Just lie back and think of Scotland

Frustrated by a lack of French talent, the women of Aubigny have sent out an appeal - to Caledonia. What's so seductive about a bloke in a kilt? Stephen Khan finds out
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Behind the fortified walls of a 15th-century château, wide-eyed women are preparing for an invasion. Word is that a foreign army is on the way, but there is no sign of panic. Quite the opposite. Excitement grows as nimble fingers produce welcoming gifts. Miniatures of whisky are swaddled in little tartan jackets and placed in boxes. For men are coming. Raw, red-blooded, men; wrapped in kilts. And that is exactly what the young women of Aubigny-sur-Nère want.

Behind the fortified walls of a 15th-century château, wide-eyed women are preparing for an invasion. Word is that a foreign army is on the way, but there is no sign of panic. Quite the opposite. Excitement grows as nimble fingers produce welcoming gifts. Miniatures of whisky are swaddled in little tartan jackets and placed in boxes. For men are coming. Raw, red-blooded, men; wrapped in kilts. And that is exactly what the young women of Aubigny-sur-Nère want.

Frustrated with the lack of local talent in this town of just 6,000 souls two hours south of Paris, they have sent out a Caledonian calling card - a plea that was carried north on the pages of a Scottish newspaper last month. It went: "We love everything Scottish - especially the men in their kilts - and it would be great if they would come and set up home here."

In July they will arrive by the coach-load for a Franco-Scottish festival. What Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve did for the global image of the French female, Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor and Mel Gibson (in character) have done for the Scottish man. The French think he's dashing, wears a kilt, likes a drink and loves to charm the ladies. It is clearly this Scottish man the women of Aubigny have in mind as they await the arrival of specimens from their twin town of Haddington, East Lothian, who will strut into town this summer. But even if the men live up to such expectations, they'll turn around and go back again after a few days of revelry. For some people in this town that's just not enough - such is the obsession. They want Scots to settle.

Intrigued, I feel it is only my patriotic duty to go and find out more. Suspecting Rab C Nesbitt is not what they want, the string vest is left at home, and I do my best to reinvent myself as a clean-cut, shortbread-box Scot. I strap on the Tartan Army battlegear and mount a one-man mission to discover why on earth a forgotten corner of France has such a bizarre fixation with Scotsmen.

Early impressions are far more Gallic than Gaelic. Marching past the town sign, I come across rickety SNCF rail wagons, a Casino supermarket and lots of bars. Four men sit on a bench smoking Gitanes, but stoically avoiding conversation. A mangy mongrel snoozes in the middle of the main road. The butcher displays heads and trotters of calves. So far, so French. But then the heavens open. Rain comes in horizontally, at head height. I am starting to feel at home. It's just like Kilmarnock.

Further along the route into the quiet town centre, the street become rue des Stuarts. There's a crèche called Kilts and Culottes. Tartan is everywhere, from bunting to ribbon around the baguettes in the boulangerie. There's an old British red phone box next to the church, and a hotel called the Cutty Sark. And then, my destination. The town hall nestles under the ramparts of the Château des Stuarts and contains examples, I am assured, of the fine filles desperate for a Celtic connection.

Outside, in the Place de la Résistance, a giant silver sword is plunged into the ground Braveheart-style. But I breach the castle walls - and disturb the women making their miniature whisky gifts. Deploying my smattering of schoolboy French, I make my opening gambit. "Erm. J'arrive. Je m'appelle Stephen. J'habite en Ecosse... I hear you like Scottish men."

Stony silence. They stare. Have I got the wrong place? Perhaps the fascination with all things Scottish does not extend to me? My French photographer explains the mission. They laugh. I peer down nervously at my thin legs and knobbly knees. Hmm, not quite the Highland hero of lore. Slowly, though, they soften and follow me outside to the giant sword.

The women moan about the local men. "They're not very interesting," says Natacha Mackowiak. The 18-year-old insists her name is of Balkan origin, despite the Mac. Another declares they are "lazy" and there are just "not enough of them". The complaints seem remarkably similar to those heard in towns and villages across Scotland. But I withhold that information from my new friends.

"We have a common background," adds Mackowiak, pointing at the hallowed sword. With that our conversation peters out. Not to worry. I assure myself that in this town where it is the women who want to chase skirt, there will be plenty more opportunities. In the main street is Aurore Monteillet. "It can get a bit quiet round here, it would be great if some Scottish men were to move to Aubigny," says the 23-year-old.

