Unia Europejska
Zagórze Highlanders

Zagórze Highlanders

The Zagórze Highlanders used to inhabit the basin of the Upper Raba river with its tributaries: Poręba, Mszanka and Kasinka, which were in the south surrounded by the northern slopes of the Gorce, and in the east – the hills of the Island Beskids. The term Zagórzanie [people living in the ‘area behind the mountains’ – Zagórze], which aptly captures the isolation of this small group by mountain ridges, was for the first time mentioned by Wincenty Pol in his 1851 publication entitled Rzut oka na północne stoki Karpat [A Glimps of the Northern Carpathian Slopes]. It is not certain whether it was an ethnonym.

The main Gorce massif, with Turbacz as its highest peak, separates the Zagórzanie from the Podhale highlanders; the northern slopes of the Gorc range in the southeast – from the Kamienica Highlanders (a subregion of the Sącz Highlanders); the Ćwilin, Mogielica and Śnieżnica ridges in the northeast – from the Lach groups (the “Lachs of Dobra” and the Szczyrzyce Lachs). In the northwest, the villages of the Kliszczaks lie beyond the peaks of Bydłoniowa, Szczebel and Luboń.


As late as the 13th century the lands inhabited by the Zagórze Highlanders were still covered with Carpathian forests, which back then constituted a natural border between Poland and Hungary. The first settlers began penetrating them in the 14th century, and the intensified settlement campaign came in the second half of that century. The people settling in the valleys at the foot of the Gorce included mainly Polish farmers coming in from the then densely populated Vistula basin surrounding Cracow. Mszana Górna (1365), Olszówka (1388) and Niedźwiedź (before 1398) were the first Zagórze villages mentioned in historical sources. As from the 15th century the Wallachian settlement wave began reaching the Polish Carpathians; the incoming settlers were of a mixed ethnic origin, and were herding-oriented. The oldest Wallachian settlement founded in the area close to the Zagórze lands is the village of Ochotnica, established in 1416. In the 16th century the settlement process engaged in by incoming strangers was already in full swing, and it was happening under the so-called Wallachian law. It has been established that within the Zagórze Highlanders district the Wallachian settlement can be traced to Mszana Górna, Olszówka and Podobin.

In the feudal era, the Zagórze villages belonged to the Crown. In time some of them passed to the gentry, e.g. Kasina Wielka and the Poręba Wielka demesne, which next to Poręba Wielka itself included the majority of the villages in the southern and eastern parts of the region. The demesne was property of, in chronological order: the Lubomirski, Sanguszko and Wodzicki families. Until the Austrian occupation of these lands, Mszana Dolna, Kasinka, Olszówka and Raba Niżna remained property of the Crown.



The basic sources of livelihood for the Gorce Highlanders included agriculture combined with animal husbandry, herding and forest exploitation. Despite the natural conditions hardly favourable to farming as well as low productivity, for almost 2/3 of farmsteads it was the main occupation. Most commonly grown cereals included oats, which constituted 40% of crops and was the population’s staple diet; but also rye (including the ancient variety called ikrzyca) and barley. As from the 19th century the bulb and root plants grown here included potatoes, swede, and garden plantations included above all cabbage, but also broad beans, peas and beans. Thanks to flax and hemp growing the population was self-sufficient in clothing fabrics and valuable cooking oil. In adapting soil for farming, traditional, or even archaic methods were often used, e.g. łazowanie, that is fertilizing fields on forest edges with ash from previously cut and burnt bushes. In thus prepared łazy fields the most commonly planted crop was ikrzyca (an ancient, two-year variety of rye). The method of a three-field system and fallowing was used for a long time, fallow land being used as pastureland. The use of traditional, wooden tools (e.g. wooden coulters and ploughs, harrows, threshing flails) dating back to the feudal era was a long-lived phenomenon. Manure and slurry were used as fertilisers, but their amount depended on the kind of cattle kept in the farmstead. In most cases, up to ten head of cattle were kept, but there were also farmsteads specializing in keeping draught oxen. Large herds of these used to be collectively grazed in Gorce mountain pastureland, sometimes under the management of one sheep shepherd chalet. Thus fattened oxen were sold at a profit at fairs before win ter.

