Scotland’s links with Poland stretch back to the late 15th century: to trade agreements established between Aberdeen and Gdańsk (formerly Danzig); to the ensuing migration to Poland of some 30,000 Scots traders by the 17th century; and musically to the celebrated visit to Scotland by Chopin in 1848, whose concerts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and numerous stately homes charmed the upper classes, especially his fawning female admirers.
More significantly to us today, though, was the arrival of tens of thousands of Polish soldiers at the onset of the Second World War, whose contribution to the Scots war effort was momentous. Many opted to remain and settle here, and their legacy is a descendent population in Scotland which today numbers around 90,000.
It’s their story, their presence, their music, that RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie is looking to celebrate in an illuminating series of Polish-themed concerts permeating the 2020:21 Season.
‘In any given Season I’m keen to build a series of concerts that have conversations outside of classical music: conversations that connect with history, literature, the environment, social issues’, he explains. ‘As a national orchestra I think we should be integrated into that, and since the largest migrant population in Scotland is Polish, then they seemed like an interesting group to engage with first. There is a great story to tell.’
It began on 1 September 1939, when four Polish destroyers sailed Leith-bound into the Forth Estuary. Other Scottish ports soon welcomed Polish vessels: Rosyth, Port Glasgow, Greenock and Dundee. According to Renfrewshire-based Robert Ostrycharz – an expert on the history of Scotland’s Polish communities, an advisor on this RSNO project, and himself the son of an immigrant wartime Polish military man – the majority of UK-bound Polish soldiers were stationed in Scotland. That included Polish aircrews, many of whom were trained at military unit in Peebles and Grangemouth.
When it came to support in combat, none was more swift-acting than the impromptu response of the Polish destroyer ORP Piorun in defending Clydebank against the Luftwaffe’s catastrophic 1941 blitz of the strategic shipbuilding town.
Piorun, built the previous year at the John Brown & Company shipyard for the Royal Navy but subsequently transferred to the Polish Navy, was undergoing repairs on the Clyde. When the attack began, its selfless crew, under Commander Eugeniusz Pławski, manned the ship’s guns in defence of the unsuspecting town. A plaque opposite Clydebank Town Hall honours their bravery.
This Polish series, says Mackie, is not just about the central symphonic repertoire in the concert hall, although that remains the heartbeat of the initiative, and underlines the RSNO’s long association with Polish music and musicians, dating from Emil Młynarski (Polish Principal Conductor of the then Scottish Orchestra from 1910 to 1916 and early champion of Karol Szymanowski’s music) to composers who conducted their own works – Andrzej Panufnik in 1956, Krzysztof Penderecki on three occasions in the 1970s, and Witold Lutosławski in 1979 and 1981.