Unia Europejska
Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders

Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders

Location, range, surrounding areas

In the second half of the 19th century writers would locate Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders (for the first time mentioned by Wincenty Pol in 1951 in his Rzut oka na północne stoki Karpat [A Glimpse of the Northern Carpathian Slopes]) more or less in the area stretching between the villages of Lachowice and Stryszawa in the Żywiec Region, and the town of Jordanów, which then used to be regarded as the capital town of the ethnographic group. Alternatively, the Silesian Highlanders, the Żywiec Highlanders and the Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders were combined under one umbrella appellation of the Beskid Highlanders (see S. Udziela). In our times, their geographic range has been delineated by Urszula Janicka-Krzywda. According to her studies, at the end of the 19th century Old Witches’ Highlanders used to inhabit the villages situated in the valley of the Skawica river, at the northern foot of the Old Witches’ Mountain, that is Białka, Skawica, Zawoja (with a number of hamlets), as well as Grzechynia in the north, Sidzina on the eastern side of the Polica range, and Juszczyn at its northern slopes. In the south, Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders border on Orawa Highlanders; in the west, across the Jałowiec Range – Żywiec Highlanders; to the north of Sucha Beskidzka and Maków Podhalański – villages of the Highland-Krakowiak borderland in the Wieliczka Foothills, and Kliszczaks; in the northeast and east – Kliszczaks and villages characterized by a transitional culture (the environs of Jordanów); in the southeast – the area under Podhale cultural influence (the environs of Spytkowice).


The valley of Skawica river, which was a royal demesne located within the Cracow castellany, after the introduction of administrative unit of starosty (early 15th century) became part of the non-castellany Starosty of Lanckorona, and until the Partitions of Poland it remained a royal land with, inter alia, the Lanckorona, Zebrzydowski, Wielopolski families as its stewards. The upper Skawa basin was gradually settled as of the 13th century, , mainly by the Polish rural people coming from the direction of Wadowice and Mucharz. In the second half of the 14th century in the lands of the Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders there were already the villages of Maków, Juszczyn, and probably Grzechynia. The 16th century saw establishment of more villages in the region: Biała (presently Białka), Miłoszowa (Sidzina) and Skawica. Around the middle of the 17th century, in the upper part of Skawica reaching the slopes of the Old Witches’ Mountain, zarębki (a freshly cleared forest area) was settled (according to the local tradition) with Wallachian shepherds, who named the place Zawoje. In time, their settlement grew into an expansive village of Zawoja, which acquired a status of an independent settlement only in 1836. At the beginning of the 20th century it was already a very big village, with numerous hamlets, serving as the centre of the Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders. Since the 1920s it has been a popular holiday resort.


The Old Witches’ Mountain villages lived off pasturing, agriculture and backyard animal husbandry as well as forest exploitation and woodworking crafts. Until the end of the 19th century, on the northern side of the Old Witches’ Mountain sheep farming was a predominant form of animal husbandry. Sheep were grazed from spring until autumn in mountain ridge pastures and forest clearings; alternatively, they were consigned na szałas (to the shepherd chalet), to the care of a senior shepherd, or they were grazed by the family members in the family-owned clearing farm. In the past, also herds of oxen, in the care of wolarze (ox herders), were collectively pastured. In the places of seasonal sheep pasturing habitable shepherd chalets (koleby) were erected. For the night the animals used to be shut up in a kosor (a portable pen comprising several bays made of poles and coarse planks made by tearing timber along fibre), which was every few days moved to a different place, thus fertilizing glades.

At the end of the 19th century in the Old Witches’ Mountain villages, there were still several dozen sheep mountain pastures in operation – on the northern part of the Old Witches’ Mountain range, on Jałowiec and Polica – as well as in many oxen-herding glades; in the mid-1920s, in these three ranges only seven mountain pastures were in use in total, with around 2,500 sheep put out to grass. Apart from the shepherd chalet-style pasturing (pasterstwo szałaśnicze), in the Old Witches’ Mountain villages animals (cattle and sheep) were grazed in summer in own forest clearings, which was combined with cultivation of hay meadows and small oats and potato fields. Small residential and stable buildings that were erected in forest clearings were called letniaki. 

