Daniel Gray examines the significance of the popular response to the publication of his well-received study of Scots volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
From the Glasgow Communist Party to the St Margaret’s boarding school, for some reason they all wanted to hear about Scotland’s role in the Spanish Civil War.
In all, twenty eight disparate groups invited me to speak in person on the subject in 2009 following the publication of my study of Scots volunteers in the Spanish Civil War called Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War. Group sizes ranged from two to 400, ages nine to 99. Despite my own fascination with all things International Brigades, this popular level of interest staggered me.
It gave me hope, too; people were engaging, locking horns with ideas and embracing history, their history. Indeed, they were choosing to make this their history by their willing identification with it. At no time was the end of my speaking greeted with stony silence; questions and opinions were plentiful and varied, from ‘could British intervention in Spain have prevented World War Two?’ to ‘would Rabbie Burns have gone?’ and ‘did the Brigaders smoke cigars while they were there?’
Whatever the political stripe or the demographic of those at these meetings, I encountered admiration for what those who served in Spain did. Perhaps part of that was born of today: to many, the idea of going to fight or nurse in a foreign war in the name of principles seems alien. There was captivation, too, at the Scotland of the 1930s, and a feeling that while no one would want to return to the poverty that ravaged the country back then, a dose of the convictions of those that peopled it would not go amiss.
It gave me hope, too; people were engaging, locking horns with ideas and embracing history, their history. Indeed, they were choosing to make this their history by their willing identification with it. At no time was the end of my speaking greeted with stony silence
People were moved to tears and tirades by some of the volunteers’ letters home that I read out, indicating the importance of letting those who make history tell it. That method offers connection with people now in a way that lickspittling tomes and TV series of kings, queens and castles simply cannot. To that end, the point frequently arose that labour and working class history must be preserved by those who make it; no school syllabus is likely to focus on Peterloo (of the massacre in Manchester) above princes (of Charles, William and the like), or on republicanism over royalty, and there will never be a government-bankrolled May Day gathering.
Those sentiments in turn reminded me that progressive ideals and ideas are now outside parliament, Holyrood or Westminster; it is about harnessing them for progression, just as the 1936 Hunger Marchers took to the streets when shunned by those in the House of Commons.
Early in the year, STV commissioned two documentaries on the subject, screened in August as The Scots Who Fought Franco. The programmes used interviews recorded with Scots Brigaders in the 1990s, adding faces and voices to courageous and heartrending words. With filming, I was able to visit the conflict arenas that Scots Brigaders I had written about had fought, laughed and died in.
If I came across as emotional in the programmes, then that’s because I was. STV did the nation a real and brave favour by not only commissioning but putting on The Scots Who Fought Franco during prime time watching. It doing so it brought the story to a whole new audience, even if some of that audience had been tuning in for The Bill.
At every juncture, I have learned more about the conflict, more about Scotland’s role and more about Scotland now. I’ve heard inspiring stories of a generation of Grannies boycotting Spanish fruit ‘fae the Republic’ once Franco won. In Aberdeen, a dapper man in his eighties rose slowly to announce that he had been one of the anti-fascist boy scouts of the 1930s I had spoken of earlier in the evening.
I’ve encountered (and hopefully encouraged) a feeling that this history must not be seen as a static entity that ended in 1939, something to be closed shut in a book and put up on a dusty shelf. Rather, it can be and must be a galvanising, continuous and inspiring thing. Just as Scots wholeheartedly banded together to oppose the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, so must they do so to attack the British National Party in 2010. Brigaders that saw and continue to see the emergence of the BNP repeatedly rammed home this message. I heard one Brigader even go so far as to say ‘never mind Spain, let’s fight these bastards today’.
As they slowly and sadly die out, there is a feeling that the baton is being passed to a new generation. The very greatest tribute modern Scots can pay is to continue the fight against fascism. Scotland must take the unity of the 1930s and let it inspire a unity of purpose today. That is a heavy legacy, but one collective action can bear the weight of.