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Scots-Poles Forever!

A version of the following essay appeared in The Sarmatian Review, vol. XXXII, no. 2 (April 2012): pp. 1666-1669.

Professional mockingbirds looking for yet another installment in the saga of “The Elephant and the Polish Question” will be sorely disappointed. Scotland and Poland: Historical Encounters, 1500-2010, ed. by T.M. Devine and David Hesse (Edinburgh: John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn, 2011) is solid scholarship, often firmly grounded in in-depth research in primary sources. It is replete with interesting parallels, but also stresses numerous differences between the Scots and the Poles. The volume resulted from thirteen participants, overwhelmingly scholars, presenting fourteen papers at an international conference on diaspora studies in Edinburgh in October 2009. The authors and editors offer a wealth of vignettes, some of them tantalizing, a scholarly promise of future research, about the relationship between Scotland and Poland in the past five hundred years. In general, the academics made good on the promise of reliably even-handed Robert I. Frost to the effect that “we should not project too rose-tinted an image of Polish-Scottish interaction across the ages” (p. 22).

The editors divided this collection of into two, chronologically arranged, batches. The first concern’s the interaction of the Scottish with the Poland between the 16th and 19th centuries. The second regards the encounter of the Poles with Scotland in the 20th and the 21st centuries. The overarching theme is migration and assimilation, or its lack, against the background of mutual knowledge and ignorance, or its lack, of one about the other. 

The original wave of physical encounters saw the Scotts descending upon the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in early 16th century. It was “America of the time” for them. Waldemar Kowalski claims that they came for economic, political, and confessional reasons. In essence, they were seeking freedom. Theirs was the first Scottish attempt at colonization. It would later serve as a point of reference for future colonizing ventures by the Scots. 

It is uncertain how many came, but the high estimate of “30,000” should be discounted as it would have been “nearly ten percent of Scotland’s population,” according to Neal Acherson (p. 8). Most prominent were high-profile merchants and mercenaries. However, the bulk seems to have been mostly single, impoverished young men with excellent recommendations from home. Their fellow Scots, well established in the Commonwealth, wanted to give them a gift of a better life in the flourishing Polish-Lithuanian realm and, thus, vouched for them and facilitated their progress once on the spot. David Worthington has established that many of the newcomers were from the penurious Highlands, although, until recently, scholars had erroneously assumed the eastern shores as their primary domicile (p. 102).

In Poland, many of the Scots of the first immigrant wave often plied itinerant trade, selling trinkets and other small wares in the countryside. Only a few became bankers and powerful grain merchants, some of them, indeed, ascending as lofty patricians, for instance, the Chalmers (Alexander “Czamer” was a lord mayor of Warsaw). There were also a few scholars and diplomats among them, most notably the staunch anti-Ottoman crusader William Bruce, so aptly described by Anna Kalinowska. As for the run of the mill Scot, in fact, many parallels can (and were) drawn with the Jewish community until the early 18th century. However, in distinction, early 19th century Scottish emigrants to Russian-occupied Poland were mostly engineers and other technical experts. Most of them left after the Muscovites brutally interrupted a brief bonanza of the Prince Drucki-Lubecki’s modernization project of the 1820s. A remnant found employment at the estates of the Count Zamoyski.

According to Acherson, Poland’s Scots were not interested in “political imperialism.” They also had a penchant for “high risk banking – hazardous lending at low interest”. They tended “to reinvest profits locally,” and usually failed to send their savings back home (p. 10). Like Jews, Wallachians, Armenians, and Tartars, the Scottish enjoyed self-government in the Commonwealth. They organized themselves in “fraternities,” along religious lines. A few Scots were Catholics. Most were Protestants. Although they usually belonged to the Presbyterian and Calvinist confessions with other evangelicals, including Germans, French, Swedish, and English, the Scotts maintained their distinct ethno-cultural identities and institutional structures. So within the larger Protestant community and church a Scottish group operated, in Cracow for instance. 

The Scots tended to intermarry with other Scots; sometimes the intermarriage continued for several generations. Each to his own seemed to have been a preference. No matter: the influx of new migrants dried out as the fortunes of the Commonwealth declined after the middle of the 17th century and incredible opportunities opened even to the Highlanders throughout the robustly waxing British empire in the 18th century. Meanwhile, on the spot, full assimilation followed inevitably within a century or so and formidable Scots turned into staunch Poles (even if, in the process, they “overwhelmingly sided with” the Swedish invader in 1655-1656, just as many Poles did – p. 81). The Scottish prospered because the Commonwealth needed their talent and provided them with opportunities to bloom. They benefitted from Poland’s vaunted tolerance in principle. Yet, they also experienced some confessional prejudice and even, sporadically, physical violence, even if they refused to play the role of passive victims, fighting back more often than not. That, at least, is a preliminary conclusion derived from the meticulous research of Peter P. Bajer (p. 73). 

