February 2024
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Wojtek the bear: a beloved Polish veteran in Scotland…


Winter landscape Le coffre aux images de Kate

Hi everybody,

Bonne et heureuse année à tous les fans d’Ecosse! Puissent vos pas vous mener en 2013 jusqu’à la belle Alba !

This year, more than ever, we’re going to share with you our love for Scotland. While 2012 had been designated  ‘Year of Creative Scotland’, 2013  is going to be the ‘Year of Natural Scotland’. What an appropriate thematic choice for a country so deeply attached to Nature at a time of major environmental challenges!

So, while still focusing on our favourite aspects of Scottish creativity (writers and artists mainly but not exclusively) to celebrate the Year of Natural Scotland we’ll try to say more about some places of outstanding beauty we’ve visited. Indeed, Scotland has just been elected ‘top travel destination in the world’ by CNN and that’s an event on which I will come back in my next post.

One of our New Year’s resolutions is to resume our recording (in English and French) of Walter Scott’s famous novel Rob Roy. And another of our priorities will be to focus on the close links existing between Scotland, France and Canada. In France these links are particularly strong and lively as can be seen in a number of events. Let us mention the very popular Scottish-French festivities which take place each year on 14 July in Aubigny-sur-Nère and celebrate the Auld Alliance, the recent opening of the Mackintosh Trail in Roussillon, the display of the Prestonpans Tapestry in Bayeux next September.


Wojtek the Bear with a Polish soldier 1942 Source Wikipedia

Wojtek the Bear with a Polish soldier 1942 Source Wikipedia

But to begin the year I’d like to share with you the incredible and very moving story, part funny part sad, of a  big brown bear named Wojtek (Voy-check) whose fate led him to serve as a soldier in the Allied Forces during WWII and who spent seventeen years in Scotland, first in the company of his fellow soldiers in Winfield Camp, Scottish Borders, and then as a very popular star in Edinburgh zoo. A monument has recently been inaugurated in Edinburgh in memoriam of this four-paws heroe, in the very town where Greyfriar’s Bobby, the world famous dog is peacefully resting not far from his beloved master…

Wojtek the Bear Aileen Orr Birlinn 2012

I  was very happy to fall on Wojtek The Bear when browsing the many books lining up on the  shelves of Ullapool Ceilidh Place bookshop, on our last visit to Scotland in September. I immediately bought it and it has now found its place next to Moobli, Rangi, and Hercules the Bear.

Among the different covers of the successive editions of the book my favourite one is definitely that of the 2012 Birlinn edition which you can see above.  Look at the bear’s expression!  I wonder what can be hiding behind such a look. ‘ Il ne lui manque que la parole ‘, we would say in France. I like to imagine the big lovable creature playing with the soldiers and offering them an affectionate presence in the  hard and dangerous life he shared with them for better or for worse…

Nobody could have told the story of Wojtek better than Aileen Orr who had fallen in love with him at first sight when she was a little girl. I must have been around eight years old when I first saw Wojtek. I can still see him, sitting on a pile of rocks behind a deep pool waving one massive paw. I was thrilled to the very bottom of my being, she writes at the beginning of the second chapter ‘Love at First Sight’.

I’ve only read the first two chapters of Wojtek The Bear yet but as they focus on the Scottish part of the story they do interest me particularly. Aileen Orr’s writing is very lively and we learn many very interesting things in these first pages, be it about Wojtek’s and the Polish soldiers’ s life in Winfield Camp in the Scottish Borders, about the Polish people’s martyrdom during WWII or the sufferings of war animals since the dawn of time (horses, dogs, bears, elephants, dolphins, pigeons…).

I’ve chosen a few passages from these first two chapters just to give you a idea of the spirit of the book and of its author.

 A couple of Scottish newspapers had run articles on my idea to create a memorial for the bear who was officially made a private in the Polish army and who fought side by side with Polish troops during the Second World War before retiring to the Scottish Borders (…)

From the moment Wojtek set foot on Scottish soil he was a star (…)

His first glimpse of Scotland was Glasgow; thousands of Glaswegians lined the streets to cheer him and his polish regiment has they marched through the city (…)

By that time, he was, of course, a seasoned military campaigner, having spent 26 months travelling through the Middle East with his comrades, followed by a 32-month stint in Italy where he saw active service as the Allies fought their way towards the heart of Europe.

