When I first spotted the words “Twinned With Loches” on one of the various “Welcome to St Andrews” signs, I did not know what to make of it. Processed by my Scottish brain, Loches sounded as if it could be five miles down the road; the kind of Fife fishing village that everyone but the last remnants of its timeworn community has forgotten about. But I knew that not even the most parochially-minded inhabitants would think to establish links with a town that lies within eyeshot of their own. Like in a maddeningly contextless game of GeoGuessr, I went over it again and again in my head, trying to determine, quite literally, where on earth it could be. Germany perhaps? Belgium? Poland? The first thing I did when I got through the door was to ask Google. France, it answered. My guttural way of thinking had let me down.
Google revealed it to be a small town, nestled in the Loire Valley just south of Paris, with a population of around 6500 and an impressive historical legacy dating back to antiquity. At its heart is the Chateau de Loches, an impressive edifice which once passed through the hands of Henry II and his son, Richard the Lionheart. The town was reclaimed by the French after Joan of Arc and Charles VII conspired to kick out the silly English “k-niggits” stationed there. Completing its quaint, mediaeval appearance, Loches also contains a picturesque Renaissance hall built into an old citadel. Nearby is a characteristically eerie 11th century Donjon (or keep) where you can find an underground escape passage, prison cells, and a torture chamber.
So it makes a lot of sense that it should be twinned with St Andrews, a town similarly in touch with its medieval roots but with the added bonus of hosting a world-class university and a beach that once featured in a cheesy film from the 1980s. In any case, it was a more apt twinning than that between my hometown of Inverness and the Bavarian city of Augsburg — any illusion as to the natural harmony between the two towns was swiftly extinguished upon being shown round the ornate, gold-coated Schaezlerpalais on a German exchange trip. Having said that, it is certainly not the least generous place in the United Kingdom that Augsburg could have been paired with. Hemel Hempstead springs to mind.
My brief research into the St Andrews-Loches connection made me curious to find out more about how this twinning had come about and, more generally, where the idea of designating sister cities originated.
The link between St Andrews and Loches was established over thirty years ago, entirely through local initiative. The story goes that Loches had been looking to twin with a medieval town in Scotland and, on the bright suggestion of a Loches student who was studying in Edinburgh at the time, St Andrews was considered as a possible contender. A delegation arrived in November 1996 only for the St Andrews representatives to reject the proposal in favour of a more informal alliance. So successful was this alliance, however, that, in November 2015, the link was made official and a trust was formed with the aim of developing opportunities to support educational, cultural, and sporting links between the two towns. Through the trust, multiple exchange trips have been organised for St Leonards School and Madras College, on top of projects involving primary schools, football tournaments, and joint concerts and photography exhibitions.
The concept of twin towns and sister cities was dreamt up after the Second World War to foster understanding and friendship between different cultures, particularly between former enemies as a means of reconciliation. One such symbolic twinning was that between Coventry and Dresden, both of which had been obliterated in bombing raids. The same approach was used after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when many former West German cities were matched with cities in the East in a display of unity. Town twinning was later given a boost by the European Union, which single-handedly sealed more than 7 000 bilateral relationships involving as many as 10 000 European municipalities.
The matching process does not necessarily have anything to do with similarities in appearance, though generally partner towns will have similar demographics and be of an equivalent size. To provide one humorous example from 2012, the Scottish village of Dull was twinned with Boring in the USA, as well as a certain town named Bland in Australia. Twinning may also arise from business and travel connections, links with diaspora communities and the recognition of shared histories. The link between Chicago and Warsaw, for instance, was established because of the former’s substantial Polish immigrant population. Occasionally, cities will be paired for linguistic reasons, such as in the case of the two Cordobas — one in Spain, the other in Argentina.
Despite the benevolent intentions of its pioneers, the concept of town-twinning has sparked a surprising amount of controversy over the years. In 2013, the Hungarian town of Gyöngyös was twinned with Shusha as part of Hungary’s recognition of the city as a de jure part of Azerbaijan. Armenia was outraged because, until November last year at least, Shusha was under the control of the self-proclaimed Armenian Republic of Artsakh. Turkey has also politicised the selection of twin cities, threatening to terminate links with any city that acknowledges the Armenian Genocide. Likewise, Nanjing suspended its sister-city relationship with Nagoya, Japan, after the latter’s mayor made denialist statements vis-a-vis the infamous Nanjing Massacre. Closer to home, Preston city councillors came under fire back in 2004 for attempting to twin with the Palestinian town of Nablus in a show of solidarity against Israel.
To prevent such occurrences, the US Senator, Marsha Blackburn, introduced a new legislation known as the Sister City Transparency Act in November last year, which is designed to decrease the risk of sister city agreements being used as part of political campaigns. As far as I am aware, there is nothing contentious about the St Andrews-Loches connection, but I am sure if you tried hard enough you could invent some kind of petty pretext for getting it torn apart.
Thanks to the pandemic, I have reached a new low in the content of my fortnightly contribution to The Saint. On the plus side, it is marginally less mundane than my article on the St Andrews cross. I will content myself with the presumption that it was of interest to at least someone in the St Andrews community, and meanwhile cling onto the hope that I will find something less boring to write about for the next issue.