All this was almost absolutely unknown to their contemporary kith and kin back in Scotland. Or, more precisely, the knowledge of the spledid Scottish colonial endeavor in the Commonwealth failed abysmally to transmit properly and was soon lost mostly because hardly anyone published any contemporary accounts in either Latin or English on the immigrant community’s stunning success. The dearth of sources on Polish Scots in Scottish libraries sadly attest to this shocking historical lacuna. The consequences were dire in terms of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s persistent ignorance of Warsaw and Cracow. In general, Poland-Scotland intellectual discourse has been rather, shall we say, uneven. Between 1500 and 2010, the level of awareness of the Poles about the Scots and Scotland has been, until recently, markedly more impressive than the other way around. 

On the Polish side, the learned tended to address the slights real and imagined. Published in 1648, Łukasz Opaliński’s sneering rebuttal of John Barclay’s vacuous musings on Poland is a case in point. On the Scottish side, the commentary on Poland tended to reflect domestic concerns of Scotland, using the alleged evils of the Commonwealth as an excuse to excoriate supposedly analogous ills of the Scots, the putatively reactionary Highlanders in particular. For example, David Hume and Adam Smith were rather woefully misinformed about the Commonwealth, its people, and its system. But it did not stop them from pontificating freely on the topic. This embarrassing intellectual flaw was unhappily shared by a number of other Scottish commentators, in particular during the so-called Enlightenment. Their anti-Polish prejudices have colored the educated Scotland’s (and the West’s) perception of Poland since. Yet, their progressive misconceptions hardly squared with Polish reality. “The great paladins of the Enlightenment were mistaken” (p. 127-128). Hence, one can appreciate the urgent poignancy of Robert I. Frost’s observation that we should pay less attention to fashionable philosophers and sexy pundits than to archives and case studies. 

This Frost brilliantly illustrates with a case study of pervasive and persisting prejudice in scholarship on the countryside of both realms in the early modern period. Namely, by comparing the lot of Polish peasants and Scottish Highlanders, the scholar has suggested a number of corrective methodological postulates to enhance our understanding of the rural situation. Most importantly, first, as mentioned above, he has cautioned against embracing mindlessly the “received wisdom” of the contemporary commentators. Second, Frost has pointed out the nefarious influence of the Marxist dogma and Communist propaganda on the persistence of the “black legend” of the Polish village in the Commonwealth. The “black legend” holds that the feudal and reactionary nobility introduced the so-called “second serfdom” (a misnomer coined ignorantly by Friedrich Engels) and allegedly exploited peasantry to the detriment of Poland’s modernization project.  The “black legend” fails to account for market mechanisms which made the life of the peasantry easier; for basic fairness in the noble administration of justice; and for family division of labor, which allowed most peasants to work their own land, while delegating a few to the lord’s demesne. Progressive scholars, the Marxists in particulars, have mendaciously denied the existence of any of the aforementioned factors. (Frost’s research, incidentally, squares with the arguments of one of my Columbia professors, the incisively precise Dwight van Horn, who, in turn, benefitted from the wisdom of Georgetown’s towering Andrzej Sulima Kamiński).

At any rate, the “black legend” originated in the Enlightenment. That trend vowed to écrasez l’infâme, that is destroy tradition (“feudalism”) and the Catholic Church (“clerisisy”). Poland’s progressive intelligentsia swallowed it line, hook, and sinker merely because the prejudice originated among the iconoclastic glitterati in “the West” and squared with their leftist prejudices against conservative and traditionalist landed nobility. For a time, the “black legend” co-existed with several other explanations of the past of the Commonwealth. Then, it was rammed down everyone’s throat and reinforced through terror, censorship, and propaganda under the Soviet occupation of Poland (1944-1992). It became an unlovely totalitarian mono-theory. Because there has not been any de-Communization in Polish academia, the “black legend” persists along with its dogmatic purveyors. The odious mendacity continues to function also at the popular level, alas. 

