Scotswomen and the Spanish Civil War

  • On researching his book 'Homage to Caledonia', published in conjunction with NLS, Daniel Gray uncovered the intriguing story of Scotswomen and the Spanish Civil War.
Photo of woman with banner
Annie Murray, who nursed in
the Spanish Civil War.
Larger photo of Annie Murray

Living through the Hungry Thirties, like many young working-class women, Mary Docherty craved an escape from the grind of poverty. Yet Docherty dreamt not of leaving her native Cowdenbeath to find work in Glasgow or a wealthy husband, but of signing up to fight in a foreign war. 'I wanted to go to Spain,' Docherty later reflected. 'I said I could fire a rifle'.

For the three years that it ran from 1936, the Spanish Civil War captivated Scotland. Millions of Scots roared on the cause of the republican side and railed against General Franco's nationalist coalition. Nearly 600 men volunteered to serve; a quarter of them never came back. Domestically, an unparalleled aid movement materialised. That it was driven by working-class women like Docherty makes it all the more impressive.

For her part, a lack of medical experience meant that the Fifer was never able to leave for Spain. Instead, Docherty ran the local Aid Spain committee. Hers was not an untypical experience. Across Scotland, spurred on by the example of the Duchess of Atholl, women were prompted to put their principles into practice.

Women as campaigners

They had been inspired to act by a political awakening that embraced the General Strike of 1926, and subsequently the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. While they had played a supporting role in those political struggles, Spain put them at the vanguard; no longer were they the wives of striking miners or hunger marchers, but campaigners in their own right. The starchy world of the male-dominated trade union hall had been infiltrated and electrified by this brazen and brilliant generation of women.

Forming ruling committees of their own but unafraid to put in the legwork, women organised aid campaigns and events meticulously and prolifically. Prams were commandeered for collecting food door-to-door and tins rattled on street corners. 'We went round every Friday with a wheel barrow,' recalled Mary Docherty. 'Even though there was mass unemployment at that time, there was a great response to our appeal.'

Women organised Spanish markets, concerts, fiestas, film viewings and theatre shows to raise both funds and awareness. With no access to media outlets, to keep their cause current they daubed walls with whitewashed clarion calls such as 'Save Spain, Save Peace' and 'Bombs on Madrid means bombs on Scotland'. In Montrose, women were behind the creation of a centre for Basque refugee children exiled from Spain as the Luftwaffe's bombs began to fall on Guernica.

The cause of the Spanish republic struck a chord with Scotswomen for a number of reasons. On a humanitarian level, they responded to atrocities pictured in cinema newsreels by pledging to act for the stricken of Spain. The poverty and radicalism of the Scotland they inhabited meant that politically, support for the Spanish republic was natural and inevitable. Women in Scotland seem to have been intrinsically anti-fascist too; they embroiled themselves in street skirmishes against domestic fascism in the form of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF). As Bob Cooney, an Aberdonian who fought in Spain remarked: 'When the BUF arrived we'd shout, 'These are the black-shirts who are murdering kiddies in Spain - spit on them, kids.' Sometimes we'd be too late because the women had already dealt with them!' To them, fascism was the same whether in Aberdeen or Alicante.

Volunteer nurses

There was a form of internationalist female solidarity, too: the Spanish republican cause was the cause of Spanish women, and therefore women everywhere. Females were, after all, fighting in Spain alongside males in the hastily organised people's militias that sprung up at the start of the war. And the conflict had, in part, been caused by reactionary irritation that the republican governments of 1931 and 1936 had advanced women's causes, for instance, legalising divorce and extending the franchise. Further, the republican side's figurehead was no stuffy general or suited politician, but the redoubtable Dolores Ibárruri, better known as 'La Pasionaria'.

Representing a range of these motivations for trying to influence Spain's war were nursing volunteers. Although Mary Docherty lacked the experience to enrol, there was an abundance of qualified exponents of Caledonian care. Margot Miller, a 24-year-old from Stirlingshire, was one of the first nurses to arrive in Spain. Miller worked with the Red Cross but was shot and wounded while tending to soldiers in the field of battle.

She was joined in Spain by Sister Winifred Wilson of St Andrews. In a letter home Wilson detailed the horror she had witnessed: 'After an attack we are working day and night. Oh, if you only saw the slaughter! Heads and faces blown to bits, stomachs and brains protruding, limbs shattered or off.' Wilson depicted the general situation in Spain with equal anguish: 'They need our help, poor people, and if you only could see them when bombs are dropping overhead. I can vouch your heart would ache. Mothers snatch their children and run madly for shelter.'

Wilson was driven by humanitarian zeal and her anger at the inaction of the non-interventionist British government. These motivations, along with deeply held political convictions, were what persuaded another Scottish nurse, Annie Murray, to enter service.

