Flags outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland. Left to right: British flag, Scottish flag, European Union flag. The Scottish flag is unfurled. The others hang limply by their flagpoles.

In this personal essay, the author and broadcaster Billy Kay chronicles the history of Scottish migration to, and interaction with, continental Europe. Our deep and ancient interconnections, he argues, underscore Scotland’s identity as a European nation and show why Brexit is something that we should resist. 

Just before the turn of the year, I was asked by The Courier in Dundee what my hopes were for 2018. Before moving on to personal wishes involving the promotion of my fitba team, Dundee United, I made this statement:

“For Scotland’s people to see that Brexit goes against a thousand years of our history and join the majority of Dundonians in realising that independence is the only answer.”

Dundee was, of course, Scotland’s Yes City in the 2014 independence referendum. As a global port, trading with Scandinavia and the Baltic for centuries, being part of a wider European identity is part of the city’s DNA. Being a Scot and a European is certainly an intrinsic part of my own identity, and the predominantly little Englander-fuelled tragedy of Brexit being imposed on me against my will gars me grue – makes me sick – more than any political event I have experienced in my lifetime, apart from the failure to gain independence in 2014.

The scunner I feel is both personal and familial. Being brought up bi-lingual, in Scots and English, gave me a linguistic facility which led to me hitch-hiking to France and Germany when I was 15, and being able to communicate fluently in both languages. I added Russian to my linguistic repertoire at Kilmarnock Academy; Portuguese was absorbed by osmosis after my marriage to Maria João de Almeida da Cruz Diniz in 1979. Our three children speak a spectrum of European languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Russian. Catriona works in the wine trade in London, Joanna is an anti-trust lawyer in Brussels and Euan does global sponsorship for the football club Internazionale in Milan.

Billy Kay: “Brexit is not who we are; it should be resisted and rectified as soon as possible.” Image: courtesy of the author.

In order to continue working in EU, they are pursuing their right to Portuguese citizenship, gained through their Portuguese mother. There have been hints that I should follow suit. But I am thrawn and stubborn – I’ll hold out for my Scottish passport for as long as it takes!

Some of the recent thinking that has pushed us towards Brexit seems to me to be a betrayal of Scotland’s European heritage. Scotland’s ties with the continent are ancient and strong; the continuation of that strength makes the current direction of travel something to resist. Furthermore, the rabid dialogue about immigrants and refugees which has accompanied – if not spurred – the ‘Brexit conversation’ in certain sections of the UK overlooks that we Scots have ourselves moved to other countries in droves. And as with most migrant groups, at times we have also been disparaged and shunned.

Perhaps a fuller awareness of our ancient European ties might remind us still further that the Brexit vote, and the ideas which led to it, does not sit comfortably with who we are as a nation.


One of the major strands in my work over several decades now has been an exploration of the proudly mongrel civic and national identity produced in Scotland from the days of the proclamations of the 12th century dedicated to the Scots, English, French, and Flemish living in the new burghs, through to the arrival of Irish, Lithuanian, Jewish, and Italian immigrants in the 19th century. These groups were celebrated in my oral history radio and television series Odyssey in the early 1980’s, and in the books Odyssey Voices from Scotland’s Recent Past, and Odyssey The Second Collection.

Another major strand of my work has been outward migration from Scotland and the impact we have had in far-flung places. I have chronicled this aspect of our history in several radio series and in the book The Scottish World. In this essay, I want to give an impression of the kind of material I have collected about the Scots in very different parts of Europe. I hope that reading the article will instil in readers the sense that because of Scotland’s ancient European connections, Brexit is not who we are, and should be resisted and rectified as soon as possible.


During the 17th century, it is likely that more Scots went to the Baltic lands of Poland and Prussia, and from there eastwards into Lithuania and Russia, than took part in the massive plantation and settlement of Ulster! Yet it remains a very much forgotten diaspora, except among historians of the region. In the ‘History of the District of Deutsch Krone’, written at the turn of the 20th century, F. Schmidt described the legacy of the Scots in the character of the local people:

‘The increase in strength and industrial capacity which this Scottish admixture instilled into the German was of the very highest importance, and it can scarcely be doubted that the peculiar compound of stubbornness and shrewdness which characterises the inhabitants of the small towns of Eastern Prussia has its roots in the natural disposition of the Scot.’

