This week, a couple of us paid a short visit to Krakow in Poland, and what a beautiful, culturally-rich city we found. It also served to remind us of the many historical links that exist between Poland and Scotland.
One of the most notable figures in Scottish history, Charles Edward Stuart, better remembered today as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was half Polish. His mother was Maria Klementyna Sobieska, granddaughter of John III Sobieski, former King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Jan III Sobieski, to give him his proper Polish name, is probably best remembered today as the commander of the forces that defeated the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, an act that brought him great status among European royal families. It was a major political coup for the exiled Stuart family to marry into the Polish nobility with their influence and power (and not inconsiderable wealth).
Poland would not have been a strange country to the Scottish nobility, or even the Scottish people. Merchants and traders had been moving between the two countries for hundreds of years. An Englishman, writing home in 1621. estimated that there was a community of some 30,000 Scots in Poland. This was echoed by the Scottish traveller William Lithgow who praised the special relationship between the two countries saying,
“And for áuspicuousness, I may rather tearme it to be a Mother and Nurse, for the youth and younglings of Scotland, who are yearely sent hither in great numbers, than a proper Dame for her owne birth; in cloathing, feeding, and inriching them with the fatnesse of her best things; besides thirty thousand Scots families, that live incorporate in her bowells. And certainely Polland may be tearmed in this kind to be the mother of our Commons, and the first commencement of all our best Merchants’ wealth, or at least most part of them.”
The Scottish merchants were so successful that they sometimes ran into difficulties with local traders, resentful of this intrusion into what they considered their own markets. The Polish King Stephen felt it necessary to step in and issue an edict stating,
“The Scots who always follow Our Court and who are at liberty in all places, where We and Our Royal Court stay, to exhibit their wares and to sell them, complain that they are prevented by Our faithful subjects from exercising their privileges granted by Us, in Krakow likewise.
Now We command you to put nothing in their way in this business, especially not to hinder those to whom We have given liberty of trading and assigned a certain district …. For if they, on account of the future of their trade, should leave Our Court none of you indeed will follow Us into Lithuania and other places. Our Court cannot be without them, that supply Us with all that is necessary. It is just, therefore, that they should enjoy the same privileges in Krakow as elsewhere. They have also supplied Us well in former times of war. Let a certain district be assigned to them. This We command Our faithful subjects.
Many of these Scots would settle permanently in Poland and across time their family names would undergo some subtle changes. Macleod would become Machlejd, Sinclair change to Szynkler, Cockburn to Kabron, Jackson to Dziaksen and so on. There’s even a district of Gdańsk called ‘Nowa Szkocja’ – New Scotland.
However, it wasn’t only as traders that Scots sought riches. Many went to Poland to fight as mercenaries. In 1656, an entire highland regiment entered Polish service, rather than join the Commonwealth forces of Oliver Cromwell. During WWII, many Polish soldiers who had escaped from the Nazis were re-equipped by the British army and, with the agreement of the Polish Government in Exile, sent to defend the east coast of Scotland. Among them, a few named Synkler and Dziaksen, returning to defend the homeland of their ancestors.
Edinburgh welcomed these exiles. Many of the soldiers were students, with a large number who had been studying medicine before the war. Edinburgh University decided to help these young men continue their studies and accordingly, set up the Polish School of Medicine. This operated from 1941 to 1949 and was the only officially recognised Polish institute of higher education anywhere in the world during the war years. The connection continued after the war and has grown stronger since the fall of communism in 1989. There are now regular student exchanges between Edinburgh and Krakow’s Jagellonian University.
A further local Edinburgh link is commemorated in one of the city’s newest statues. In November 2015, a sculpture of a bear and a soldier walking together was unveiled in Princes Street Gardens by Polish II Corps veteran, Wojciech Narebeski .
The bear is Wojtek, an orphan brown bear cub, adopted by soldiers from the Polish II Corps when they were serving in the Middle East. Wojtek was given the rank of corporal and travelled with II Corps to Italy, where many Polish troops fought at the battle of Monte Cassino. It is said that Wojtek carried ammunition for the artillery and learned to drink beer. After the war, Wojtek’s unit returned to Scotland and was based at Winfield Camp near Duns in the Scottish Borders. Wojtek helped forge strong bonds between the soldiers, many of whom could not return to Poland because the communist authorities believed they had been tainted by contact with the west, and local communities. The bear would attend local dances and parties and became something of a local celebrity. In 1947 he came to live in Edinburgh Zoo, where he enjoyed many visits from Polish veterans who had made new lives for themselves in Scotland. He died in 1963. Local author Aileen Orr has written a book about his adventures, titled Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, obtainable from any good bookshop.
Today, some 67,000 Polish people have made their home in Scotland, keeping alive the cultural links that stretch back many hundreds of years. If you’d like to know more about that shared heritage, you can visit the website at: http://polishscottishheritage.
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