The basis for existence in the Old Witches’ Mountain villages located in valleys, such as Białka, Sidzina and Skawica, was always agriculture, the significance of which increased at the end of the 19th century, once crop rotation had been introduced. Oats, barley, rye, potato, turnip, cabbage and flax were mainly grown. The farming methods used here preserved their traditional character for a long time; at least until the First World War ancient, hand tools were in common use. Cattle raising was closely related to it, as it provided manure.

On account of the natural environment, forest exploitation had long been developed in the region: felling, horse logging or sliding building timber down a log flume to the Skawica stream and then floating it down to Skawa. Timber floatin involved the employment of rafters. Until the end of the 19th century, the Old Witches’ Mountain forests were also a place of chemical processing of timber (dry distillation), whereby wood tar, wood oil and charcoal were obtained. Woodworking crafts such as carpentry, cabinetmaking, cooperage and roof shingle making were common. Popular craft products included works of high artistic value, e.g. tables with inlaid and encrusted tops, which was the pride of Skawica.

In the second half of the 19th century, in the region there was a widely popular embroidery centre – the town of Maków and several surrounding villages. The production comprised mainly whitework embroidery, the so-called broderie anglaise featuring dainty and compositionally sophisticated floral patterns decorating traditional elements of folk costume such as shirts, aprons, slips, mob-cap headscarves as well as table linen. The Maków-based embroiderers would often accept commissions from affluent housewives from the Cracow region, or even more remote parts, e.g. the ones inhabited by Sącz Lachs. As early as the 1890s an embroidery school and the first professional embroiderers’ organization were opened in Maków. During the period of the Polish People’s Republic the Maków embroidery traditions were continued by the Vocational School in Maków Podhalański, as well as by a local «Makowianka» Cooperative of Folk & Artistic Industry, bringing together artistans of this artistic craft; documentation of many ancient embroidery patterns was gathered in its showroom for display.


Until the end of the Second Polish Republic, Old Witches’ Mountain villages were built in a traditional manner – of wood. There was a predominance of single-building homesteads with no internal, longitudinal divisions (the so-called single-section ones). As of the mid-19th century more affluent highlanders would build the farmhouse and the outbuilding separately, the latter comprising a stable and a barn under a single roof. Homesteads situated close to streams often had little watermills with overshot wheels, which enabled provision of water in channels.

The original form of a farmhouse, derived from a shepherd chalet, was a single-room one. It developed into a broad-fronted farmhouse (with an entrance at the long wall) with rooms in enfilade: a larder, a baking room (a chimneyless kitchen), a threshing floor and a stable. In time, in a spacious baking room a smaller, “white” chamber was sectioned off. Another characteristic type of house (for two families or generations) in the region was the so-called farmhouse with two ends (chałupa na dwa końce), where the spacious entrance hall/threshing floor separated the two flats composed of a baking room and a white chamber.

Old Witches’ Mountain people’s oldest farmhouses, built of spruce or fir logs, had framework constructions with dovetail wall joints and a shingled hip roof. At the end of the 19th century the timber logs used for construction were already cut in half (the so-called płazy, half-logs semicircular in cross-section), and there were more and more gable roofs with or without gable eaves. In ancient farmhouses in Białka, Juszczyn and Sidzina doors used to be semicircular at the top (which was the influence of the Podhale region). Until the interwar years, throughout the region, from Białka to Zawoja, there were a lot of chimneyless farmhouses fitted with smoke stoves (kurloks).