A seasonal shepherd chalet-style herding was an important economy branch for the Zagórze Highlander; it was pursued both in the Gorce mountain pastures and clearings, and in the Island Beskids, inter alia, on Śnieżnica, Ćwilina, Mogielica and Łopień. The occupation had a long-standing tradition dating back to the 17th century. In the Second Polish Republic, the Gorce range was the second biggest herding centre after the Tatras. In 1925, a total of 10,800 sheep and 570 cattle were grazed in the Gorce and Island Beskids. More often than not, before setting off for pastureland, Zagórze senior shepherds (e.g. from Poręba, Mszana, Lubomierz, Łętowe) would gather sheep belonging to farmers living in the surrounding areas where collective pasturing was not practised, e.g. from the Kliszczak

The Zagórze oral folk tradition has preserved a lot of stories about herding, chiefly about famous senior shepherds – witch doctors and folk healers, e.g. senior shepherd Bulanda (Tomasz Chlipała, who lived in Lubomierz, d. 1912), his skills at healing people and supernatural powers.


In general, Zagórze villages were characterised by elongated, loose chain development arranged along the bottom of the valley, which was connected with the age-old land layout of the forest lea type. A characteristic feature of this region was zarębne housing developments – hamlets established on the basis of once-seasonal buildings erected in former forest clearings, which in time turned into permanent housing settlements.

In the region, the prevailing type of homestead was a two-building one, with the house front facing the road. Behind the house perpendicularly situated was a farm building called okół, which under one roof housed a stable, a threshing floor and a barn. In more affluent homesteads a barn was a detached building, thus enclosing the rectangular home farmyard on the other side. The poor used to put up single-building homesteads, where the residential part (typically comprising one room) and farm rooms were housed under one roof. Zarębne settlements were often characterised by irregular development dependent on the lie of the land.

A traditional Zagórze cottage house was broad-fronted, had a gable entrance hall and two rooms – a baking room (a kitchen) and a świetnica (a white room) – arranged in enfilade. In affluent houses, the layout was extended to include one or two storage rooms. The buildings were made of spruce (houses) or fir (okół buildings). They were of a framework construction and had dovetail wall joints. Rafter roofs were predominantly of a gable or gablet type, originally covered with loosely arranged straw, and later on – with shingles. In old houses, the entrance doors were topped with a semi-circular frame, with an aesthetic, strutted carpentry frame. Until the end of the 19th century chimneyless houses were quite popular.

Shepherd-chalet herding in the Gorce mountain pastures and clearings involved use of seasonal shepherd buildings which comprised a residential and utility chalet, in the Gorce called koliba, bacówka or izbica, a portable sheep pen and a portable kennel for a dog tending the penned sheep at night. Chalets were built of fir logs, had a framework construction and hipped, rafter roof covered in dranice (timber torn into plants along fibre). On the northern slopes of the Gorce there was a predominance of two-room chalets composed of an izbica combining residential and manufacturing functions, and a storage room for equipment and ready-made products. The rooms were arranged in enfilade, and the entrance was at the gable wall. Hearths did not have chimneys.



