Unia Europejska
Orawa Highlanders

Orawa Highlanders

The location, range, surrounding areas. In Poland, Orawa Highlanders inhabit fourteen Upper Orawa villages situated to the south of the main range of the Western Beskids, in the western part of the Orawa-Nowy Targ Valley, in the basin of the Orawa river, a tributary of the Váh river. The main part of the Orawa (Orava) region is located within Slovakia (the environs of Trenčín and Trstená). In the west and south, the border of the Polish Upper Orawa is a national border; in the east, the Orawa Highlanders border on Podhale; in the north – on the so-called area of Podhale influence from the environs of Spytkowice, as well as on the Old Witches’ Mountain Highlanders (across the Old Witches’ Mountain and Polica). The political border is not identical with the ethnic border in Orawa. Both the countries (in varying proportions) have population of both the ethnic nationalities. The villages in the Polish Orawa include Bukowina, Chyżne, Harkabuz, Jabłonka (the region centre), Kiczory, Lipnica Mała, Lipnica Wielka, Orawka, Podwilk, Podsarnie, Zubrzyca Dolna, Zubrzyca Górna, Podszkle and Piekielnik.


In the Piast Dynasty times, Orawa was Polish, but already in the Middle Ages it passed to the Kingdom of Hungary, remaining a Hungarian comitatus until the end of the First World War. The incorporation of the fourteen villages of Upper Orawa into Poland took place in July 1920 (by the resolution of the Conference of Ambassadors). The historical ties between the region and Upper Hungary and the Slovak population affected the cultural atmosphere of Upper Orawa. The development of the region’s culture was chiefly influenced by the historic settlement of Orawa: the 15th-century (and later) Wallachian colonization of a shepherd-type economy, and the colonization organised by the Hungarian magnate family of Thurzó (founders of the “Orawa State”) initiated as of the mid-16th century. It involved both ethnically Slovak and Polish, rural people coming mainly from the Nowy Targ and Żywiec valleys (the incoming population included the so-called loose individuals, as well as peasant fugitives from other estates). This settlement campaign was generally over by the 17th century.


The natural conditions of Upper Orawa, extensive peat bogs, rather infertile soils and severe climate were hardly conducive to farming. As for bread corns, oats (a black variety), some rye, spelt, some barley were most commonly grown; cabbage, broad beans and peas growing was commonplace. The turn of the 18th and 19th centuries saw a gradual introduction of potatoes, which soon became the staple diet of the population. Flax growing played a crucial role in the villages of Upper Orawa, as it provided raw material for supreme-quality homespun linen, which used to be the region’s chief claim to fame. Weaving, which had been pursued here since the foundation of the Orawa villages (the 16th century), provided livelihood for many local families. Long-distance, door-to-door linen selling was also a profitable occupation, which had long been – in combination with the local weaving – pursued by a numerous group of specialized plateniks (linen salesmen) who reached the most remote regions in southern Europe (e.g. Turkey), as well as Egypt. In the 19th century, all over Orawa scattered were rural dyeworks and linen imprinting shops, which produced fashionable tłoczeliny (linen printing). On the Polish side of the border such workshops operated in Jabłonka and Orawka; on the southern side of the border, the most popular one was in Slanica. However, the basis for the region’s economy was sheep and oxen farming. At the beginning of the 17th century, in the Upper Orawa villages a total of 24,000 sheep (e.g. in Jabłonka and Podwilk – 4,000 each; in Orawka – 2,000) were pastured. Pasture clearings were granted to peasants or leased from the manor lands. A lot of grazing land was also (illegally) obtained in forests by slash-and-burn methods. The southern slopes of the Old Witches’ Mountain and Polica were places of shepherd chalet-style sheep herding under the supervision of senior shepherds, as well as grazing of oxen herds in the care of wolarze (ox herders). A traditional occupation engaged in by the Orawa Highlanders, mainly for their own use, was manual peat extraction from the so-called puścizny (high peat bogs). Peat was used as a staple fuel, as well as a fertilizer for cropland.