In Poland, the Scots organised themselves into a self-help society called the Scottish Brotherhood, with branches in all the major cities of a country which, at that time, was a major European power. The record book of the organisation may have been destroyed by war, or it may lie yet covered in stour in a deep vault somewhere in Russia. Written in Scots, English, German, and Polish, this book was called The Green Book of Lublin and it held detailed accounts of this prestigious 17th century organisation.

Whilst making the series ‘Merchants, Pedlars, Mercenaries’ for the BBC, I experienced a late 20th century version of the Scottish Brotherhood. It began when I mentioned my forthcoming trip to Poland to the poet Douglas Dunn. He gave me the phone number of a friend, Rory Allardice, who was working through the British Council in Poznań. I called Rory; he knew my work and we had mutual friends in Dundee. A good start – but it got better.

When he called me back, he gave me details of a network of Scots who would help me all over Poland: “The person who’ll meet you off the plane in Warsaw is Drew Caldwell”, said Rory; “he was in the year above you at Kilmarnock Academy!” The Brotherhood, apparently is no deid yet.

So many Scots boarded ship for Danzig, Königsberg, and other Baltic ports during the 17th century, that Lithgow described Poland as ‘a Mother and Nurse for the youth and younglings of Scotland’.

In its day, the Scottish Brotherhood boasted members whose legacy is still visible. Craigievar Castle, Marischall College, and the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen all benefited from wealth generated by men like Danzig Willie Forbes, and Robert Gordon. The church in Krosno was endowed from the fortunes earned in the Hungarian wine trade by Robert Porteous. The masterpieces in Gdansk’s art galleries were donated by Jacob Kabrun or Patrick Cockburn. And one of the most poignant coffin paintings in the Poznań museum is of a fair-headed three year-old boy, commissioned by his father, the merchant Robert Farquhar. Our first travel writer, Sir William Lithgow, ‘found abundance of gallant rich merchants, my countreymen’ all over Poland. More typical than the merchants, though, were the hundreds of lads who shouldered pedlars packs and set off into the Polish countryside to hawk everything from pins and needles to the finest linen.

So many Scots boarded ship for Danzig, Königsberg, and other Baltic ports during the 17th century, that Lithgow described Poland as ‘a Mother and Nurse for the youth and younglings of Scotland’, reckoning there were 30,000 Scottish families in the country at the time. This was probably an exaggeration, but later research certainly points to a substantial migration.


‘Better over there than over here’, was the view held by many in England. When political union with Scotland was being debated in their parliament in 1606, this apocryphal warning was given of what might happen to England’s green and pleasant land should the northern hordes be welcomed south:

‘If we admit them into our liberties, we shall be overrun with them, as cattle (naturally) pent up by a slight hedge will over it into a better soyl, and a tree taken from a barren place will thrive to excessive and exuberant branches in a better, witness the multiplicities of the Scots in Polonia.’

In Poland, too, the Scots would often be regarded with disdain. In Polish society at that time, engaging in trade was looked down upon by the gentry; it was a profession beyond the reach of the peasantry and very much in the hands of foreigners – principally Germans, Jews, and Scots. As a consequence, the Jews and Scots were frequently grouped together as people to tax, to look down on, and to disparage.

The German craft guilds in Prussian cities like Königsberg regarded the Scots travellers as usurping their trade. The tone of their complaint on this issue to the Duke of Prussia is typical: “The Scots skim the cream off the milk of the country…These people have like a cancerous ulcer, grown and festered”. When we think of what would later happen to the Jewish people, these complaints have a chillingly familiar ring.

In both the Kashubian dialect of Polish and in German, proverbial sayings used to frighten naughty children included; “Warte bis der Schotte kommt” – Wait till the Scot comes and gets ye!

