Scotland and Poland - a 500 year relationship

Scotland and Poland have a long history of friendship.
Scotland and Poland have a long history of friendship.
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More Polish nationals now live in Scotland than any other group from outside the UK and the two countries share a rich history.

Around 61,000 Polish people currently call Scotland home with numbers steadily increasing since the 2004 enlargement of the European Union. With the Brexit vote ahead, the relationship between the two countries - which has existed for more than 500 years - sits at an uncertain junction.

Service held at Kelso War Memorial to commemorate the links between leso and polish soldiers during WW2. Picture: TSPL

Service held at Kelso War Memorial to commemorate the links between leso and polish soldiers during WW2. Picture: TSPL

The links were forged back in the late 1400s when trade agreements were established between Aberdeen and the old Baltic seaport of Danzig, now Gdansk.

An estimated 30,000 Scots moved to Poland to seize new business opportunities in the 250 years or so that followed - some affluent merchants and men of influence and others the peddlars who travelled the countryside selling hankies, scissors and sewing pins. Some were escaping poverty and others anti-Catholic persecution.

By the 17th Century Poland was known as Scotland’s America and under King Stefan Bathory, Scottish merchants became suppliers to the royal court in Krakow.

Aberdonians in particular fared well, establishing themselves as traders of grain and timber from Poland and Prussia.

Although Poland is getting better, those who come here do tend to fall in love with Scotland.

Barbara Nowosielska-Conby

Amongst them was William Forbes - known as Danzig Willie - a merchant whose wealth boomed through Baltic trade. He bought and completed Craigievar Castle near Alford in 1606.


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Robert Gordon also amassed vast riches from trading out of Danzig but he ensured his legacy was built in Aberdeen. He gave money to build a hospital in his name which is now known as Robert Gordon University.

And buried in St John’s Archathedral in Warsaw was Alexander Chalmers, from Dyce near Aberdeen, a judge and four times mayor of Warsaw between 1691 and 1703.

Monica Keighren is Polish and has just opened her  new polish deli in bathgate. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Monica Keighren is Polish and has just opened her new polish deli in bathgate. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Today, the North East has one of the highest concentration of Polish nationals with three per cent of the population of Aberdeen recorded as white Polish, the same proportion of Edinburgh. The figure for Scotland is 1.2 per cent.

Barbara Nowosielska-Conby is the treasurer of the Scottish Polish Cultural Association in Edinburgh. She was born in Scotland after her father, Wlodzimierz, arrived in 1940 - one of an estimated 38,000 WWII soldiers to be stationed here following the fall of Poland.

Mr Nowosielski (sic), from Krakow, was stationed in Kirkcaldy. Polish troops, unable to return to their homeland after it was occupied by Germany and the Soviet Union - took over responsibility for the coastal defence of Fife and Angus.

The soldier, who married a Scot and had four children, never returned to Poland to live and it has been estimated that around 2,500 Polish-Scottish marriages took place around this period.

Pictured are the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade which was formed in Leven, Fife, on 23 September 1941. Polish troops were stationed all over Fife. Picture: Marysia Lachowicz.

Pictured are the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade which was formed in Leven, Fife, on 23 September 1941. Polish troops were stationed all over Fife. Picture: Marysia Lachowicz.

Mrs Nowosielska-Conby said: “Then we felt very much part of a Polish community in Scotland and I suppose we saw ourselves as the special ones - we were the first lot to be here.

“There was a second wave in the 1980s with the declaration of Martial Law and then you have the third wave when we (Poland) joined the European Union. Then, there was no stopping them.

“Although Poland is getting better, and the opportunities are greater, those who come here do tend to fall in love with Scotland.”

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Figures from the National Records of Scotland show that those of white Polish ethnicity are the most economically active in the country, with 86 per cent of the group in work. This compares to 63 per cent of the population as a whole.

Poles were also most likely to be in full-time work at 56 per cent compared to the population average of 41 per cent.

Douglas on September 8 1940. Polish Forces present a  memorial to the villagers of Douglas and the surrounding district to thank them for their hospitality. Pic: TSPL Archive

Douglas on September 8 1940. Polish Forces present a memorial to the villagers of Douglas and the surrounding district to thank them for their hospitality. Pic: TSPL Archive

They were more likely to be working in ‘elementary occupations” such as housekeeping, cleaning and simple farm work - with 35 per cent of the group employed in this type of role.

Consequently, around 45 per cent of Poles in Scotland are classed as being in the lowest D and E social grades.

But what the figures also show is that Poles in Scotland have higher-than-average qualifications with 41 per cent having a degree of higher. This compares to 22 per cent of those who class themselves as White Scottish.

Gabriela Ingle, 34, moved to Edinburgh from Krakow after meeting her husband Alex while travelling in Iceland.

Ms Ingle is studying for a PhD in archaeology at Edinburgh University with many of her friends from home finding good, professional jobs here, she said.

However, Ms Ingle, said that many had arrived during the recession and taken what work they could.

She said: “Some of my friends work in graphic design and they were well regarded due to their experience and qualifications. The majority of my friends came because there were good prospects and have done well, they have nice jobs.

“But a lot of people came during the terrible recession and they couldn’t find a job, regardless of their qualifications.

“There are people not afraid to get a lower level of job just to sustain themselves. They have made the decision to come and they just want to stay.”

Ms Ingle described the forthcoming Brexit vote as “huge” for her and her Polish friends in Scotland - as well as for her friends and family back home.

“We live comfortable lives in Scotland, we are welcome here and we are part of the community. We are also proud that Poland is part of the EU.

“If the UK leaves the EU, we just don’t known what is going to happen to us.”


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Polish fan at Scotland v Poland Euro 2016 qualifier. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Polish fan at Scotland v Poland Euro 2016 qualifier. Picture: Lisa Ferguson