Scots in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – general overview
The first time I visited Krakow was in 2006 and I fell in love with the city. The beauty, the history and yes, stereotypically for a Scot, the cheapness of the alcohol! I began taking an interest in the connections between Scotland and Poland at that stage and came across some mentions of Scottish guilds having been formed by Scottish traders and merchants. I pitched a series to Radio Scotland examining the parallels between the two countries but nothing got off the ground.
In 2007, I visited Lithuania. Cheap flights from Scotland to Kaunas and a desire to see Vilnius meant a friend and I splitting a week between those two cities. While looking up other places that we could visit from them, I found a mention of the town of Kėdainiai and how, at the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, around half of the population had been Scots. We visited and dined in a hotel decked out in saltires that had once been the home of a Scottish merchant . It started to really bring home to me the sheer size and significance of historic Scottish migration to the Baltic area and into the heart of Central Europe.
As modern Baltic and Slavic migration to Scotland has grown, I’ve become more keenly aware of how ignorant we Scots often are of this heritage. Very few of us seem to be aware that, historically, we were equivalent to the Polish people now coming to Scotland to work. As well as that, the more recent memory of Polish migration to Scotland seems to have been forgotten. That of the WWII movement of Polish servicemen to Scotland to protect our coastline after Poland had already fallen to the Nazis. The Polish people were able to protect us and ensure that the war ended with a free and democratic UK. Sadly, that wasn’t a favour that we can say that we returned.
These days, having a Slovakian wife, I’m even more keenly aware of the dangers of ignorance. Foolish whispers about people from the former Eastern Bloc countries “coming over here” could surely be stamped out if we in Scotland not only understand our new neighbours better…but also understand our own history better. I’ve compiled a very condensed summary of the history of Scottish migration to Poland. I hope it’s of interest…
As early as the 15th Century, there was a significant number of Scottish people in Poland, usually acting as pedlars. At this point, it was still only the eldest son who would inherit a family’s wealth, so younger sons had to find a way to earn a living. The term “a Scots Pedlar’s Pack” became a phrase in Poland. Usually the goods sold were cloths, woolens and linen hankies. It wasn’t uncommon for them to also sell metal items like scissors and knives though (1). Even now, in the Kashubian language/dialect of Northern Poland, the word for a business traveler is szot, the word Poles used for Scot (2).The reputation of Scottish pedlars wasn’t great though. They were perceived (probably correctly) as flouting import and export taxes and undercutting local traders (3). They also had a reputation for drunkenness (4). (Thankfully, that last bit’s in the past now. Oh.)
James VI of Scotland seems to have been involved in speaking to German and Polish authorities to ensure the rights of Scots to stay in Germany, Prussia and Poland. He also intervened in other matters. There is a record of him complaining about a man who had written negative comments about Scotland and its population after he’d been mocked for his clothes on a visit to the country. James must have held a bit of sway, as the man was later executed by the Polish authorities and the offending words destroyed. It was also James who ordered the Scottish communities to form themselves into ‘brotherhoods’. Cities including Toruń, Gdańsk, Kraków, Warsaw and Lublin all had Scottish brotherhoods (5).
Trade wasn’t a one-way street of Scots supplying goods to Poland. Timbers used in the construction of Queen Mary’s House in St Andrews have been shown to have originated in the Gdańsk area (6). It’s worth pointing out though that Gdańsk (aka the German form, Danzig) was a free trading city, of mainly Germanic influence, until being brought under Polish crown control in the later 16th Century. As an aside, the Polish King Stephen Bathory’s Siege of Danzig in 1577 was opposed by a 5000-strong Danzig army that included a Scottish regiment (7).
In the 16th Century, mercenary work had joined the reasons for Scots to move to Poland. Although having being on the opposing side at the Siege of Danzig, many Scots served in the Polish army, with Gordon apparently being the most common name recorded. It’s said that a few Poles with this name were among the Polish forces who served in Scotland during WWII (8).
Scots who had joined the Polish armed forces weren’t condemned to remain in lowly roles either. In 1620, James Murray was made Chief Engineer of the Polish Navy, which would 7 years later overcome the Swedes at the battle of Oliva. So common was the use of mercenaries in the Polish forces that Poland’s Navy was, at that point, under the command of a Dutch immigrant, Arend Dijckman (9).
Of the Scots who were in Poland for trading purposes, not all were tinkers, many of them were esteemed merchants. Indeed, such was their importance in supplying the Polish Royal Court and it’s forces, in 1585 King Stephen Batory signed an edict stating that:
‘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 Cracow 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 without them, that supply Us with all that is necessary. It is just, therefore , that they should enjoy the same privileges in Cracow 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’. (10)
The Aberdeen merchant Robert Gordon made his fortune from the trade route between Aberdeen and Gdańsk. He became so rich that he was able to donate £10,000 towards to building of a hospital in Aberdeen. That was 400 years ago and the building is still in existence… though now better known as Robert Gordon University (11, Polonica section).
We do have various sources that reveal to us just how significant the size of the Scottish population of Poland was. The traveler William Lithgow claimed that “thirty thousand Scots families” were living in Poland in the early 17th Century (12). In 1650, the Parliament of the Polish & Lithuanian Commonwealth levied a tax of 10% of their property on the Scottish population of the territory (it was sent to support Charles II of Scotland & England). The number affected by the tax was around 30,000 people (13).
The size of the Scottish population of the area wasn’t just a matter of discussion in the Polish & Lithuanian Commonwealth itself though. In the English Parliament in 1606, the example of Scots in Poland had been used as an argument against the Union of Scotland and England.
