WHAT compelled four men from Prestonpans to take up arms in defence of the leftist Second Spanish Republic against the counter-revolutionaries led by General Francisco Franco?

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War, the new play from Wonder Fools, tells the story of George Watters, Bill Dickson, Jimmy Kempton and Jock Gilmour, four miners who left the East Lothian fishing town to join 545 other Scots.

Proportionally more people went from Scotland to join the 35,000 others from across the world than from any other country, according to historian Daniel Gray, author of 2008’s Homage To Caledonia, an exploration of Scotland’s role in the Spanish Civil War.

“There was a real sense they believed they were fighting for democracy,” says director Jack Nurse. “They saw themselves as going over there to protect that.”

The production has been in development for three years, Nurse says, from back when the Glasgow company were students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“In Scotland in the 1930s there was quite a big grassroots leftwing movement,” he continues. “The popular front government in Spain was putting through policies like enfranchising women, an eight-hour working day, and a minimum wage.

“Franco’s uprising meant these things were being undemocratically threatened. The Scots were under Conservative-led London government who had a policy of non-intervention. They wanted to fight for something that they believed in back home, and I think that’s generally why the majority of the 549 from Scotland, and the wider 2500 from the UK as a whole went.”

It was the play’s co-writer Robbie Gordon, who first introduced Nurse to the story of the four from Prestonpans. Gordon’s grandfather, a former provost, had actually known the men. Among the research and archive material that informs the play is a photograph of him with Watters, an active trade unionist who went on to fight in the Second World War.

In addition to using material from the verbatim accounts in Ian MacDougall’s book Voices of the Spanish Civil War, the company attempted to find the modern-day descendants of Watters, Dickson, Kempton and Gilmour.

“We literally got a phone book and called all the names in the area,” says Nurse. “Some people hung up straight away but after a bit of chatting others realised that they were actually related to these men.”

Established playwright Douglas Maxwell provided Nurse and Gordon with dramaturgical support following a rehearsed reading of the script in Prestonpans Labour Club.

“We just put a couple of posters up and about 100 people came,” says Nurse. “There was a great exchange of knowledge and understanding, and the families came away with pieces of the puzzle they hadn’t known before. It was very special, and quite emotional. We are very lucky in that we have a fantastic story to tell.”