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A Scottish Shangri-La in the Italian Alps

By all standard rules of logic, the town of Gurro -- easily the strangest of all Italian villages -- should not be in Italy. The people here speak French better than they do Italian.

And whichever they speak, it still comes out with a Scottish brogue.

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For the odd thing about this oft-forgotten clan of Italian citizens is that they are the remnants of war-weary Highland mercenaries who settled in this hidden hilltop corner nearly 450 years ago. Not until after 1900 did Italian government officials come to learn that for some four centuries Gurro lay dormant in its snowbound Alp haven, a veritable Celtic Shangri-La that had all the earmarks of a Rip Van Winkle story as done by Sir Walter Scott.

Nearly all of the 725 residents of Gurro are direct descendants of the Scottish soldiers who discovered this remote perch near the Swiss frontier, a half-hour drive from Lake Maggiore near the border town of Cannobio. You reach Gurro after following a twisty, uphill, narrow mountainside road that is paved with potholes, big stones, ruts, and (in rainy weather) gobs of mud.

Anthropologists from Zurich University were the first to come across Gurro. Since then Swiss philologists have had a field day recording the hundreds of non-Italian words the locals still retain from Gaelic in their dialect, which resembles no other lingo in the region. Altogether there are about 800 Scottish words in their language. To cite one curiosity: the word "meh," which means "not" in Gaelic. Although Italians usually put their "not" (written "non") in front of the verb, the Gurro folks put theirs after.

"As to how our Scot forebears settled here," explains Antonio Dresti, a schoolteacher (the name derives from Desmond), "the story is that the stragglers of a regiment of Scottish archers, salaried bodyguards to King Francis I of France who was invading Italy in the early half of the 16th century and who met disastrous defeat in the Battle of Pavia, fled north with the idea of finding their way back to safety in France.

"That was the year 1525, and the snows were especially heavy. So the Scot archers, unable to combat the snow and knowing the Simplon Pass would be blocked , decided to pause at the high point that is now Gurro and hold out. Left to their own devices in hostile country, the hundred Scotland troops figured they would be able to sneak their way home."

Apparently nobody bothered to give chase. So the runaway soldiers simply stayed on after the spring thaw, partly because the location smacked of their own Highland glens and partly because it would be easy to defend. Like the Bounty mutineers, the Scots eventually took local wives by "raiding" the nearby mountain villages and forthwith built a mountain fortress community that is the Gurro of today, 2,657 feet above sea level.

Today the heirs of these original Scotsmen live in a kind of utopian peace and harmony, hardly bothered by the outside world -- or for that matter, by the rest of Italy. And there's nary a policeman in Gurro, because there is no need for one.

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Nothing jars the quaint hamlet more, however, than to have a stray tourist -- often an "adventurous motorist" -- drive up to the main square, which is hardly bigger than a tennis court, and stop to ask for directions. Gurro, by the way, is the end of the line -- you can't go any farther.

The occasional visitor who does drift into this ethnic enclave finds the Scottish-Italian folks quite friendly. Quick to inform you that the kit is no longer worn by the males and that the women hardly wear their plaids anymore, they are also quick to tell you that because of economic reasons, many of them have to go to Switzerland for employment.

In Gurro are a surprising number of retired Americans who left the village as children and who have come back there to live. Though they love their Shangri-La, they do nevertheless lament over the nearby mountaintop transmitter that relays the television shows from Rome and Switzerland. The thing manages to get itself destroyed by lightning about once a month.

A woman with a basket of hay slung across her shoulders was asked to pose for a photo. After the snapshot was taken, she inquired: "Will I be on television?"

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