Wojtek has been part of Aileen's life all her life, but the true extent of the story emerged only in the last 10-15 years. Educated at Lockerbie Academy and the London School of Economics, her grandfather was from the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and she married a Borders farmer, developing a long involvement in politics.
When in 1939 Poland fell victim to the German-Soviet pact her villages were emptied and their inhabitants sent to Siberia. With the Allies facing what they thought was their final push in 1942, the Gulags were freed of Poles, who crossed the mountains to head for Iran and Iraq. Encountering youngsters with a young bear in a sack, Polish troops traded him for a tin of much-needed bully beef. He was probably bound for a life as a dancing bear in a souk, and his mother would have been shot. Named Wojtek the Polish for warrior, the plan had been to offer him as a gift to a visiting general who however was not too impressed so passed him to his men to be kept as a pet. Her grandfather first saw Wojtek up a palm-tree in Baghdad, and put out food to persuade him to come down.
Polish troops bore the scars of their gulag years with many infected by rickets and viruses. Only 200 out of 2500 were judged fit, but 2000 appeared for service, at first transporting ammunition before going to the front line. Tented encampments were very hot, but the bear was well-fed and went food-shopping, being paraded around like a baby prone to tantrums but learning that in the end he would be rewarded. A source of widespread amusement, he also generated pride because the Polish could say that they had “tamed the Russian bear”.
From a species of Syrian origin, Wojtek was in his prime a creature of beauty with his magnificent golden fur. In the push for Europe he was shot at by a sniper, which identified him even more as a mascot, being photographed enjoying a bath in the shade while the troops sweltered in the sun, and overdosed on apricots. The Poles were delighted to be part of the invasion of North Africa, but the Ministry of Defence would not allow a bear on a ship, saying that he must be given up or shot until the Poles came up with the idea if giving him a rank and number! Wojtek became good for morale as the Poles saw how the Italians had been left dying of hunger, shot or abused, making them fear what could it be like back at home.
Montecassino was a bloodbath for all with no winners, and the Poles witnessed the destruction of a monastery but were at least able to face the enemy eyeball to eyeball. Wojtek was with the artillery, and as in any other campaign there were breaks when troops could recuperate before their next round of battle. John Clark of the Black Watch recalled seeing Poles advancing towards him with Wojtek behind carrying a box of ammunition, and when he cried “there's a bear behind you” they laughed because they thought he had said “you've got a bare behind” which was rich coming from soldiers who wore kilts!
In the push for Rome it was a case of woe betide anyone caught in the wrong place, and at the Rapido crossing many Poles drowned because the canvas of which their boats were made had been eaten by moths. The Poles yearned for their own country, but with its being in the Soviet spehere could not go there, and a seasick Wojtek was shipped with them from Naples to Glasgow where he received a ticker-tape welcome marching on his back legs. Two thousand Poles were accommodated in Springwood Park at Kelso where he became more difficult as visitors flocked to see him until they were moved to the former Winfield Camp where he shared its nissen huts, swimming in the Tweed and being walked through the villages of Hutton and Paxton – the sculpture of Wojtek is inspired by his walk down along a strip of land where racing driver Jim Clark would later practice. The intention had been for them to be at Winfield for only a few weeks, but the Poles were excluded from the victory celebrations so as not to upset Stalin. Returning from Europe, Aileen's grandfather was astonished to re-encounter Wojtek now weighing 500 kg and wrestling his Polish friends and enjoying ceilidhs and dances as the star of village halls.
Britain wanted the Poles to go home, founding a Displaced Persons Corps for they were still proud to wear their uniforms, and when Winfield closed there was no option but to send Wojtek to Edinburgh Zoo. Tears were shed as the gates of the cage closed on him, but there were still visits from Poles who brought him beer to drink and cigarettes which he preferred to eat rather than smoke and he responded cheerfully to the sound of their language. He died there in 1963, aged 21 which was a good lifespan for a bear.
The influence of Wojtek on Aileen's life was enhanced when she married Andrew Orr, the Berwickshire farmer whose land now includes Winfield Camp, and in researching his story she learned that there still were Poles whom to this day feared a knock on the door. Publisher Hugh Andrew urged her to write a book, and the Edinburgh city planners were very helpful about locating a statue by Alan Beattie-Herriot unveiled last November in Princes Street Gardens where she was determined that Wojtek must not be plinthed but should be available for children to climb on him. Over one hundred thousand items of correspondence have reached Aileen whose account of Wojtek's life is now to be made into a Hollywood film, and the story of how a bear enabled the Scots to recognise the contribution made by Polish people to their country's survival and development continues with fundraising from the book's profits towards orphanages and other Polish charities.