AFTER the events of the last few weeks in Catalonia, more than a few people have asked me to shed some light on Scotland’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

The first thing that must be realised about that period of history is that this was not just a single episode in which Scottish left-wingers went off to join the International Brigades to fight General Francisco Franco and his armies. Yes, there were 550 military volunteers, but there was also a mass movement in Scotland to help the Republicans that lasted for three years from 1936 to 1939 when the Civil War ended, after which there was a rather more pressing engagement with Nazi Germany.

Nor was Scottish involvement all one-sided, ie the left-supporting the Republicans. As we shall see, a few people supported Franco’s Nationalists, a term coined for them by none other than Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s head of propaganda and a twisted, demented genius if ever there was one.

In the main, however, Scotland’s people supported the Republicans, and men and women really did go off to Spain to fight against fascism. Many paid with their lives, such as draughtsman Tommy Flynn of the Calton in Glasgow, killed at Chimorra in April, 1937, or Alex McDade, a labourer who wrote the original words of Jarama Valley, the International Brigades song later made famous by Woody Guthrie. McDade died of wounds received at the Battle of Brunete.

Archie Dewar and Tom Davidson of Aberdeen were both killed in 1938 – the Spanish Republican flag that was used as their shroud can be seen in the International Brigades memorial library in Aberdeen Trades Union Council’s offices.

Indeed, there are many memorials to the Scots who went to Spain, and the International Brigade Memorial Trust, trade unionists and the children and grandchildren of the volunteers keep their legacy alive to this day, exemplified by Professor Willy Maley and his brother John’s superb play From The Calton To Catalonia, which tells of their father James’s experiences in Spain. It would take a book to chart the causes of the Spanish Civil War, but they were long-term and deep-rooted in a country that in places bordered on the mediaeval and where society, politics and culture were in a ferment for many years before the event that started the war, the coup d’etat of July 1936.

Technically a monarchy, Spain had been a military dictatorship in the 1920s, but in 1931 a democratic republic was declared, and King Alfonso XIII went into exile as the country briefly became more liberal and even socialist in places. But fascism was growing apace in Germany and Italy, and Spain was infected, especially when the Catholic Church mobilised its popular support after being attacked by left-wing “revolutionaries”. Right wingers came to the fore in the general election of 1933, the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right (CEDA) taking charge. Miners went on strike in the Asturias in protest, and the army put down their uprising viciously, led by General Franco. A similar rising in Catalonia was also dealt with harshly.

In January 1936, a Popular Front comprising the various left-wing parties beat the rightist parties solidly, which led to the ultra-right-wing Falange party coming into being.

The military coup in July 1936, had long been predicted, and at first it was resisted in most of the main cities such as Madrid and Barcelona. The Axis powers piled in with support for the new leadership of Franco, and with Britain and France being cowardly in the Non-Intervention Committee it was supposed to halt all military aid to Spain. But nobody could stop Hitler and Mussolini and the fascists began a war of attrition against the Republic.

Fighting broke out on several fronts, and it was clear that military superiority lay with Franco and his officers who gradually adopted the name Nationalists, although some were proud to call themselves Falangists.

In 1936, the Soviet Union promoted the idea of an International Brigade of socialists to go to the aid of the Republicans. Though many on the left in Britain opposed intervention, more than 2500 communists, anarchists freedom fighters and socialists – the Labour Party and TUC initially opposed intervention – eventually joined the International Brigades. The first Scottish involvement was actually a medical mercy team, the Scottish Ambulance Unit, sent to Spain following an initiative by Daniel Stevenson, the chancellor of Glasgow University.

The unit was staffed by volunteer drivers and nurses and went straight into service at the Siege of the Alcazar in Toledo – Franco’s first major victory – and then at the Siege of Madrid.

Meanwhile, the British Government tried to stop anyone joining up to fight, so volunteers tended to visit France for a holiday and then travel over the Pyrenees.

The International Brigades made their first fighting appearance at the Siege of Madrid, and so did the German bombers of Franco’s Condor Legion, which killed more than 2000 civilians. Reports about this bombing by foreign journalists, including Ernest Hemingway, sparked a major rise in recruitment for the International Brigades, and the Scottish anti-fascists contingent began to arrive and feature heavily.

The Scottish volunteers, who were mainly working-class men from urban areas, mostly joined the British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade.