Orawa Highlanders’ traditional wooden architecture was dominated by a broad-fronted farmhouse with a “white” room (a living room), a “black” room (a kitchen) and an entrance hall arranged in enfilade. Under the white chamber there was usually a stonework cellar. Outbuildings were detached. Made of half-logs, cottage houses had a framework construction with dovetail wall joints. In ancient architecture, roofs, of a rafter construction, were typically hipped, three-hipped (if there was a wyżka – an attic room), gablet ones, and later on – gable ones with gable eaves; they were covered with straw and shingle (earlier houses) or just shingle. Orawa-style cottage houses had some ornamental elements: a door with a semicircular top, slanting wooden boards and a peg-studded door frame, or semiconical ornamental, convex, fan-shaped elements made of shingle (koszyczki gontowe) with decorative pinnacles, located at roof gable finials.

The Orawa architecture became famous for its original type of houses, the development of which proceeded vertically as well. The result was the so-called cottage house with a wyżka, that is a framework-based room serving as a granary located upstairs above the main chamber. Access to it was either from indoors only (sometimes hidden), or from outdoors too, by means of a ladder leading up to the so-called przedwysce – a small gallery with a balustrade, running from the cottage front along the roof, thus resulting in a shortened roof sweep. Also, wooden, detached Loreto belfries were an interesting element of the traditional Orawa architecture. Inside them suspended were specially consecrated bells, the purpose of which was to dispel ominous-looking stormclouds gathering over the village. The practice of erecting such belfries was continued into the first decades of the 20th century. Some of them have been preserved till this day.

The characteristic elements enriching the landscape of Upper Orawa were, in the 18th and 19th century (and in places still are), the so-called białopotockie stonework wayside shrines and statues made by sculptors from the famous masonry centre in Biały Potok in the Slovak Orava. Polychrome and sculpted in the style of folk baroque and rococo, they are valuable monuments to the Orawa lands.



Derived from ancient Carpathian clothing, the traditional Orawa costume preserved its archaic cut for a long time; its ornamentation featured noticeable strong Hungarian influence, and after the border in the Carpathians had been closed – Podhale influence. The second half of the 19th century was the heyday of the Orawa-style costume.

Men’s linen shirts had an archaic cut (seamless at the arms), a narrow trimming around the neck and long sleeves, baggy around the cuffs. Shirts used to be short, barely reaching the waist (as the tradition had it, they were measured by referring to the height of a chamber window). Still at the end of the 19th century, shepherds wore Wallachian shirts, where one piece of fabric was used to make the upper part of the body and the wide, elbow-length sleeves, while the bottom part was added. Reportedly, they were impregnated in sheep suet, and were tied behind back for cheese-making activities at the shepherd’s chalet. Portki (trousers) of white Wallachian cloth had a typically Carpathian cut, with quite narrow legs unsewn at the bottom and two slits at the front. Originally, they were modestly decorated at the bottom of the legs and around slits with black insets (old-style trousers), but in time below the slits grand, meandering, loopy parzenicas (heart-shape patterns) appeared; these trimmings were made of black tape or woollen string, just like in Lower Orawa. Even though they were the most common decoration, there were other kinds. Belts used to support trousers were narrow and long, studded with brass buttons; on the outside they were somewhat loosened. Young men, mainly shepherds, also used wider opaski (belts) fastened with three buckles, decorated with geometrical embossment. Simple, linen long johns were worn in summer for work, and in winter as underwear. At the end of the 19th century, men’s festive costume was extended to include a black waistcoat of machine-made cloth (pruclik, prucnik); it was short, loose-fitting; originally, it had two rows of silver, filigree buttons, and later on, it had turndown lapels and white, porcelain buttons. An ancient festive outer garment used by rich farmstead owners was a dark gunia jacket of homespun cloth; it had an archaic cut and was mid-thigh-length. On the standing band and around the front edges it was decorated with multi-coloured, woollen embroidery of plants and geometrical figures. At the beginning of the 20th century it was supplanted by a short cuska tied with woollen strings. In winter, rich farmstead owners used to wear characteristic, flared, Orawa-style sheepskin coats (made by furriers in Orawka); they were brown, trimmed with wide, decoratively cut appliqués of white skin. The traditional headgear was a black, felt hat with a broad, slightly turned-up brim and a high, cupolaed dome, originally wrapped around with a strap of leather or brass chain. Bachelors used to decorate hats with kramskie (bought at an urban fair stand) feathers – tucked rosettes with ribbons (rojty) decorated with wire trinkets, bought in Lower Orava. More recent hats looked more similar to the Podhale-style ones (featuring little cowrie seashells on a red strap). Leather kierpce shoes were the commonplace type of footwear; wealthy men used to wear leather, calf-length boots with a raised front-edge line and a concertinaed section at the ankle.

