EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
We talk quite a lot about Scots who have influenced the world, and the diaspora of Scottish migrants around the globe, but the reverse is also true - Scottish history is full of notable figures who weren't Scottish, people who came here from overseas, lived here, and left their mark on the country and its heritage.
Sometimes I worry that we focus a little too heavily on what I call the 'kilts and kings' version of Scottish history, and forget the more diverse range of people and influences that helped to shape the country.
This is the first of what may become an occasional series providing a platform to celebrate non-Scots who have had an influence on some aspect of our culture, with a brief introduction to three Polish figures who had associations with Edinburgh and the landscape of Scotland.
General Stanisław Maczek
Stanisław Maczek was born in what is now Ukraine in March 1892. At university he studied Polish language and culture, and at the outbreak of World War One in 1914, Maczek was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army.
In November 1918 he joined the Polish army, becoming a Major in 1919, and by the outbreak of World War Two, Maczek was commanding the first fully motorised tank unit of the Polish army. After fighting the German progression across Europe, Maczek and many of his unit made their way on foot through occupied France, and eventually were transported to London where a Polish armoured unit was being put together, under the oversight of the British Army.
The original intention was for this reconstituted unit of Polish combatants to be used as a defensive force to protect the eastern coast of Scotland, which was vulnerable to invasion from the North Sea. Maczek travelled to Scotland and spent two years training his men at Blairgowrie in Perthshire, before events of the war resulted in a change of plan, and Maczek's unit was instead dispatched to join the swathe of units being deployed to storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
The unit under Maczek's command would later play a crucial role in the liberation of Breda, a town of 40,000 people in the Netherlands, which was wrestled from the control of the German forces without loss of life of any of the town's inhabitants.
Following the end of the war, Maczek returned to the UK, where he became commanding officer for all the Polish military units in Britain. During this time he was stripped of his Polish citizenship by the new Communist government of Poland, and being thus rendered stateless was denied a military pension from the British government... because he no longer had a nationality that they recognised.
In the post-war years, Maczek made his home in Edinburgh, working as a hotel bartender and becoming a popular figure with locals and visitors, many of whom were unaware of his distinction as a military commander.
In 1992, after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, Maczek was finally awarded Poland's highest military honour, the Order of the White Eagle. He died in Edinburgh in 1994, aged 102, and was buried (according to his wishes) alongside fallen comrades in the military cemetery in Breda.
Maczek had the nickname 'the Shepherd' amongst the men who served under him, for the care and consideration he afforded them. It is perhaps apt that the English translation of his Polish surname - 'maczek' - means 'poppy', the flower of remembrance.
In 2018, Maczek was honoured with a statue in Edinburgh's city centre (pictured undergoing maintenance), and a walkway across the Bruntsfield Links near his former home has been given his name. A memorial plaque can also be found at the address he lived at in the Marchmont area.
Wojtek the Bear
A more unusual hero is celebrated in Princes Street Gardens in the New Town, where visitors will find a near life-size statue of a bear.
The bear was called Wojtek, and he was adopted as a cub by soldiers in the Polish army during World War Two. They were on manoeuvres across Eastern Europe and they rescued Wojtek from a village where he had been chained up in the square for public entertainment.
The soldiers fed Wojtek cigarettes, and trained him to carry their packs and ammunition for the unit - he was more than just a mascot to these men, he was a part of the team.
At the end of the war, many Polish military personnel and their families were resettled in Scotland. But when the Royal Naval carrier ship went to collect Wojtek's unit in Italy, the soldiers were told they couldn't bring the bear on the ship - it was exclusively for military personnel and their families.
Undaunted, the Polish army did the only thing they could do, and they enlisted Wojtek as a private, making him formally a member of the Polish military services! He was brought on the ship to Scotland, where his men were re-housed around Edinburgh, and Wojtek himself was given to Edinburgh Zoo.
In the post-war years, Wojtek became a popular feature at the zoo, where locals would push cigarettes through the bars of the cage for his enjoyment.
Wojtek died in 1963 (of pretty chronic lung cancer) but is today commemorated publicly in the gardens, with a memorial that celebrates not just his nicotine habit but the role that the Polish community continue to play as an active, visible, and valuable element in society right across Scotland.
A third Polish military association can be found a little way from Edinburgh, near Peebles in the Scottish Borders.
In the grounds of the Barony Castle Hotel is the world's largest relief map, reproducing the landscape of Scotland to scale in a model that is approximately 50 by 40 metres square. It's known as the Mapa Scotland, and it was created by a Polish military veteran called Jan Tomasik in the 1970s.
The building which is today a hotel formerly housed units from the Polish army who were stationed here for training in the 1940s. Like General Maczek's unit, the 1st Polish Corps, which had trained at Peebles, were employed to defend the Scottish coastline between Arbroath and Burntisland before being deployed in the D-Day landings.
Among the military veterans who were settled in Scotland after the war was Jan Tomasik, who bought the hotel building in 1968, and employed his former commander Stanisław 'the Shepherd' Maczek as a barman at the hotel property he owned in Edinburgh. During the summer months, Maczek and his family would visit Tomasik at the hotel outside Peebles, and it may have been in discussion with Maczek that Tomasik's plan for the 'mapa Scotland' took shape.
The map itself was constructed over six summers between 1974 and 1979 with employees of Krakow University in Poland travelling to Scotland to help build the 780 square metre model.
A huge pit was excavated in which the model would be created, and steel rods were used to create the to-scale topography of the Scottish Highlands, before brick levels created the base landscape of the country with concrete poured and shaped to form the peaks, valleys and coastlines. (Only the island archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland off the extreme north-eastern coast of Scotland aren't included in the model.)
Tomasik died in 1991, and left the model of Scotland as a gift to the nation from the people of Poland, to thank the people of Scotland for their kindness, hospitality and support during the war and in the years afterwards.
Today the model can be visited in the grounds of the Barony Castle Hotel - my photos don't do it justice!
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