So common were Scots in the region that the word Schotte covered both pedlars and natives of Scotland. And such was the nature of how the Scots came to be regarded, they soon appeared in the native folklore as ‘the bogeyman’. In both the Kashubian dialect of Polish and in German, proverbial sayings used to frighten naughty children included: “Warte bis der Schotte kommt” – Wait till the Scot comes and gets ye!

Eventually, the roving Scottish pedlars settled down in Scottish quarters such as Old Scotland in Gdańsk, Scotlandsyde in Memel, and the Scots Vennel in Stralsund. Unlike Jews, the Christian Scots could marry local girls and so were gradually absorbed into German and Polish society. Prestigious names which emerged from this diaspora include: Jan Johnston, the Polish philosopher of the 17th century; Tadeusz Baird, the 20th century Polish composer; and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.


During this period, the Scottish pedlars and traders were joined by another sizeable group of men, with a very different calling – military mercenaries. With the Anglo-Scottish border peaceful for the first time after 1603, James VI actively encouraged the Kings of Sweden, Denmark, and Poland to recruit footsoldiers in Scotland. Many originated in the Catholic and Episcopalian heartlands of the northeast.

Patrick Gordon’s diary describes an eastern Europe thrang with Scots mercenaries. Again, they helped one another, even when they were on opposing sides. When the Poles defeated the Russians at the Battle of Czudno, the victorious Lord Henry Gordon captured Colonel Daniel Crawford who “was not only maintained by him at a plentifull table in Varso, but dismissed ransome free, and gave him a pass for a capitaine of horse”.

Such incidents gave rise to a tradition of northeast tales such as the one concerning negotiations for peace between Polish and Turkish generals, conducted in the language of diplomacy, French. When the negotiations are concluded, and the terms agreed, the Turkish representative turns to the Polish representative and says: “Weel, weel Geordie, fou’s aa yer fowk in Inverurie?” Curiously, history repeated itself comparatively recently when among the ranks of the soldiers of the Free Polish forces in Scotland, there were several Polish Gordons who came back to to the land of their ancestors as sojers in the Second World War.

For better or worse, it is the image of the fighting Scot, rather than the Scottish pedlar, which looms largest in historical memory.

An appropriate epitaph for all the Scots mercenaries who survived the religious wars of 17th century Europe is provided by the Electress of Hanover when referring to her commander of troop, Andrew Melville:

“Soldier of Misfortune, I call him for cannon shot has taken away his chest which is supported by an iron contraption…I believe the Scots are not descended from Adam but from the serpent…you cut them up into 16 pieces and they join together again!”

For better or worse, it is the image of the fighting Scot, rather than the Scottish pedlar, which looms largest in the historical memory. The Polish naval hero, Captain James Murray, is celebrated in a series of popular post-war novels, while every Pole is brought up with the fictional Scottish soldier Colonel Ketling von Elgin, the dashing hero of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s ‘Trilogy’. Set in the 17th century, Ketling’s demise comes when he blows himself and a fortress up rather than surrender it to the Turks. Although written at the turn of the 20th century to stir up Polish national sentiment, Ketling’s roots as a Scottish hero go back to the Romantic movement at the turn of the 19th century. The Ossian cult, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott, fomented a craze for all things Scottish in Polish society, with a journal The Scottish Miscellany produced to satisfy public demand in the 1840’s.


Polish intellectuals like Krystyn Lach Szyrma travelled to see and describe Scotland – the land of Romance – at first hand. A practical offshoot of all of such visits was the physical transformation of the Polish countryside. Many of those who travelled to Scotland were landowners impressed by the agricultural improvements going on in the Scottish Lowlands, who then went on to develop their own estates along Scottish lines. At Dowspuda in northeastern Poland, General Ludwik Pac went to the extent of importing not only methods and equipment, but also Scottish tenant farmers to implement the desired changes to his lands. The Scottish connection extends further still: place names in the area include Linton, Berwik, and New Scotland. At least one family called Borms, descended from William Burns, survives in the area today.

