The Highlands and Islands and the Scottish–Polish historical connection
View larger map
‘As the night grew darker, the wind was sharper, and the chill in the fog more piercing. A tiny, obstinate little light twinkled far away behind the trees. Then it went out. Scotland was asleep. The great cities and the Highland villages slept. Even the black-headed sheep were asleep on their pastures. Along the dented line of the Scottish sea coast the Polish soldiers were changing the fourth watch‘.(1)
In this account from 1940-1, Ksawery Pruszyński evoked a moment of Scottish Highland sleepiness within what was, more generally, a horrific and adrenalin-filled wartime arena. The Highlands and Islands region covers a large part of Scotland, was once home to above one-third of the national population, and comprises today again an area experiencing a demographic upturn assisted by return- and in-migration. We need to ask how dynamic the interaction has been, at the widest level, either of Poles with the Scottish Highlands and Islands or of Scottish Highlanders and Islanders with Poland?
Turning to the latter first, it may be fruitless to speculate whether the Polish novelist, Henryk Sienkiewicz, considered his fictional Scottish soldier, Hassling Ketling ‘of Elgin’, to be a Highlander or a Lowlander?
Hassling Ketling meets Krystyna (Krzysia) in this 1969 film based on Sienkiewicz’s nineteenth-century literary depiction
Although it is well known now to historians that Scots comprised a significant ethnic group in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Poland, it has generally been assumed that these were not Gaels but largely people with origins in the Lowlands. Archibald Francis Steuart, writing in 1915, argued that Scottish settlers ‘of pure Celtic origin’ had been rare there.(2) Recent writers have tended to agree that most of the Scots who migrated to Poland came from towns along the east coast between Aberdeen and Edinburgh. This downplays the Highlands and Islands aspect. Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1611-1660) had applauded the ‘fidelity, valour and gallantry’ of those Highlanders and other Scots who had gone to the continent to fight in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), although he went on to suggest that they received the admiration of the ‘Polonians’ more for their ‘inward abilities’ than for their soldiery. An early example of the non-military connection comes from 1471, when ‘Reichart of Wick, Kathnes [Caithness]’ was tried alongside a wider group of Scots in Wrocław (Breslau) for ‘vagabondage’, which we can assume meant begging or illegal trading. Staying with Caithness, no scholar from Scotland’s north or west had more of an impact in Polish intellectual circles than William Bruce, born at Stanstill near Wick. He seems to have arrived in Poland in 1594, and lectured for a time in Roman Law at the academy founded by the Polish chancellor, Jan Zamoyski, in the city of Zamość. In 1600 or 1601, Zamoyski sent him to London, from where he made his way back to Scotland at least once, although he travelled eastwards again and was resident in Gdańsk (Danzig) from 1606.
There are further success stories such as that of the commercially-oriented Alexander Paip from Muckle Rainy, Easter Ross. Paip became a merchant in Lublin from 1668, dealing in grain and wine. In the 1680s, he settled in Gdańsk and, in 1706, along with his son, also Alexander, joined with a Thomas Leslie in order to buy the house that would subsequently serve as the city’s ‘Brittons Chapell’. Both Paips were buried in the city’s St Peter and St Paul Church.
A close neighbour of Paip’s was Alexander Ross, a Cracow resident who made his way back to the Highlands in later life. In 1721, a legal agreement provided Ross with titles to the lands of Easter Kindeace – almost adjacent to Muckle Rainy – which he chose to rename Ankerville. Ross made his presence felt there. By the time that Richard Pococke, Anglican Bishop of Meath, was travelling through the area in the mid-eighteenth century, the story of ‘Ross the Polander’ had become the stuff of legend. Almost one hundred years later, Ross lingered in the parish as a ghost, according to the Cromarty-born writer, Hugh Miller!