Linen cloth was predominant in women’s ancient Orawa costume. A white blouse had a neck trimming with a tucked frill (rojt); the sleeves – long or only elbow-length – had a similar finish. Rojty were crocheted when used for festive costume. At the end of the 19th century, around wrists, knitted and multi-colour striped zapiąstki (additional, tight-fitting cuffs) were sometimes worn. A long, wide, lavishly gathered skirt, called suknia used to be made of undyed cloth, later on – of manually dyed and imprinted tłoczeliny in dark colours (navy, indigo) with dainty, most frequently white patterns. It was usually commissioned in the Slovak village of Slanica. In time, it was supplanted by a suknia of ready-made calico, wool or tybet fabrics (originally made of wool of Tibetan sheep or goats, hence the name). Wedding dresses, called fartuchy (aprons) were made of thin, white machine-made fabric resembling ancient rąbek fabrics (fine linen). Underneath the suknia, a spodnik (a poorer-quality skirt) was worn, and on top it a richly tucked zapaśnica (an apron) of thin, white or black cloth was worn. Over the blouse, girls and young married women used to wear a bodice called prucnik of wool fabric (plain or patterned), which reached high up to the neck, with quite a broad and gathered frill sewn onto the waist. Mature and elderly women used to wear letace (jupki), that is long-sleeved, close-fitting tunics of woollen fabrics, with cuffs and buttons. In winter it was common to wear padded cloth jackets called kacabajki with metal buttons, and wealthy farmwives dressed in Orawa-style sheepskin coats similar to the ones worn by men. Large, linen sheets called łoktuse were a women’s ancient outer garment; when used on festive occasions, they featured embroidered serration or lace on the edges. After the First World War they were supplanted by factory-made woollen shawls. Married women covered their hair with mob caps, on top of which they would put all kinds of headscarves tied under the chin. On holidays, shallow, filet-crocheted, fishnet bonnets with a white, manually embroidered pattern were worn; they featured a fishnet frill decoration around face. They are manufactured in Zuberec and Biely Potok on the Slovakian side of the border. Unmarried women used to have their heads bare, hair plaited with coloured ribbons, preferably white, pink and red ones. For decoration, strings of beads were worn; the wealthiest women used to buy one or two strings of genuine coral beads; poorer ones wore glass beads, often in the yellow colour imitating amber.

Maria Brylak-Załuska



Kultura ludowa Górali Orawskich, a collective work, ed. Urszula Janicka-Krzywda, Kraków 2011. Articles in this work: Piotr Krzywda, Charakterystyka geograficzno-historyczna obszaru zamieszkiwanego przez Górali Orawskich [A Geographical and Historical Description of the Area Inhabited by Orawa Highlanders], Marian Długosz, Rolnictwo i hodowla przyzagrodowa [Agriculture and Backyard Animal Husbandry], Grzegorz Graff, Pasterstwo i gospodarka hodowlana [Herding and Livestock Farming], Marek Grabski, Tradycyjne budownictwo ludowe [Traditional Folk Architecture], Urszula Janicka-Krzywda, Strój orawski [The Orawa Costume]; Edyta Starek, Strój orawski [The Orawa Costume], Atlas Polskich Strojów Ludowych [Atlas of the Polish Folk Costumes], bull. 11, Wrocław 1966