Displaying many features of ancient Carpathian dress, the Zagórze costume is a connecting link between it and the Lach outfit. The neighbouring group of the Kliszczak Highlanders dressed in a fashion similar to the Zagórze Highlanders. A distinctive feature of men’s traditional costume was hazuka (a kind of sukmana coat of a long poncho cut) made of black (originally also white), homespun cloth; it was long, flared at the hips with gussets, had long sleeves and a standing collar. A hazuka was embellished with triple woollen string or shop tape (stament) as well as embroidery in red and grey wool. Also, an extraordinarily decorative short, sleeveless waistcoat – called serdaczek – was customarily worn; it was made of white sheepskin, decorated with red and green saffian appliqués and grey embroidery (featuring floral motifs). The edges of the serdaczek were trimmed with black sheepskin, and it was worn over a white, linen shirt (on holidays and special occasions worked in whitework embroidery), and frequently under a hazuka. It was also customary to wear (although more seldom) a short and similarly embellished sheepskin jacket with sleeves called a serdak. White, cloth trousers in the highland style (originally with quite wide legs) had small, loopy or heart-shaped ornaments around two flies, and the so-called kogutek, a heart with kule (little hooks) around, in a red-grey colour (also used by the Kliszczak Highlanders). Along the leg seam ran a decorative side stripe made of woollen string or stament. In the southern part of the region (Poręba Wielka, Olszówka) Podhale-style trousers with large parzenica heart-shaped patterns quickly came into fashion. In the north (Kasinka, Kasina Wielka) in summer the outfit used for church-visiting occasions was complemented with płócionki trousers of thicker linen, with one slit on the right side and simple, wide legs embellished at the bottom with hemstitch and tassels. On holidays and while travelling, wealthy farmstead owners used to wear wide, highland brigand-style belts fastened with 4-6 buckles, studded with caps and brass rings. Typically, leather kierpce were worn as footwear, and as headwear – black, felt hats with cupolaed domes and quite broad brims, decorated with red stament, plaited brass wire (Niedźwiedź, Poręba), and last but not least – after the Podhale fashion – little kostki (little bones).

In the past, women’s festive outfit used to be in its entirety made of white, homespun linen: a white blouse with a gathered ruff at the neck, decorated with dainty, whitework embroidery; a long, wide, richly gathered fartuch (a skirt), with zęby (tooth-like flaps) at the bottom edge, whitework embroidery, and worn on special occasions; a wide, billowy, embroidered zapaska (an apron); for major celebrations married women wywiązywały głowę (used to dress up their hair) – they would put on a thin, linen or tulle scarf (a bonnet) tied in a special manner. Commissions for embroidery of the bonnet (in floral motifs, the so-called latoróżki) were often placed with Maków-based embroiderers. In the past, the role of an outer garment was played by a łoktuszka (a 2-metre long sheet of linen) flung over the shoulders, or an obrus (white, damask) sheet on major holidays. During the second half of the 19th century, more and more often coloured fabrics were included in women’s outfit, e.g. navy or blue farbanice, or manually imprinted ones (the so-called durki), and at last factory-made calico, batiste and tybet fabrics, used mainly for making skirts and zapaska aprons. Around the same time, a variety of factory-made shoulder shawls became widespread, superseding łoktuszka and obrus sheets. The most ancient bodices were made of decorative, floral sateen or damask, and were not embellished. Instead of tooth-like pieces of fabric (kaletki) below the waist, they had narrow frills. At the turn of the 19th and 20th century velvet bodices became popular; they were usually black, decorated with twisting, thread motifs of latoróżki (twigs), sometimes enriched with spangles. After the First World War, bodices began to be embroidered with beads and spangles. In Poręba Wielka and neighbouring villages, the most fashionable patterns were Podhale ones featuring a thistle motif (using white, yellow and green beads); in the environs of Mszana Dolna, they were embroidered in latoróżki or stylized, mutli-coloured flowers which in time greatly expanded, filling up the whole surface of the material. The most desired ornament of women’s costume, as well as a display of wealth, were wojki (strings) of genuine coral beads, which were very expensive. They were usually threaded together with a hanysek – a religious medallion or a silver coin. Kierpce leather shoes were the most popular kind of footwear; at the end of the 19th century leather, laced boots were worn as well.

Maria Brylak-Załuska



Sebastian Flizak, Strój Zagórzan [The Costume of the Zagórze Highlanders], Atlas Polskich Strojów Ludowych, Wrocław 1956; Kultura ludowa Górali Zagórzańskich [The Folk Culture of the Zagórze Highlanders], a collective work, ed. Urszula Janicka-Krzywda, Kraków 2014. Articles in this work: Anna Woźny, Rolnictwo i hodowla przyzagrodowa [Agriculture and Backyard Animal Husbandry]; Ewa Strauchman, Tradycyjne użytkowanie lasu [Traditional Forest Exploitation]; Katarzyna Ceklarz, Tradycje pasterskie; Marek Grabski, Budownictwo drewniane [Wooden Architecture].