He was a Scot whose achievements are still celebrated today in the small Polish town he helped to prosper with street names and statues in his honour and even hotels and a shopping centre sharing his name.
Robert Porteous, from Langside near Dalkleith, Midlothian, is still remembered in the little town of Krosno in the very south east of Poland more than 300 years after his death.
Little known in his native country, Porteous left Scotland as a young man at the end of the 17th Century when a period of migration of Scots to Poland was at its peak.
He joined the country’s emerging merchant class and while trade in grain and timber was a popular route for many Scots, Porteous made his fortune by bringing fine quality wine into a country more attuned to the taste of vodka.
It was a move that was to ultimately secure Porteous’ reputation as the richest Scot in Poland at the time with his security and power further protected in 1632 when he won privileged Royal Merchant status which allowed him to supply wine to the table of King Sigismund III.
Each year, the Porteous Society holds a wine festival in Krosno in his honour with it understood that ambitions remain to build a train route between Krosno and the Tojak region of Hungary where Porteous bought up the wine that helped make his fortune.
Such was his wealth, Porteous financed vast improvements to the town. From rebuilding the city walls and replacing burnt out churches, Porteous embedded his story into the very fabric of Krosno.
He is also remembered for the small acts of generosity in his adopted homeland, such as financing the pay rise of a local teacher, according to accounts.
A new exhibition at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness explores the little-known life story of Porteous.
Dr David Worthington, head of the Centre for History at University of Highlands and Islands, said Porteous’ life helped to illustrate the links that have developed between Scotland and Poland over the centuries.
Dr Worthington, who sits on the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Poland, said: “I think a lot of Polish migrants when they come to Scotland have a huge amount of energy and are not scared to work hard. It is interesting to see an example of that working the other way.”
Porteous arrived in Poland sometime between 1590 and the 1620s, when this period of Scottish migration to Poland was at its peak and the country’s population was diverse and tolerant. Some accounts suggest that by 1620, Porteous took an apprenticeship with local merchant, John Lauriston, before going on to employ a large number of agents and factors, many of them Scots.
Dr Worthington added: “One of the more revealing bits of detail about his life is that in 1651 he pays a tax to Charles II of Scotland who asked the King of Poland to tax the Scots and English living in Poland, such are the numbers. Porteous was to become one of the King’s major benefactors.”
It is said that Porteous’ payments were more than Charles II’s envoys were able to collect from all the Scots then living in Krakow or Lubin.
By the turn of the 17th Century, and estimated 30,000 Scots, mainly from the east coast, were living in Poland with the Baltic trade routes exploited by Scots since at least the mid-14th Century.
Among them was Alexander Chalmers, from Dyce near Aberdeen, who became known as Aleksander Czamer and served as mayor of Warsaw for four terms between 1691 and 1703.
Vast numbers of Scots also worked as peddlars who sold hankies, scissors and sewing pins through the country’s side with the word Szot (Scot) the term for a commercial traveller in some parts.
According to 17th Century accounts, Poland was described ‘to be a Mother and Nurse, for the youth and younglings of Scotland, who are yearly sent.” For Porteous at least, Poland was to nurture him well.
-Robert Porteous, Scottish Merchant, Benefactor and Resident of Krosno, Poland is now on show at the Highland Archive Centre, Bught Road, Inverness.