Deep in central France and sandwiched between the Loire river and the marshy Forests of the Sologne lies the unassuming town of Aubigny-sur-Nère. Away from the main tourist axis you would be easily forgiven for ignoring this small provincial town as you press on southwards. But this is a part of France that will forever be a link to Scotland and every July it dedicates a weekend to celebrate the "auld Alliance" as it dons itself in Tartan and swirls to the sound of the bagpipe.
The Auld Alliance
To those of you unfamiliar with history the "auld alliance" was an unwritten pact started back in the late 13th century and made between the French and Scottish crowns uniting them in their fight against the common enemy - the English. For the next century and a half Scottish and French soldiers fought side by side against the English. The French writer and poet Alain Chartier (1385-1430) wrote famously about the alliance - "it is not so much written on ewe-skin parchment but more on the flesh and skin of man and in blood and not in ink"
And so in 1423 to thank their Scottish friends, the French crown (Charles VII) gave the town of Aubigny-sur-Nère to Jean Stuart Darnley, the then cousin of the King of Scotland and it remained "La ville des Stuarts" until 1672.
In 1931 the town's mayor Joseph Morin decided to enhance the annual Agricultural Show with some Scottish embellishments but it was finally his successor Yves Fromion who in 1990 revived the festivities and ensured that they would become an annual event and rekindling the town's Scottish flavour ensuring it become "La Ville des Stuarts" once again.
Symbols of Scotland
And so last weekend thescottishlandscape.org drove south from Paris through the plain of la Beauce, across the majestic Loire river and through the shady Sologne forest to finally arrive in Aubigny as it was setting up the weekend's celebrations. The visitor quickly becomes aware of the town's Scottish links - on the central roundabout (La Place Chazereau) at the entrance to the town stands an impressive 3m high iron statue of a kilted bagpiper. As the visitor wanders through the town the Scottish references become ever more apparent - The Cutty Sark Pub (named after the famous clipper built in Dumbarton in 1869) with its thistle themed etched windows and beer stained tartan carpet interior, a red telephone box, the giant claymore and the Stuart's Chateau. And if you follow the river Nère, which meanders through the town, out into the adjoining fields you will come across the bucolic scene of highland cows seeking relief from sun under the shade of trees and standing in the river.
The town was expecting10,000 visitors per day during the weekend with the hub of the weekend's celebrations taking place in Les Grands Jardins with a grandstand and stage, large beer and food tents and a medieval themed village. Around the garden and in the surrounding streets and squares, Clan and Tartan societies, photographers and writers, Scottish/Celtic themed souvenirs and accessories sellers were setting up stands all in readiness for new members, followers and customers. They had come from all parts of France with one thing uniting them all - their love of Scotland and all things Scottish and perhaps, most importantly, their pride in wearing their kilts and accessories.
For the French "caledonophile" Aubigny is the main event on their calendar. And not least for the Pipe Bands. The Bagpipe is a well known part of Breton culture however there are Pipe Bands all over France and it is a growing trend. They were centre stage on both days of the weekend and it was obvious that they were the main attraction with every rendition of "Scotland the Brave" enthusiastically clapped along to by an enthralled grandstand. And when they were not in front of the grandstand they were parading through the town's streets. There was of course a serious note to their presence as they were also competing in the 2022 Championnat de France de Pipe Bands organised by La fédération française de pipe bands. And congratulations to the winners - Aquitaine Highlanders Pipe Band.
The French town is twinned with the picturesque town of Haddington in East Lothian but when the real Scotland did show up in Aubigny, it was on Saturday night when The Red Hot Chilli Pipers performed their unique mixture of rock and bagpipe.
The Bagpipe was also the star with a Sunday afternoon performance by the French naval pipe band Le bagad de Lann-Bihoué and the Spanish Asturian group La Reina del Truébano provided a further international take on the pipe theme.
History or folklore
As you walk around the town, you would be forgiven for not feeling a slight "Disneyesque" event is in progress; here, in such a typically French rural town and in temperatures in the mid 30's, thousands of French people are recreating their image of Scotland. The vision of a Scotland from the Outlander series or from the Braveheart and Marie Queen of Scots films has helped to spread the Tartan cult and it is easy to mistake the event as kitsch as you wander through Les Grands Jardins. But this is no theme park, the people are genuine and their take on Tartan is not simply about dressing up, but more about creating their own unique interpretation of what it means to be Scottish. As is so French - there are no rules, no dress etiquette, Tartan is a fashion and each person wears it as they see fit.
And away from the folklore there is a real historical and cultural proximity to the people from the North which the French have for centuries admired and nurtured. And as Scotland and the Celtic culture re-asserts itself once again, there is growing number of passionate Europeans who are embracing it with their own interpretation.
If you are in France make that small detour to Aubigny-sur-Nère - if you are a Scot or simply curious, you will be received with open arms. Even better make a note in the diary that each year, during the weekend around Bastille day (14th July), there is a town in France that is forever Scotland and throws a big party in its celebration.