Most Scots disappeared into Polish society long ago, their very names Polonised and scarcely recognisable; Chalmers/Czamer, Maclean/Makalienski, Cochrane/Czochranek, Weir/Wajer, and so on. However, there are exceptions. When a Polish historian wrote that the surname ‘Taylor’ had been entirely replaced by its Polish version ‘Taylorowicz’, he received a letter from a Mr Taylor in Poznań who could name every one of his Polish ancestors for thirteen generations, back to their arrival as court merchants in Krakow in the 1620’s. Not one had changed his name.

The Scottish connection extends further still: place names in the area include Linton, Berwik, and New Scotland. At least one family called Borms, descended from William Burns, survives in the area today.

Today, the Taylors in Poland include a Professor of microbiology, a distinguished lawyer, and a member of the Polish Parliament. I met them in Poznań and Gdańsk during the course of my work. Civilised and kindly people, they have preserved a fascinating branch of Scottish history, intact. From merchants, they became officers in the army, and by the 18th century were members of the Polish gentry. When they applied for admission into the aristocracy, they promised they had sent to Scotland for documentation confirming their noble pedigree. It still hesnae arrived!

The extent of the Scottish presence in the area can be gauged in the fact that Professor Karol Taylor’s wife, Alina, also had Scottish blood through the Gibson family in Gdańsk. Indeed, her family were set to explore the legacy of the Gibson name when the Second World War turned her childhood world upside down. Surviving German occupation, she eventually watched her father taken away by Russian soldiers, never to return. Along with two million other Poles, Alina and her mother were transported to Kazakhstan where she worked as a slave in a Soviet quarry for four years. When she won home, she had to re-learn to read and write, and overcome her lost years to become a distinguished scientist.

Gdańsk. The ancient city attracted Scottish merchants, who employed young Scots as pedlars to sell wares in Polish towns and villages. Image: Nikater [CC BY-SA 2.5]

Many of the Gibsons had belonged to the German-speaking merchant community in Danzig – indeed, the records show that one branch was called Von Gibson. So many went west into Germany after the war, when Danzig became Gdańsk and was thoroughly Polonised. The same process happened in Posen/Poznań, Szcecin/Stettin, and numerous other cities: visitors are struck by the historic layers of culture they experience when they visit these places. Today, you walk the streets of Gdańsk and lose yourself in admiration for this exquisitely restored Hanseatic port. With its Dutch-influenced architecture, reminiscent of the burghs on our own east coast, and its echoes of Jewish, Armenian, Scottish, German, and Polish history, what you discover is a truly great international city.

With our deep historic roots, and the relationship fostered by Scotland hosting the Polish army during the Second World War, the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries to the European Union in 2004 saw Scotland re-establish its ancient Eastland trade, and its close ties to the region.

With our deep historic roots, and the relationship fostered by Scotland hosting the Polish army during the Second World War, the accession of Poland and the Baltic countries to the European Union in 2004 saw Scotland re-establish its ancient Eastland trade, and its close ties to the region. Ancient links were re-strengthened in the 20th century, and then again in the 21st.

An organisation keenly anticipating the return of our Baltic fleet is the Scottish Brotherhood. On the day that I flew home from Gdańsk, Drew Caldwell met me at Warsaw Airport. He had managed to track down the list of the several hundred Scots merchants who had contributed to a fund to support Charles II against Cromwell in 1650. As I scanned the list, I was thrilled to see that a Kay was signatory number 283; I was not a little taken aback to discover a Caldwell next to him as signatory 284. Both names were spelled in forms which convey their Scots versions in Ayrshire, then and now: Kuy an Calwalls.

Gin the ghaists o lang syne ar keepin an ee on us, hou can we gae wrang in the Poland o the future?


A name which survives and is glorified in Russia is that of the poet Lermontov. Few, however, know that he is the descendant of yet another Scottish soldier of fortune, George Learmonth, who was in the service of the Poles when he was captured by the Russians in 1613. When released, he settled in Russia. Over two centuries later, when Lermontov wrote his memorable poetry, he would still write of the sea separating him from Scotland, his native land.

