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Lord Belhaven and Stenton and the Poles
2020.12.04 / Joanna Ciechanowska
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March 2017. I am sitting opposite Robert Anthony Carmichael Hamilton, the 13th Lord Belhaven and Stenton of the county of Haddington, a family title established in1647 during the reign of King Charles I. Lord Belhaven and Stenton is ninety years old this year and sitting comfortably in his armchair surrounded by grand old portraits, pictures of his children, photographs with the Polish Pope, antique furniture and books, books, books everywhere.

His Polish wife, Małgosia, a well known figure in the Polish Club in Kensington, Ognisko Polskie, hurries around serving us tea. In porcelain teacups. The grand old family seat in Scotland might be long gone but listening to Lord Belhaven's cut glass accent, there is no doubt where the teacup came from. The portrait of his ancestor on the wall must have been painted around 1707, since the inscription reads ‘The right Honourable John Lord Belhaven, who made the ever – Memorable Speech against the union in the year 1707’.

He tells me he has always thought the 50 years of silence regarding the massacre of over 20 thousand Polish officers in the Katyń forest committed by the Russians at the beginning of the WWII was a disgrace. A scandal. He even said in the British Parliament: ‘I suppose nobody will admit anything until the Russian do it themselves. And three weeks later, they did.’

He tells me he first heard of Poland when he was about 12 years old. It was the beginning of the war. He was staying with friends in a beautiful house in the west of Scotland. Poland was a long way away. He says: “Now you can get to Kraków in two hours, then, it would be about four days.” It was war time and the Germans were invading Poland from one side, and the Russians with Stalin in charge ‘helping’ themselves to Polish territories from the other side, while the rest of the world silently approved it for the sake of ‘politics’. He was listening to the radio where there was talk about how the Red Army was ‘rescuing Poland’. In reality, it was deporting Polish families from Lwów, Wilno, Grodno, and sending them to Siberia. That’s when the Katyń Forest massacre happened too.

I want to know how he became involved in ‘the Polish cause’. He says: ‘Most of us were horrified at what happened to Poland after the war. It was not what most people would’ve wanted. It was only the politicians who wanted it. Poland was treated so badly… so badly. In a small way, in my very small way, I tried to give something back, give a little back.’

Mentioning his education at Eton, he says ‘we were supposed to rule the Empire…’, so I ask what he did next. University? ‘Oh, no, straight to the army, national service. We didn’t have any choice. I volunteered because I didn’t want to go to the coal mine. I took the King’s shilling. They needed people in the coal mine desperately, so the only way out was the army. The Cameronians – Scottish Rifles Regiment, Aberdeen, with headquarters in Larnack. It was April 1946. And then I began farming in the South West of Scotland for a local farmer. Milking the cow by hand was much more exciting’…

I want to know how he became further involved in ‘the Polish cause’, travelling to Poland many times, so I suppose the obvious question is to ask how he met his Polish wife, Małgorzata. ‘Oh, I just moved into a flat in London. A very small flat. A room, really. I needed the curtains, but the workmen were too expensive, so a cousin of mine said, get the Poles. So, I phoned ‘the Poles’ and heard this deep voice on the phone, so I expected a big, hairy Pole to come through the door and instead, Małgosia comes in.’

They have been married ever since and have one daughter, Oleńka. Małgosia’s family comes from ‘Kresy’ on her mother’s side, and Szczekociny, where her father lived. They visited the place where her mother came from, which is now Ukraine, and she has many stories to tell about ‘people who never came back from Siberia, sent there by the Soviets’. She also recalls her husband, the 13th Lord Belhaven, or Robin, as she calls him, looking quite a picture in his white suit, panama hat and a Sherlock Holmes pipe, walking around Lwów with her. ‘People were touching him, you know..’

Lord Belhaven fought, he tells me, during the Iron Curtain times for the Poles to have a better deal on what he calls ‘a visa regime’ – a restriction preventing the Polish people to travel to the West. ‘If you were a ‘government crook’ with all the right papers, you could travel freely, no problem, but if you were a granny from Lublin trying to visit your grandson in London, you had no hope in hell…’

He recalls with disdain a disgraceful, in his opinion, speech made in Ognisko Polskie in Kensington by a certain, at the time retired British PM, trying to justify the ‘visa regime for the Poles’. ‘God, if I made such speech, I would have been thrown out of a window…’ ‘Other things? Can’t remember really… I suppose one can say, I was always trying to help Polish people in difficult situations.’

So, you are Scottish, I say, stating the obvious, trying to get his latest views and feelings. ‘Oh, yes, I am Scottish. But I am not in favour of independence now. I am more in favour of cultural independence. The independence is not for the people, it’s for the politicians and that’s what’s happening in Scotland now. The politicians should shut up and stop telling us how to live our lives. The smoking ban? I disagree with it. Ruining small pubs. Telling us London will be smoke free. It isn’t free. We are not free.’

It is refreshing to hear his rebellious views not only on smoking bans but also on Europe, America’s latest elections, on his father’s time in the colonial India, his three daughters, a son, two grandsons and three granddaughters. I try to prod him a little for his opinion on recent Polish politics but to no avail. He is firmly not going to be drawn in. ‘None of my business’ he says, ‘I keep very strictly out of Polish politics. It’s not my business. I am being pro-Polish, that’s all. You might ask Malgosia’… But she is of the same opinion. ‘We want to keep it at a distance, because everybody quarrels.’

True. The Poles love to argue and not only about politics. And as he says, ‘Because of Poland’s geographical position, you will always have somebody after you. They pretend to be nice, but… Poland should become one of the outer islands of Britain, that would be great! I like going to Poland. But not in winter, too cold.’

My tea in the lovely cup has gone cold too. I was so enthralled with the tales of the British Empire, the House of Lords, the Colorado beetles, Mabel the cow watching them through a window drinking Scottish whisky and the Poles…. Sitting amongst all those portraits, stories and books. There is another book there, waiting to be written, definitely, yes.

He succeeded his father in 1961 to sit in the House of Lords. In 1995 he was awarded The Polish Commander Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland: his role as a spokesman for the Polish community and his active involvement in British-Polish relations recognised.

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