Wojtek arrived at what was then Winfield Camp for Displaced Persons on Sunwick Farm on 28 October 1946 (…)

Right from the start Wojtek won a place in Scotland’s heart. It’s also readily understandable why the Polish servicemen held him so dear. Far from home, the bear provided entertainment and fun. He was the child they had left behind, the pet dog they had loved (…)

My grandfather had started telling me stories about Wojtek when I was quite small, probably around three years of age (…) Although I knew from all Jim’s tales that Wojtek was a very large bear, it was only when I saw him in the flesh that I realised just how big he was. I was awestruck by his long nose and huge feet.

I always thought of Wojtek as my grandfather’s bear 😉

Oddly enough, on this first visit to see him, I wasn’t with my grandfather, Jim Little, my great co-conspirator… this time I was with a Sunday School Trip from Trinity Church in Lockerbie.

Wojtek The Bear Aileen Orr Birlinn 2012 backcover

The book is dedicated to ‘Augustyn Karolewski of Hutton Village, who inspired the writing of this book. He is one of the many unrecognized Poles who fought for your freedom and ours.’

Neal Ascherson wrote the epilogue. He is  a well-known Scottish journalist who studied at Cambridge University and an authority on Polish and East European affairs.

The book is illustrated with a number of nice black and white photos…

Below is the contents of Wojtek the Bear. I always read the contents before beginning my reading of a book.

  1. The Bear at the Bottom of My Garden
  2. Love at First Sight
  3. Fate Takes a Hand in the Life of a Bear Cub
  4. Runaway Wojtek Heads for Home
  5. Monte Cassino: A Legend is Born
  6. Rationing… and a Bear Who Needs 300 Apples a Day
  7. Messing About the River
  8. Wojtek’s Passion for Country Dancing
  9. The Saddest Day
  10. Bears Galore Send a Message of Hope
  11. Journey into the Future

Last but not least there is a map in the book which proves to be quite useful to make an idea of the long periple of Wojtek…

Wojtek Journey map from Wojtek the Bear Aileen Orr Birlinn 2012


Many web pages are devoted to the story of Wojtek. Of course there are several good articles in Wikipedia
Below is an extract about Wojtek taken from the very interesting page of Wikipedia devoted to the History of Edinburgh Zoo...

One of the zoo’s famous inhabitants during the post-war period was Voytek, a Syrian brown bear. Voytek had been sold to a group of Polish soldiers during the war. He learned to help the soldiers by carrying crates of ammunition, and became an unofficial mascot. In 1944 the Polish II Corps sailed to Italy to join the British 8th Army. Voytek had to be officially drafted into the Polish army in order to secure his passage on a British transport ship. In 1946 the II Corps were demobilised and settled in Scotland, at Winfield Camp near Hutton, Berwickshire. Voytek retired to Edinburgh Zoo in 1947 and lived there until his death in 1963. During his time in the army Voytek had developed a liking for cigarettes, and this may have contributed to his popularity as an attraction at the zoo.

I’ve also found a very remarkable website devoted to the soldier bear. It brings together a great number of photos and articles from different countries. I’ve even found a French article entitled ‘Pendant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale un ours s’est battu pour la Pologne’ (Gentside 18-01-2012)

A bigger than lifesize bronze cast is being planned by sculptor Alan Heriot to immortalize Wojtek. It should be placed in the following months in the beautiful environment of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens.


Polish soldier with Wojtek in Iran 1942 Source Wikipedia

Polish soldier with Wojtek in Iran 1942 Source Wikipedia

Wojtek died on 15 November 1963 but his story is going on, more lively than ever, carrying new hopes for people and strengthening the links which have always been strong between Scotland and Poland.

Wojtek died in 1963 but he continues to be a power for good. On the international front, his popularity is on the up. The Wojtek Memorial Trust launched in September 2008. Its aims – which I’ll outline in more detail in a later chapter – are to promote education links and scholarships between the young people of Scotland and Poland, and, on a broader front, to encourage new and permanent friendships between the peoples of our two nations.  Wojtek The Bear, Aileen Orr

Many Scottish people emigrated to Poland at the time of the religious persecutions during the Protestant Reformation. By the way did you know that Bonnie Prince Charlie was half Polish through his mother Princess Clementina Sobiesky?

Very eager I am to read the following chapters of Wojtek the Bear. If only I could read English  faster…

In the meantime, let’s leave the last words to Aileen Orr in her homage to Wojtek during a memorial service.

Bonne lecture !

A bientôt.



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