The first arrivals took part in the Battle of Jarama near Madrid in January 1937 and also in the Battle of Brunete in July. The Scottish contingent took heavy casualties in both battles.

Just inside the entrance to the cemetery in Tarancon near the site of the Battle of Jarama, there is a memorial dedicated to Dundonian Allan Craig and the other 38 Scots who died with him.

After the bombing of Guernica on April 26, 1937, more volunteers from many nations, including Scotland, arrived to fight Franco and his forces, but the Nationalists were well equipped, well trained and led by a fanatic who was also a good battle commander, while the Republicans were often rudderless and losing heart. The International Brigades remained courageous but lacking in training and experience, and were always outgunned by their opponents.

At home, trade unions and the left-wing parties, as well as many people who were just sickened by the sights from Madrid and Guernica, began sending aid to Spain, with the aim of organising mass shipments to the Republicans, who still held most of the north of the country, including Catalonia, although the Basque Country surrendered to Franco in late 1937. After that surrender, more than 230 Basque child refugees were temporarily settled in Scotland.

All the while some Scots supported the Nationalist cause, some inspired by their own extreme political and religious views. Probably the most well-known of these was Captain Archibald Maule “Jock” Ramsay, the aristocratic and anti-semitic Unionist MP for Peebles and Southern Midlothian. He formed the United Christian Front which was very pro-Franco, as were the Scottish Friends of Nationalist Spain.

They were very much a minority in Scotland, however. Though still battered by the Great Depression, Scots gave what they could in terms of aid to the Republicans, and volunteers continued to travel to Spain to fight and help the cause.

Miner Hugh Sloan, a communist and both a talented cartoonist and poet, volunteered. He wrote a poem about his decision:

“Like a gathering storm we came as droplet, mountain streams then raging torrents,

And the fury was heard all over the Earth and stirred its sympathy.

Fascism was striding across Europe and the brave Spanish people were breaking the shackles of feudalism.

Guernica was calling for revenge and humanity responded and sent its sons.”

One of the most famous of the volunteers was a woman called Ethel MacDonald who was born in Motherwell in 1909 and was active in left-wing politics in her teens.

She was an anarchist by belief and when she arrived in Barcelona she made a name for herself by broadcasting on the local radio station run by a workers’ federation.

In one famous broadcast aimed at British appeasement, she said: “What are the actions of the parliamentary parties with regard to support of the Spanish struggle? They talk, they discuss, they speak with bated breath of the horrors that are taking place in Spain. They gesticulate, they proclaim to the world their determination to assist Spain and to see that fascism is halted; and that is all they do. Talk of what they will do …

“This is not the time for sympathy and charity. This is the time for action. Do you not understand that every week, every day and every hour counts. Each hour that passes means the death of more Spanish men and women, and yet you advertise meetings, talk, arrange to talk and fail to take any action.”

MacDonald also saw the real problem for the Republicans – the left was split into factions and the communists in Barcelona not only hated the anarchists but tracked them down and shot them, just as anti-clerical forces in the Republicans had alienated many peasants with their ill-treatment of Catholic priests.

MacDonald became known as the Scottish Scarlet Pimpernel for her work in enabling anarchists to escape. However, she then went too far in criticising the communist secret police over the murder of volunteer Bob Smillie, and had to return to Scotland in late 1937.

The Civil War dragged on into 1939, and by its end 500,000 people or more were dead and Franco became the Caudillo, the dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist for the next 36 years until his death in 1975.

There are those who say some leaders in Spain at the moment share his tendencies, but history will be the judge of that.

Of the 2500 volunteers from the British Isles who joined the International Brigades, 526 died. The last surviving British volunteer, Stan Hilton, died only last year in Melbourne at the age of 98. He was a 19-year-old merchant seaman when he jumped ship in the port of Alicante in November, 1937. “The Spanish people needed help,” he later said. “It was the right thing to do.”

That was how so many people felt – that it was correct to battle fascism before it spread. Sadly, it took the Second World War to stop its advance.

Perhaps the last word should go to MacDonald: “I went to Spain full of hopes and dreams. It promised to be utopia realised. I return full of sadness, dulled by the tragedy I have seen. I have lived through scenes and events that belong to the French Revolution.”

Thanks to the words of many writers and the memorials across the country, Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War will not be forgotten. Let us hope that experience is one that will not be repeated.