‘If we admit them into our liberties we shall be overrun with them…witness the multiplicities of the Scots in Polonia.’ (14)
Lithgow gives an account of his visit to Krakow in the early 17th Century.
“Being arrived in Krakow …the capital city of Poland, I met with diverse Scottish merchants, who were wonderful glad of mine arrival there, especially the two brothers Dicksons, men of singular note of honesty and wealth… Here (at Lublin) I found abundance of gallant, rich merchants, my countrymen, who were all very kind to me and so were they by the way in every place where I came, the conclusion being ever sealed with deep draughts, and God be with you.”
He goes on to call Poland “populous of strangers”, then says…
“And for auspiciousness, I may rather term it to be a mother and nurse for the youth and younglings of Scotland who are yearly sent hither in great numbers, than a proper Dame for her own birth; in clothing, feeding, and enriching them with the fatness of her best things; besides thirty thousand Scots families, that live incorporate in her bowels. And certainly Poland may be termed 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.” (15)
The influence of that population can still be seen in Polish place-names today. Gdańsk has an area of the city called Nowe Szkoty . It’s reckoned that there are at least 10 Polish villages with names derived from references to Scots or Scotland (16).
Trade and fighting weren’t the only reasons for Scots to seek a new life in Poland, there was also the matter of religious freedom. Poland seems to have seen Scots of Catholic, Episcopal and Calvinist backgrounds all settle there. Poland’s population were mainly Catholic and most of the Scots settlers were Protestant, but Poland had been used to having a cosmopolitan population for many years and religious freedom was assured.
Members of the Scottish population achieved many prominent positions. In 1664, King Jan II Casimir appointed Jan Collison, a Scot, to be his official court painter in Warsaw (17) Alexander Chalmers (aka Alexander Czamer in Polish), another Scot, went on to become Mayor of Warsaw (18).
Also, not a result of the Scottish population in Poland…but Bonnie Prince Charlie was half-Polish. His mother was Princess Maria Klementyna Sobieska, the granddaughter of the Polish King Jan III Sobieski. So for any Scots who don’t like whisky but are looking for a spirit with a connection to Scotland… Sobieski Vodka
Thank you for taking the time to read this short piece and I hope that you found it enjoyable and of interest. This article only scratches the surface of the historic links between Scots and Poles and I hope that in the future I can learn even more. More important than learning about our shared past though, I hope we can keep enjoying our shared present and go on to enjoy a positive shared future.
Robert Gordon University – Robert Gordon used the money he earned in in Gdańsk to establish the “Hospital for the Maintenance, Aliment, Entertainment and Education of young boys from the city whose parents were poor and destitute” (also called Robert Gordon’s College), that became Robert Gordon University (19).
The University of Aberdeen collection contains several interesting historical manuscripts and books associated with early modern Poland.
Most treasured are those by Nicolaus Copernicus. Yes, the gentlemen who stopped the Sun and moved the Earth was a Polish astronomer and mathematician from Toruń, and his real name was Mikołaj Kopernik. There are 3 copies of his revolutionary book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) in the University’s collection: one from 1543 (the first edition) and 2 copies from 1566 (the second edition).
There you can also find a few beautifully engraved silver goblets from Gdańsk, gifted to Scotland in 1643. One of them was described by a 6 class pupil from St Peter’s RC Primary School in the following way:*
This treasured silver communion beaker
Small, yet significant
And as luminous as the moon,
Came from Gdańsk, in Poland, in 1643
And was presented to our University by Andrew Thomson,
A Scot who lived in Gdańsk.
This intricately engraved beaker
Was chosen to represent our connections with Poland:
Connections that have lasted for hundreds of years;
Connections between the universities;
Connection between merchants and traders;
Connection with children in our school today;
Connections with families throughout Scotland;
Connections strong as steel.
This beaker is a link in the chain
That binds our countries together.
To jest znakiem więzi.
[This is a sign if our bond]
*From the book ‘100 Curiosities in the King’s Museum’
Nowe Szkoty is also a name of the The Scottish Studies Research Group that brings together researchers from the Department of English Language Cultures and Literatures at the University of Gdańsk as well as a national and international network of scholars. For more information visit http://noweszkoty.com/
A plaque erected in Alexander Chalmers’ (Alexander Czamer) honour on his former house at the corner of Wąski and Szeroki Dunaj (now housing the Leathercraft Museum) in Warsaw. He was a Mayor of Warsaw in years 1697-98, 1691, 1694, 1696, 1702-1703.
Landforms, lochs and boulders for a coal site that represent a walk around the 4 continents where the Scots settled over the last 400 years. The concept includes the fact that many foreigners have settled in Scotland and contributed to its identity. Indeed, the notions of geology as destiny, the Rock People, and the Atlantic People that plied the shores from Galicia to Norway (from roughly 5,000-1,500 BC) are part of the larger Scottish World. A mappa mundi presents the creativity of the Scots around the world
Scotland and Poland Historical Encounters, 1500-2010” ISBN 978-1-906566-27-2
Interview with Billy Kay – movie – link
2,4,6,11, 14 Scottish Gdańsk
3,5 On the trail of Scots in Northern Poland by Trev Hill
8,12 Scottish-Polish Connections: History of Relations Between Scotland and Poland Since the 1400s by Agnieszka Marczak
9, 10, 13, 16 Historium
15. Scotland and PolandA Chapter of Forgotten History by J.D Ross