While there was never as huge a number of Scots in Russia as there were in Poland, those who did go tended to be exceptional individuals who profoundly affected Russian society. The aforementioned Patrick Gordon’s diary is one of the principle source books of 17th century Russian history, and he himself taught the young Tsar who became known as Peter the Great. Patrick Gordon and his countryman Alexander Leslie are credited with organising the Russian forces into modern fighting regiments. Of a more maverick disposition, General Tam Dalyell of the Binns is blamed for bringing instruments of torture such as the thumbscrew home with him to Scotland. Fighting men who brought distinction to their country of origin, however, included Admiral Thomas Gordon, Admiral Samuel Greig, and James Keith from the family of the Earls Marischal who served under Peter the Great but went on to greater fame as the military commander of the troops of Frederick the Great of Prussia. One of the curious offshoots of the ancient military connection with Russia was the establishment of Masonic Lodges there, along Scottish lines.

Billy with Mairi Koroleva, a descendant of Lermontov, whose portrait is in the background. Mairi teaches Gaelic at Moscow University. Image: courtesy of the author.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the freemasons were joined by working stonemasons, as a colony of 140 workers joined the Scottish architect chosen by Catherine the Great to oversee her favoured building projects, Charles Cameron. In the same period too, a dynasty of brilliant Scottish doctors virtually transformed the Russian medical system. From Robert Erskine in 1704 to Sir James Wylie in 1854, the Scots were at the forefront of the country’s medical advances.

One should also mention the timber and textile merchants who took the new technology from the east coast of Scotland and set up mills all along the Baltic coast. For example, Andrew Carrick was a successful merchant in St Petersburg, but more renowned is his son William, who became one of the pioneers of the new art form of photography in the middle of the 19th century.

Over two centuries later, when Lermontov wrote his memorable poetry, he would still write of the sea separating him from Scotland, his native land.

Our flax merchants in the interior of Russia left an improbable legacy – the game of association football. One of their number, John S. Urquart from Angus, spent his leisure hours knocking the local lads into shape and created a decent team. His only regret was that in all his time there, he “could never prevail upon them” to head the ball!!

And there are other 20th century echoes of the ancient connection between Scotland and the countries of the Eastland trade, as the run to the Baltic was known. The poetry of Violet Jacob recalls the romance of seeing those specially-built ships, the Baltic Brigs, heading out of Montrose harbour bound for Elsinore and Riga. The writer George Bruce came from a Fraserburgh family of herring curers which dealt with customers all over the Baltic region. As a boy, he remembered visits to his home by cultured German-speaking Jewish merchants who played Chopin.

And finally, we have the moving autobiography The House by the Dvina by Eugenie Fraser. She is the daughter of a Russian timber merchant from Archangel who came to Dundee to see the Scottish side of the business, and married a girl from Broughty Ferry. Eugenie’s writing combines the soul of Russia and the fire of Scotland: it is a striking combination of poetry and power.


Outward migration to Europe has been a major aspect of Scotland’s history. It was part of who we are, and was an established phenomenon well before the (better known) waves of exodus to the New World. We have had a major impact in far-flung places. But we have not always been well received, or kindly regarded. Today, we can look across Europe and see how, in so many ways, our legacy is strong there. And we in turn have been enriched both by our interactions with the peoples of Europe, and by the fact that so many of them have chosen to make Scotland their home.

I have chronicled this aspect of our history because there is much about it which, it seems to me, is significant to the times we live in. I hope that this article illuminates further Scotland’s ancient European connections and adds weight to what I feel is a clear, and very important, statement: Brexit is not who we are; it should be resisted and rectified as soon as possible.

Billy Kay is an author and broadcaster. His book The Scottish World. A Journey into the Scottish Diaspora is available in paperback, price £9.99. For more information on Billy’s work, see his website at: www.billykay.scot

Feature image: Flags outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, Scotland. Image: Calum Hutchison [CC BY-SA 2.5]