Polish migrants find a welcome in the underpopulated Highlands

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The Independent Online

For Katarzina Weizynczek, the decision to quit her job as a philosophy teacher in Poland and move to the Scottish Highlands for a job in a care home was easy.

"We wanted a better life for our family and came here for work," said Mrs Weizynczek, who moved to Scotland with her husband Kristof, an English teacher, and their children Kasper, 11, and Olga, 6, a year ago.

"I have a sister who lives outside London with her husband and two kids but when we visited we thought we did not want to live there.

"We prefer Scotland, there is more space and the people are more friendly. The children are very happy and settled. They have made lots of friends at school. This is our country now."

The Weizynczeks are part of a much-needed influx of Poles to the Highlands that has boosted the population by 5,000 - part of a wave of 18,000 that headed to Scotland when Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

The Poles, who account for 69 per cent of all immigration to the Highlands, are helping to reverse a trend that began in the 19th century when the local population headed to Australia, New Zealand and the US.

The area became one of the most sparsely populated in Europe, with just nine people per square kilometre, compared to an average of 116 in the rest of the EU.

The new immigrants are tempted by better opportunities and higher wages that equal a better standard of living. They are also attracted by the mountainous landscape and picturesque lakes that resemble their home country.

Most of the new Polish migrants have settled in the Inverness area where they have set up a lively and active community.

"The people of the Highlands have been welcoming and the scenery and the culture is very similar to Poland, including the wildlife, the mountains and the lakes," said Patricia Bloczynski, a second-generation Pole whose father was one of thousands of Poles who trained in Scotland during the Second World War who stayed.

Many of the Poles, like the Weizynczeks, are qualified professionals such as teachers, engineers and social workers but at home they could expect to earn only about £120 a month if they were lucky enough to get a job in a country where the unemployment rate is about 30 per cent.

But many are prepared to swap their professional qualifications for work in manual labour jobs in Scotland which pay more.

"A lot of Poles are attracted to the Highlands because they don't want to live in the big cities, where they don't feel so welcome," said Ms Bloczynski .

The Poles are also helping boost the local economy.

Anna Slawinska, 25, arrived in Inverness two months ago and found work in the factory of Strathaird Salmon, a leading food producer and probably the biggest recruiter of foreign workers in the Highlands.

"Anna started working on the factory floor but when we checked her qualifications we discovered she had a degree in microbiology," said Bill Macdonald, the company's human resources manager, who moved Anna into the laboratory as part of the firm's quality control system.

"We started recruiting foreign workers about five years ago because the skills we were looking for just didn't exist in the Inverness area," said Mr Macdonald.

"Without foreign workers, Inverness could not grow."

Just two years ago the official projection for the Highlands was bleak. The overall population was expected to fall by 800 a year.

But, according to the latest figures from the General Register Office for Scotland, the Highland region has had the largest population increase of all Scottish local authorities.

In Inverness, where the local paper occasionally carries job adverts in Polish, and the local radio station advertises English lessons in a variety of languages, there is a willingness to accept the foreign workers.

"They all seem very friendly and are good workers," said David McKenzie, a joiner who works with Polish and other eastern Europeans on constructions sites. "They are just the same as us, except maybe most of them are willing to work harder," he smiled.

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