On a bright side, however, a few intrepid souls have lately begun to challenge its crippling grip on Polish intellectual life. According to the latest research, “it seems that…. the demands of the polskie pany [Polish lords] may have been rather less onerous to their serfs than those of the Highland chiefs on their supposed kin in the great family of the clan… It is, perhaps, time, however, to reappraise the black and white legends, and to look anew at the rural economies of Poland-Lithuania and the Highlands from below, not above, with peasants as economic actors, rather than passive victims of the oppression, or romanticized figures in a mythical, timeless world” (p. 127-128). 

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Enlightenment’s excoriation of “feudalism” and “the reactionaries” of the Highlands enjoyed but a brief ride as an intellectually viable paradigm. It was decisively checked by the Scottish Romantics, starting with Sir Walter Scott. Then it was completely demolished by successive waves of native scholars. Simply, the Scottish patriots lacked the parochial hang ups of the Polish progressives and dismissively rejected the “enlightened” calumnies about their past. They have remained supremely confident about the glories of Scotland’s past, promoting “the white legend,” while unfazed about its progressive criticism (so much so that the obligatory Stalinist guru Eric Hobsbawm and his clones Ernest Gellner and, to a lesser extent, Benedict Anderson are conspicuously absent in Scotland and Poland‘s discourse of nationalism). Instead, the Scots contributors to the volume celebrate Scottish nationalism, some of them unabashedly. At least one of them, a professor of archeology no less, makes a bid for Polish support for Scottish membership in the European Union, “if a day comes” (p. 16). 

Such flamboyant self-appreciation is lacking on the Polish side, except, of course, among the progeny of the Polish war-time émigrés. Formidable Peter Stachura is the most admirable and outspoken example here. A veritable tour de force, his unapologetic discussion of the post-war history of the Poles in Scotland, in particular the tenacious mission of the Polish Ex-Combatants’ Association (SPK) with its “steadfast Catholicism, legitimate pride and unquenchable patriotism expressed in its inspirational motto, ‘God, Honour and Fatherland’…” (p. 168), demonstrates the power of having grown up, semper fidelis, as a free Pole. After the slaughter of the war, Poland’s elites were virtually wiped out. “Fortunately, a large number of survivors from the most able groups of the nation were now exiled in Britain and became involved in the SPK as a way of sustaining the traditional values and heritage of their country” (p. 163). Stachura stresses that “apart from a handful of renegades and Communist sympathisers, all Poles in Scotland (and Britain) remained loyal to the exiled Government’s outlook, which was reinforced by their anger at further post-war humiliations at the hands of their erstwhile allies.” 

The SPK under the symbolic leadership of General Stanisław Maczek never abandoned hope that “they would soon have the opportunity of liberating their beloved Poland from the nefarious Soviet Communist yoke. Thus, their sojourn in Britain was to be viewed as merely temporary” (p. 162). Over a long haul, the SPK facilitated an assimilation of sorts but on Polish terms. “Integration into indigenous society, however, had to be complemented by the maintenance of the Poles’ own cherished national identity” (s. 168). This was achieved not only through patriotic commemorations but also through religious, political, cultural, sport, economic, and other endeavors. 

Throughout, the SPK remained faithful to the ethos of the Second Republic. It defied both Hitler and Stalin. More, it refused to acknowledge the latter’s victory in the Second World War. Hence, it flatly rejected Yalta, and the “Polish” People’s Republic and its collaborators. “Its unshakeable objective was to work towards the regaining of Poland’s freedom, independence and sovereignty, and the recovery of the Eastern Provinces. This was not so much an outlook as a veritable article of faith” (p. 163). And so it remains for Professor Stachura.

On the less ebullient side, he imparts the resilience of Polish war-time émigrés faced with increasing hostility in post-war Scotland. They were assaulted by a nefarious, if curious alliance of Communists and ethno-nationalist extremists, including the Protestant Action. “Poles Go Home” campaign was unleashed to assault Polish “competition for jobs and housing” in the era of scarcity. The Poles were denounced as “foreign papists” and interlopers undermining the “Scottish way of life” (p. 160).  Further, for some years after the war, these aliens were subjected to the degrading ignominy of having “to report weekly to the police station with details of their address and employment” (p. 161). 

