chocolate Shop” and although the brothers retained the name, they mounted a nameplate above the sign outside the shop, which read “Pieraccini Bros”. The shop became known locally as “Pers” and Leo himself became something of a character in the town. In the following excerpt, Leo’s grandson Paul Donnachie wrote fondly of his grandfather’s love for the town in an email to me a few years ago.
He (Leo) was universally popular. Gregarious, kind-hearted, charming; people readily took to him. Leo happily spent most of his life in the Highlands rather than return to Italy. He loved the countryside, and genuinely appreciated the hospitality he received. He grew to think of Scotland as his real home. He had worked and raised his family there, and been warmly accepted by the local people who came to regard him as a ‘character’, a ‘worthy’; a high accolade in Tain. Being involved with and supporting the community was important to him, and he contributed enthusiastically to community life.
Leo took every opportunity to promote the Tain cause. He even went so far as to personally stamp the words “Visit Tain, the oldest Royal Burgh in Scotland” on paper currency as it passed through the till in his shop. An effective method of advertising no doubt, with the eyes of Britain’s money spending public on the notes as they passed through their hands. Or rather it was effective, at least until a visit from the Police who called a halt to the ploy. Visiting his establishment, they promptly warned him that, “despite the benefits to the local economy, this practice must cease!”
Among other things, Leo was an enthusiastic motorcyclist. He was known for demonstrating his riding skills on the parks of the Links at Tain and on one occasion won a silver medal in the Scottish 6 Day trials. In fact, while courting a young Roseanna in the mid 1920s, he could regularly be seen riding through the town with his wife-to-be in the sidecar!
It wasn’t until the mid 1930s, though, that Leo would begin a relationship with St Duthus Football Club that would span several decades. In February of 1934, moves were afoot to resurrect the defunct team, which had fallen into abeyance following their withdrawal from the Ross-shire League and the death of their long time president, the Count de Serra Largo. It was the hope of this latest group of well-doers that the new team could compete in the Ross-shire Junior setup once again. An article in the Aberdeen Journal from the time reported the first of their meetings:
A decision to resuscitate St Duthus (Tain) Football Club was made at a crowded meeting convened to discuss the matter and office-bearers were elected as follows:- President Mr Wm Ross; vice-presidents Provost Ross, Capt Dewar and Mr A Low; secretary, Mr Duncan Mackenzie, Rosebank; treasurer, Mr A Wilson; Committee – Messrs W. Wood, A. S. Fraser, J. Corbett, R. L. Benson, A. Mactavish, G B Davidson, and G A Davidson.
It was soon after that time that Leo Pieraccini became a committee member of the “resuscitated” Saints, before he was elevated to the office bearer’s role of Treasurer in 1936. His involvement with the club, and Tain football for that matter, began much earlier than that. An established business man and an ardent supporter of football, he was a regular sponsor of the team. In the early 1930s, a handsome trophy which had been donated by Leo quickly took its place as the local area’s premier football prize for young, aspiring juvenile footballers. Tain’s football youths were streets ahead of their Ross-shire peers at this time – despite their adult side being nothing special to speak of. The Tain Royal Academy team had been unbeaten for two whole years between 1932 and 1934 and was the envy of the other schools in the county. Not surprisingly, Leo had become a supporter of Tain’s talented young footballers. Just as the Mackay Cup had done between 1907 and the late 1920s, the Pieraccini Cup gave juvenile players the platform to compete for honours outside of the school system. The trophy was contested between teams of players under the age of sixteen on the pitches at the Links with Leo or his wife Roseanna presiding over the event. Known as much for their character as their generosity, they would award medals to the winning team along with the silver cup itself, often filled with milkshakes to be drunk by the victors!
It was at this time that Leo began to take an active role as an ambassador for the recovering St Duthus Football Club, while his shop became a prominent location for the display of trophies and articles of interest belonging to the team. By the time of his appointment as Treasurer in 1936, his friend and long-time committee member George B Davidson (not to be confused with George A Davidson who had taken the chair in 1934), a saddler by trade, had joined him on the list of office bearers as the new Club President. Under Leo’s watch, the club’s accounts grew favourably as a result of a number of fetes and dances, but were also managed with charity in mind, with almost £50 given away in 1938 to local organisations, including a provision for a treat for the town’s children at New Year.
Football-wise, recognising that the junior game in Ross-shire was in dire need of resuscitation, it was the aim of Leo and George to spear-head the formation of an Easter Ross League which would encourage local villages and RAF camps to enter teams in regular competition, such as Hilton, Edderton, Balintore, Fearn, Portmahomack and Inver. The idea never did come to fruition in that image, owing to the fact that conflict was soon to break out, although the Saints did once again become competitive, winning a number of Ross-shire based trophies during the late 1930s.
Leo and George remained in charge of the club’s affairs until its disbandment due to the onset of the Second World War, at which time Leo had been holidaying in his native Italy. Had he been doing so just a year later, he would most likely have been faced with conscription! As it turned out, Leo’s brothers were interned on the Isle of Man, while he was removed from the “military zone” that was Ross-shire, to Pitlochry. He eventually ended up back in the North, in Inverness, but it would be a few years before he would be reunited with his family.
After the war, Leo’s legacy in football circles lived on, and in particular, the Pieraccini Cup remained a regular fixture for the town’s youth well into the 1960s and 70s.
But Leo’s legacy and the Saints’ Italian connection hasn’t altogether vanished since then. Those who know their more recent Saints history will be aware that one of our first signings last season was Paul Cowie, who is in fact the great grandson of Leo Pieraccini.
Having played senior football off and on for several clubs (including the last incarnation of Tain St Duthus) since the age of fifteen, Paul has given a great deal to the game in the local area, and has won his fair share of honours — but it hasn’t been without it’s price. Knee injuries have plagued him throughout his career and 2016-17 proved no different.
This season, it’s all change for Paul as he has agreed to take up the role of player/coach at St Duthus FC – and 80 years on from the very season Leo began to steer the Saints back on track, Paul now sets out to do his bit from the touchline to help the new “Saints” grow.
In this new role, we’ve no doubt that Paul will show the same dedicazione to the club shown by his great grandfather Leo all those decades ago.
Thank you to Ida Donnachie and Paul Donnachie for the photographs and information contained in this entry.