The traditional dress of Old Witches’ Mountain highlanders belonged to the group of Carpathian clothing, which used to be made of home-made linen cloth, sheepskin cloth, cowhide (used for making belts and kierpce) and sheepskin fur. Men’s linen shirts (characterised by an old-fashioned cut) with long sleeves and a small turn-down collar were tucked in white, homespun cloth trousers (portki bukowe) of a highland type. They had narrow legs with a slit at the bottom, a seam across buttocks and two slits at the front (formerly only one). Ancient trousers were modestly decorated with a red or navy, woollen string that ran along the slits and seams on legs. In the second half of the 19th century heart-shaped patterns called parzenice began to appear around the slits, most often in the form of a three-leaf loop trimmed with green tape and encircled with a navy blue-red stitch called janina; also, small, red-navy blue sercówki (heart-shaped patterns) were embroidered. Sheep shepherds used to wear short, broad-sleeved Wallachian shirts, cooked in sheep suet (to protect against insects). Working trousers were made of dark cloth. In summer, for work in the field, thick linen trousers were worn. On holidays, cloth waistcoats in navy blue, dark green, less frequently sapphire blue, decorated with little metal buttons at the front were worn over shirts. The traditional outer garment was a brown, cloth, knee-length cucha (a woollen jacket) decorated at the front edges and collarband with colourful, woollen embroidery mostly in red (similar to the Orava-style gunia). Older farmers would wear cuchas with sleeves, while bachelors would wear them hanging from one shoulder. A common type of headgear was a black, felt hat with a domed crown and a broad, slightly turned-up brim, trimmed with a red, woollen string or a narrow thong. The leather kierpce shoes were worn over cloth or linen footwraps.

Women’s festive blouses were made of linen, and were characterized by a przyramkowy cut (made of square pieces of material). The collar and sleeve cuffs, in the form of little, gathered ruffs were – just like blouse pazuchy (bosom areas in the blouse) – decorated with fine broderie anglaise featuring plant motifs (in the style of Maków). Over blouses, cloth bodices were worn; these were in navy blue, dark green, claret or indigo, and were decorated with colourful thread embroidery. It trimmed the bodice edges, and at the front and the back it was shaped like a single, stylized flower twig (featuring flowers, Turk’s cap lilies). After the First World War velvet bodices began to be decorated in the “Cracow style.” On a daily basis, women used to wear close-fitting tunics called jadwiśki, in summer – of patterned percale, in winter – of plain wool fabric. As for skirts, a few of these used to be worn one on top of another, and they were long, almost ankle-length and billowy. The oldest ones were the so-called fartuchy white, linen aprons. In the second half of the 19th century they were replaced with dark (indigo blue, navy blue, black) skirts of linen manually imprinted with dainty, white patterns, and later on (the turn of the 19th and 20th century) with woolen, patterned tybetówki (of a fabric originally made of wool of Tibetan sheep or goats, hence the name). On top, white aprons were worn; they were zębiate (serrated) at the bottom and decorated with white broderie anglaise (after the Maków manner).

The folklore of the Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders features frequent shepherdly motifs, e.g. ones concerned with customs and magical rites performed to protect the whole shepherd chalet from danger, as well as tales of famous senior shepherd-sorcerers. The region still cherishes memories of ancient Beskid highwaymen who, especially in the 18th but also in the 19th century would “make their presence felt” in a number of ways in the Old Witches’ Mountain villages.


Maria Brylak-Załuska



Kultura ludowa Górali Babiogórskich [The Folk Culture of Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders], a collective work, ed. Urszula Janicka-Krzywda, Kraków 2010. Articles in this work: Piotr Krzywda, Charakterystyka geograficzno-historyczna obszaru zamieszkiwanego przez Górali Babiogórskich [A Geographical and Historical Description of the Area Inhabited by Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders], Urszula Janicka-Krzywda: Górale Babiogórscy jako grupa etnograficzna [Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders as an Ethnographic Group]; Tradycyjna eksploatacja lasu [Traditional Forest Exploitation]; Tradycje pasterskie [Shepherd Traditions]; Strój [Costume]; Tradycje zbójnickie [Highland Robbery Traditions], Marek Grabski, Budownictwo ludowe [Folk Architecture], Grzegorz Graff, Sztuka i rzemiosło [Arts and Crafts]; Dzieła rąk, umysłu i serca [Works of Hands, Mind and Heart]. Tradycyjne umiejętności i rzemiosła w województwie małopolskim [Traditional Skills and Crafts in the Małopolska Province], a collective work, project leader Andrzej Rataj, Kraków 2005