Allen Carswell and Rachel Clements confirm anti-Polish bigotry in Scotland and tie it to the official British and Soviet propaganda, which operated, seemingly, hand in glove, after the summer of 1941 until the onset of the Cold War. Yet, concentrating mainly on the period between 1939 and 1942, Carswell judges the Scottish attitude in the early days of the Second World War as “positive.” Initially, spontaneous effusion greeted the Polish “Bonnie Fechters” (indomitable fighters) among the Scottish people. The Poles were posted to defend Scotland, and the military leadership as well as the good people there appreciated it, the women in particular. According to a contemporary report, “there is no doubt that the Pole possesses a superior technique with the ladies, and consequently is getting the pick of the basket” (p. 152). Carswell confirms this, commending the “educated young officers” on “their generally impeccable manners and behaviour, matched by their elegant appearance” (p. 153). Further, aside from the military and the ladies, the Poles could count on the Catholic Church and fellow Catholics, including generally conservative aristocrats. Other reliably anti-Communist elements appreciated the Poles as well. “The landed background (and equestrian interests) of some Polish officers also made them many friends amongst the local Scottish gentry. Similarly, while the Poles’ strong antipathy towards the Soviet Union made them many enemies on the left, it generally endeared them to the right wing of British politics” (p. 154). We shall thus remain forever grateful to Sir Patrick Dollan, Scotland’s staunchest supporter of the cause of Poland’s freedom. But Scottish journalists are a mixed-bag from that point of view.

Rachel Clements’s rather competent venture into the Zeitungsgeschichte concerns the stretches between 1940 and 1946 as well as 2006 and 2009. Clements analyzes not only the content but also the timbre of the reporting. Her conclusions about the first period square well with the research of Stachura and Carswell. However, they are more detailed regarding anti-Polish propaganda techniques in the press. She has concluded, for example, that “including Poles in stories on crime and politics presented them as deviant and a threat to the status quo. Poles went from being portrayed as ‘galant heroes’… to increasingly dysfunctional” (p. 178). 

Sometimes the author seems to be reading too much into her data. For instance, she suggests that the initial reluctance of the press to report the size of the Polish community in Scotland yielded to the increasing use and abuse of statistics about the Polish exiles, in particular after 1945, which indicated “that Polish exiles began to lose favour in the press” (p. 176). Her assumption is that inflating the numbers of foreigners engenders fear in the mainstream. Well, perhaps initially, in 1940, war time censorship limited the press speculations on the number of Poles in Scotland. With the tide of the war turning in favor of the Allies, the censors relaxed their standards and papers were more free to report statistics, including for xenophobic ends. Nonetheless, her other observations seem sound. According to Clements, “in 1946, … Polish exiles were presented as an alleged threat to the interests of a majority group, putting pressure on post-war resources, in this case jobs and housing. This technique is commonly used in the press to discredit minority groups, creating an implicit connotation that ‘we’ (the majority group) will get less (or worse) because of ‘them’ (the minority group)” (p. 176). Parenthetically, it would be interesting to see what Clements would say about US research indicating that some minorities, chiefly illegal Latin immigrants, undercut other minorities, mostly American blacks, as far as job market is concerned. The majority vs. minority paradigm has been grossly overexploited, the minority vs. minority has been curiously understudied.

Nonetheless, her take on the latest developments, following Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, is quite original and pioneering. In brief, “the Scottish press were much less satirical, and received post-2004 Polish migration with great enthusiasm” than the general British press. Clements detects “a wider nationalist agenda” here (p. 181). Simply, “Polish presence in Scotland was resoundingly celebrated for addressing two Scottish specific issues, population decline and skills shortage” (p. 182). Yet, the scholar fails to consider that the Poles were also preferred over Third World immigrants. Why else would the press refer to the Poles as “new Scotts” and not to the Pakistanis? Not everything was lovely, of course. Perhaps it is outside of the scope of her Zeitungsgeschichte in English, but I recall reading in a Polish paper that the Protestant soccer hooligans of Glasgow Rangers were invariably infuriated at Glasgow Celtic’s goalie, Polish and Catholic, Artur Boruc, who routinely crossed himself during games. Clemens mentions him but not the hostility the soccer player encountered (p. 182).

Last but not least, a pedestrian report on new Poland’s consular activities by the post-Communist personnel (with a few remarks about racism and bigotry encountered by the Poles, p. 190) and a touching personal account of Scotland by art historian Grazyna Fermi (mostly singing the well deserved praise of the fading dinosaurs of the SPK) neatly complement the scholarly body of Scotland and Poland. Jolly good! Or is that too English and Mel Gibson will get me?

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 3 May 2011