One family who link the story of Highland migration to Poland with population movement in the other direction are the Machlejds. The reconnection was made in the 1930s, when Jerzy Machlejd called into Dunvegan Castle on Skye from Warsaw in order to research his family history in the Clan MacLeod archives. By that time, the Highlands and Islands had been visited by other Poles. Jan Potocki had made it to Orkney in 1787. Krystyn Lach-Szyrma, the first Pole to offer a ‘rough guide to Scotland’, had written, on travelling through the country in the 1820s, that Highlanders ‘despised all comfort: once, when at war, a young man rolled himself a lump of snow and put it under his head instead of a pillow, his grey-haired grandfather kicked it away.’(3) Confirming the richness and diversity of the Polish experience of the pre-twentieth century Highlands, in March 1830, The Inverness Courier reported there to have taken place recently in the town’s Gaelic Church, the baptism of ‘a native of Warsaw, named Ezekiel or Caspar Auerback.’(4)
We have few other references to Poles in the region until the outbreak of World War Two and it was not always a simple connection even then. In early 1947, a hunger strike took place at the so-called ‘No. 1 Polish Recalcitrants Camp’ near Skitten, Caithness, amid controversy surrounding membership or otherwise of the Polish Resettlement Corps which sought to send Polish war veterans back to their country of birth.(5) More familiar to most of us today are the many stories of personal bravery and frequent sacrifice in human life associated with those men and women of the Polish military who had found themselves in the region as the war progressed. Adjacent to the former Balnageith airfield in west Moray, alongside today’s A96, a memorial commemorates the Polish air force presence there between 1945 and 1947. Further north, in Invergordon, a war memorial of longer standing survives, and still serves as the location for an annual remembrance service to honour those Poles who served locally, many of whom settled in the town. For example, the late Józef ‘Joe’ Zawiński (1923-2011) arrived in Invergordon as a survivor of, amongst other wartime events, the battle of Monte Cassino in 1944.
He helped both to build the camp and monument and, later, to organise and host the annual service. Poles have found homes again in the Highlands since the 1940s, of course, and the connection has been renewed once more since 2005. So, we can conclude that the historical bond between the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Poland has been a lively if complicated one, something of which can perhaps be conveyed by means of the map above.
It seems fitting to leave the last word in this short summary to Matthew Zajac, whose The Tailor of Inverness is a play and book which is full of insights about the complexities of life in the Highland capital both for his father, from the mid-century, and for himself, growing up during the 1960s and 70s. For Zajac: ‘Polishness was far from ever-present in my life as a boy in Inverness. It was there, exotic, attractive, somehow a part of me, but distant too.’(6)
Invergordon and the wider area of Easter Ross, provides, in some ways, a microcosm of the Polish-Scottish connection. It has a history of ties which link Scottish migration to Poland with, in return, Polish migration to Scotland. Just a few miles to the east of Invergordon is Ankerville, the location to which local merchant, Alexander Ross, ‘Ross the Polander’, returned in the early eighteenth century, after having made his fortune in Cracow and Gdańsk. One later source suggests that he ‘lived too greatly for it [Ankerville]’ and died ‘much reduced in his finances’. Another writer tells us that Ross’s presence lingered in the area in spectral form, as a ghost, until the 1830s! The Easter Ross connection with Poland would become tangible and very real again only a century later. It was the horror of war, not trade, that brought about the arrival and settlement of a Polish community in Invergordon and thereabouts from 1945. A monument and annual memorial service still commemorates those Polish soldiers who served locally, many of whom settled in the town. Sadly, many of them are no longer with us, and it is left to their families, their descendants, the wider Invergordon community and a post-2005 ‘new wave’ of Polish migrants to continue the tradition.
Church of Saints Peter and Paul at Żabi Kruk, Gdańsk, Poland. Tombstone of Daniel Davidson [Davison] (1647-1710), one of several former Gdańsk-residents of Scottish ethnicity whose epitaphs can be seen in the Church of Saints Peter and Paul still today.
1. Ksawery Pruszyński, The Polish Invasion (Edinburgh, 2010).
2. Archibald Francis Steuart, ed., Papers relating to the Scots in Poland 1576-1793 (Edinburgh, 1915), xxiii.
3. Mona K. McLeod ed., From Charlotte Square to Fingal’s Cave: reminiscences of a journey through Scotland 1820-1824 (East Linton, 2004).
4. 3 March 1830, The Inverness Courier.
5. See the Glasgow Herald’s report on this from 5 March 1947 link
6. Matthew Zajac, The Tailor of Inverness, (Dingwall, 2013) pp.24-5
Polish history trail – Highlands and Islands – David Worthington