The ‘Unheard Voices, Unseen Communities: Perspectives on Polish Ethnicity in Scotland’ workshop was held in Inverness on Friday 23 June 2017. Organised by the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for History, the event brought together politicians, academics, social workers and community activists to discuss issues affecting Polish communities in Scotland. Dr David Worthington, Head of the Centre for History, reflects on the workshop:
When a participant in an academic event describes having had an “amazing time” and it having been “one of the most interesting days in my life”, it highlights the potential of our universities to have a positive influence on the world beyond the walls of the offices or lecture rooms where we spend much of our working lives.
The ‘Unheard Voices, Unseen Communities: Perspectives on Polish Ethnicity in Scotland’ workshop took place one year to the day after the UK referendum on Brexit. It aimed to encourage frank, critical, open discussion about the impact of that vote on Poles and other EU citizens here, as well as broader reflection on the past, present and future of ‘Polishness’ across Scotland. It sought to position these debates, for the first time, within the Highlands and Islands.
Researchers, community activists and politicians (including two MSPs and the Polish Consul-General to Scotland, Dariusz Adler) presented on the already-visible effects of the 2016 referendum, on historical convergences and divergences between Scotland and Poland, and on other pertinent, pressing themes and issues such as language and mental health.
Several of the thirty-three speakers and non-speaking attendees provided insightful critical evaluations of the event. Maree Todd MSP, co-convenor of the Cross Party Group on Poland at the Scottish Parliament, who presented in Panel One, wrote:
“It was quite an emotional day – particularly when we were hearing from people whose families had fought with the UK in the second world war and stayed here afterwards. They have faced many challenges over the decades – not least being separated from family by the iron curtain – and now face uncertain times again because of Brexit. There was plenty for me to empathise with.
“As a typical Highlander, my family has plenty of stories of migration and feeling worried about using Gaelic outside the home! It was particularly lovely to be able to go along to an event like this at a University in the Highlands – a University which might never have come into existence without EU membership.”
Krystyna Szumelukowa, a former town planner with considerable experience of working on projects related to the UK’s links with Poland, “took great encouragement from the positive actions being taken to confront the challenges facing the Polish community in Scotland.” Jenny Robertson, author and poet, considered that “at this time of huge indecision” the workshop “brought both realism and encouragement.” For Antony Kozłowski, a leading figure in the Polish community in Scotland, it was “an uplifting and inspiring event.”
Other topics discussed at the one-day conference included the portrayal of Poles in TV dramas, suicide and use of English among Poles in Scotland, while one afternoon panel focused on current research and potential heritage possibilities relating to Scots who migrated to Poland in earlier centuries.
On balance, most agreed that there is scope to build on this foundation, to bring the same group together again, to seek to do something much larger, and/or to look at other cases in addition to the Polish one with the aim of influencing public and curatorial policy. One speaker considered it a “credit to the University of the Highlands and Islands to be at the forefront of debate and research” on the themes in question. With Brexit already having a psychological impact on Scotland’s EU migrant communities, the macro-political situation looks likely to frame and influence this future activity.
I am very grateful to our society, identity, landscape and knowledge and our humanities and arts research clusters for providing financial support for what was an important and timely event.
Dr David Worthington