She works in the tourist office - the ideal person to explain the giant sword, the ubiquitous tartan and the Franco-Scottish festival. A potted history of how this corner of France became part of the Scottish crown follows. In 1419, during the Hundred Years War, when the English possessed more than half of France, the future King Charles VII of France was hemmed in by the English, near Bourges just down the road. Desperate, he begged the Scots to come and fight. They didn't need much encouragement. Under the leadership of John Stuart of Darnley, 11,000 Scots flooded into the country. Despite suffering huge casualties, the Franco-Scots forces were victorious, paving the way for Joan of Arc and the birth of the modern French nation. "It was a historic win. After years of defeat the French had confidence again," says Monteillet.

The trouble was that the Scots then needed paying, and the French monarch's coffers were empty. So Aubigny was handed over to the Stuarts, and run as an outpost of Scotland for more than 200 years. "So the Auld Alliance of France and Scotland started near Aubigny and the big sword commemorates it."

She explains that despite the history, Aubigny today is a quiet town, especially when it comes to men. The shortage of manpower has even hit local industry. One of the biggest local employers is Mecachrome, a motor-racing engine supplier. They recently advertised for 20 new machine operators, who would be well paid. Despite the 10 per cent unemployment in France, they got one local. The company looked to Eastern Europe to fill the posts. But given the history, the local women would prefer if next time, businesses turned to Scotland. The delightful Monteillet and a few friends made their full-page plea recently in Scotland's biggest-selling newspaper, the Sunday Mail. But before I can invite her for a pint of McEwan's lager in Bar Atomic on the main street, she's off to shut up the tourist information office.

And so I trudge on, through the rain, making the odd approach, solemnly accepting rejection of my pathetic attempts at pan-European communication. About a kilometre from the town centre is an old mill house that provides perfect shelter. In it is an English teacher and her husband. Catherine and Jacques Baranger, a local lawyer, are besotted with Scots. "I play the pipes in the Aubigny band," says Jacques, as he lights up a cigar. He adds that the band marches in Ancient Stuart tartan, and shows me a photograph to prove it.

Catherine was president of the association that twinned Aubigny with Haddington, and next week she will go there to celebrate its 40th anniversary with whisky and haggis. She hopes for closer links. "I have been waiting for a marriage between a local girl and a Scottish man. I have my hat. I can only hope."

She explains that despite the civic heritage, there is little in the way of a genuine genealogical connection between the town and Scotland. For all the pipe bands and haggis, they are all as French as Madame Liberté. Except one. I head to the Cutty Sark hotel and book a room. The boss has arrived. Like myself, he hails from Ayrshire. Malcolm Gillespie is every inch a latter-day Laird of Aubigny. Bedecked in tweeds, he puffs on a pipe and holds court in his hotel bar. He tells me about the wonderful life he has as the only Scot in a French town with a Caledonian fixation. "This is an incredible place," says Gillespie, wine in hand. "It's undiscovered and people in Scotland are shocked to hear about it. It would be great if more Scotsmen settled here. They'd have a fantastic time."

He has arranged for me to meet Yves Fromion, the local mayor and a député (an MP) at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris, to find out more. Fromion greets me at his office and ushers me to the roof of the parliamentary building where we enjoy a breakfast of croissants and black coffee, looking out over the Champs-Elysées. But the talk is of Robert Burns and Walter Scott.

He laments the fact that the rest of France has forgotten about the role of the Scots in the country's history, and inaugurated the Franco-Ecossais festival in Aubigny in 1990. "Back then it was just me going through the centre of the town on a horse," he says. People thought he was mad. Yet now the festival is huge, drawing people from across the surrounding countryside and, of course, from Scotland itself. And the highlight is the bekilted march through the centre of Aubigny. But the ambition reaches beyond a mere street party.

"In the new Europe, sometime from now, I hope people will move more freely, I hope the barriers will come down. But there are problems such as languages. Scottish accents are so hard to understand, but maybe they will come back. And speak French."

Hmm, maybe. But your average modern Scot isn't quite so adept at lapsing into a second language as William Wallace was. The people of Aubigny have discovered that through meeting me. And yet back in the bar of the Cutty Sark, I find there is a common language - alcohol. This is a town that knows how to drink. And therein lies the danger for any Scots who might try to settle here. The strongest bond is poison. More than any amount of tartan, a cocktail of alcohol and boredom gives this place a sense of being a home from home. A small town, a long way from nowhere, with little else to do other than get hopelessly drunk.

So under the cover of darkness, I pack up my kilt, call a cab and make an escape. And though I leave Aubigny, I do so safe in the knowledge that there is a corner of a French field that will be forever Scotland.

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