Congratulations on spotting Wojtek the Bear, the first Point of Interest (POI) on our EuroWalk tour!
Nestled in the wonderful Princes Street Gardens, and in the shadow of Edinburgh's mighty hilltop fortress, stands this interesting memorial to "Cpl Wojtek" (pronounced VOY-tek), a bear which accompanied the Polish II Corps in their engagements during World War II.
The bear, adopted by this Polish unit in Iran, 'fought' alongside its comrades (part of the Polish Forces in the West, who backed the Western Allies against Nazi Germany), who achieved particular distinction in the arduous fighting for Monte Cassino - parallels between the landscape there, and that atop which Edinburgh Castle stands, are made in reference to the statue. After the war, Wojtek migrated to Scotland with his regiment who were stationed in the Borders, and, after being released from duty, lived until his death in Edinburgh Zoo.
The statue was cast in bronze by the City in 2013, in order to pay tribute to the debt owed by Britain to the Polish soldiers and airmen who aided in its defence during the conflict, and to mark the deep cultural ties between Poland and Scotland. Scotland was a net emigrant nation to Poland for centuries - a 15th Century trade partnership between Aberdeen and Gdansk encouraging 30,000 Scots to leave for Poland over the next 300 years - examples abound of Scottish names which were 'Polonised' to allow them to better assimilate ('Macleod' became 'Machlejd', 'Jackson' became 'Dzaiksen', etc.).
The affinity of the two nations was also affirmed during World War II with the establishment of a medical school from 1941-1949 in the University of Edinburgh specifically for Polish students - taught in Polish, these courses were provided to Polish soldiers, and later civilians, most of whom went on to remain and practice medicine in Britain.
Today, the Polish community in Edinburgh, burgeoning as a result of EU freedoms, has made its mark and is now one of the city's largest. Over 3% of the city's population are of Polish heritage, and the presence of Polish cuisine, shops, language and culture is notable.