The other Auld Alliance





WE USUALLY think of the Scottish Diaspora as emigration to America and Canada, but there was an earlier version. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Scots settled around the Baltic and in Scandinavia, and they especially favoured Poland. A contemporary estimate stated that there were 30,000 Scottish families living in Poland in 1620. There still is a district of Nowa Szkocja ("Nova Scotia") in Gdansk. Alone among the countries of the region, Poland remained predominantly Catholic, but it was also tolerant. For Scots who were not enjoying John Knox's new Scotland, Poland was a natural destination and they did well there.

In 1664 the Polish king, Jan II Casimir, appointed a Scot, Jan Collison, as his court painter in Warsaw and it was not many years later that Alexander Chalmers – Alexander Czamer in Polish – became mayor of the same city. The Poles must have thought the Scots were taking over, and indeed that was evidently their reputation. In England in 1606 in a debate at Westminster about a possible Act of Union, the example of their influence in Poland was given as a reason against letting the Scots in.

So when you wonder at hearing Polish spoken in the streets of Scotland, think of the Poles 400 years ago wondering if the Scots were taking over their country. The young Polish immigrants now are part of a long and fruitful exchange between two countries. The return match began during the Second World War. There were Polish sailors and airmen stationed in Scotland, but the largest number to come here were the soldiers of the Polish First Armoured Division, charged with the defence of Scotland's east coast. At the end of the war, many stayed.

There were quite a few artists among them, too, and the Scottish Gallery's current exhibition, called Artists in Exile, marks the contribution these and other Polish artists have made. It is the Scottish connection that gives this group its interest, although the exhibition also includes artists such as Henryk Gotlib, who had moved to London before the war began.

The two most celebrated artists in the exhibition are Jankel Adler and Josef Herman. They both stayed in Glasgow for a period during the war and had a considerable influence. More than almost any of the emigr artists who settled in Britain, Adler had first-hand experience of the radical new art of the European Modernists and the works of his included here show how closely he was influenced by Picasso. He in turn was a formative influence on the young Glasgow painters Colquhoun and MacBride, both in Glasgow and when all three moved to London.

Herman was less radical artistically, but more radical politically and his painting reflects his views. The figures in his pictures are emphatically "the workers", lumpy men and women burdened by manual labour, painted in a dark, monumental style. There are two good examples here, Farmer's Family and Women Chopping Wood. His variation on Socialist Realism influenced the early work of the young Joan Eardley among others in Glasgow.

Like Herman and Adler, Zdzislaw Ruszkowski came first to Scotland then moved south – but his wife was Scottish and so he came back. The most interesting work of his here is Loch Maree, Cloud Shadows on the Hills. It is a Highland landscape in a strange blend of the cool, divided brushstrokes and bright colour of pointillism and the suggestive, animated shapes of Surrealism.

Aleksander Zyw is the most familiar of the artists here. He married and settled in Edinburgh and was a regular exhibitor in the city. Nothing that he painted later matches the power of several early works here, however. Resurrection from 1949, for instance, anticipates the heavy piled-on paint that has made Leon Kossof famous and is just as good. And Zyw's Still-Life with a Pewter Jug, painted three years earlier, is as massive and solemn as one of Herman's worker paintings.

Though sadly he is not in the exhibition, I must acknowledge a small debt of honour here myself, too: my first art teacher was Jozef Sekalski. As I was to discover later, he was a distinguished printmaker and mural painter. His story was typical. After escape from Poland, enlisting in the Polish army in France, capture by the Nazis and then a second escape, he joined the Polish army in Scotland, married and finally settled in St Andrews.

Now, from the past to the future – you still have a week to catch the annual Students' Exhibition at the RSA. Open to all graduating students in the Scottish art schools, this may be the last time that the event has this form. The suggestion is that in future years it may be turned into a curated show. Certainly with 350 very diverse entries to put into some kind of order in a very short time, in its present form it is a huge challenge to the Academy organisers. This year they have succeeded admirably, however. It all looks very cool with no hint of the effort that has gone into it.

Several works echo the realities of student life with disarming frankness. In particular, I liked Steven Harrison's painted relief Thirty Seven Things I Encountered at Art School. The list begins with Rubbish, Sex and Laughter and ends with Worries and Dust. Nice Art makes an entry half way down. Neatly organising the rubbish in a skip, perhaps Kevin Harman continues the same thought metaphorically. Daniel Irwin seems less reflective. He simply paints two partying girls. Akari Takemoto has his eyes down, however. His Life of Holes is a composition made up of painted portraits of plugholes and drain covers.

&149 Art in Exile continues until 5 March; RSA Student Exhibition 2008 until 27 February.