Annie Murray and the republican cause

Murray, whose letters are now held at NLS, arrived in Spain at the start of the conflict, and served for almost its entirety. Born in Aberdeenshire to an extremely politicised family, she had led protests against working conditions while employed at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. It was perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that she chose to put her burgeoning nursing career on hold and volunteer for Spain through the British Medical Aid Committee. In her eyes, the decision to go was straightforward, as she later explained in Ian MacDougall's 'Voices from the Spanish Civil War': 'I went to Spain because I believed in the cause of the Spanish republican government. I didn't believe in fascism and I had heard many stories of what happened to people who were under fascist rule.'

Working in tattered hospitals and on medical trains, Murray saw war at its most callous. Writing to her sister Agnes, she related how Italian aeroplanes had dropped 'pretty little cigarette boxes and chocolate boxes with hand bombs neatly packed inside. The poor little mites of children picking up what they took to be the long-desired chocolate and quickly opening them were suddenly left handless, their faces burned beyond recognition. Nothing could surely be more brutal.'

Murray remained steadfast in her commitment to the cause of the Spanish republic, and never lamented her decision to volunteer. 'It was,' she later said, 'the most important thing of my life. It was a terrific experience I would never like to have missed. I have certainly no regrets at having gone there at all.'

Scottish Ambulance Unit

While Murray travelled alone to nurse in Spain, another Scotswoman took an entire ambulance crew with her. For Fernanda Jacobsen's Scottish Ambulance Unit (SAU), though, best intentions very often ended in ignominy. The SAU was raised independently of the main aid movements in Scotland. Three separate convoys saw service, each of them consisting of 15 or more men commanded by the charismatic, if diminutive, Jacobsen. The unit had an avowed commitment to neutrality, pledging to treat the injured of both sides.

However, avoiding partisanship during a time of civil war proved difficult, and the unit was ridden with arguments between those who thought it was biased for the republic, those who thought it was biased for the nationalists, and those who wished it to be either or neither. This led to frequent disputes, with the feisty Jacobsen forced to repeatedly reprimand the men of the unit.

The SAU was plagued, too, by other controversies. Its founder, a former Glasgow Lord Provost named Daniel Stevenson, had questionable links to Germany's Nazi government. Early in its tenure in Spain, members of the unit were accused of looting from dead bodies in the battlefields and expelled. And it seems almost certain that Jacobsen was involved in the smuggling of pro-fascists out of Madrid using SAU vehicles.

This intriguing Scotswoman lived long in the memory of those who met her. The pro-fascist aristocrat Priscilla Scott-Ellis described a Spanish encounter with Jacobsen in her diary:

'An incredible woman, small and square, with a huge bottom. She always dresses in a kilt, thick woollen stockings, brogues, a khaki jacket of military cut with thistles all over it, huge leather gauntlet gloves, a cape also with thistles, and, the crowning glory, a little black Scottish hat edged with tartan and with a large silver badge on it.'

When the battered and bruised third Ambulance Unit returned to Scotland, Jacobsen, now in possession of an OBE for her work in Spain, remained in Madrid, even after the fall of the city to nationalists. She worked, for a time, handing out food to the needy, before disappearing entirely from the annals of history. This firm, but mostly benevolent, force of nature has been almost entirely forgotten - the lost Mary Poppins of the Madrid Front.

Glasgow anarchist journalists in Barcelona

Similarly maverick contributions in Spain came from Jenny Patrick and Ethel MacDonald, Glasgow anarchists catapulted into the centre of tumultuous events in Barcelona. Owing to their work in Scotland, MacDonald and Patrick were summoned to the Catalan city to work as journalists in the information centre of an anarchist trade union. In her diary, Patrick recorded the joy experienced by the pair upon their arrival:

'Tuesday, 3 November was the most exciting day in both of our lives and I don't think we'll ever forget it. We handed in our papers and after they realised we were comrades, they were terribly nice to us. They asked us if we had money and we told them the truth that we were broke. They took us to a restaurant and we had a wonderful time. Everyone was bright and cheerful and happy. So naturally we were the same. We felt full of enthusiasm. This was revolution.'

Their crowning glory as journalists occurred in May 1937, when they were among the first foreign writers to report on the internecine republican street fighting rocking Barcelona. Yet with the political tide turning against anarchist groups, the Scotswomen faced extreme danger. Patrick returned to Scotland, while MacDonald was forced into hiding. Unperturbed, she dedicated herself to helping anarchists escape from prison, earning the nickname 'The Scots Scarlet Pimpernel'. The clampdown soon caught up with MacDonald, though, and after various spells in Spanish jails, she finally escaped back to Glasgow in November 1937.

Scotswomen politicised

Despite the size of the aid movement and the actions of those like MacDonald and Annie Murray, not all Scotswomen supported republican Spain. Some were vociferous in their support of Franco, especially those Catholics who saw the General as the saviour of their church and the republican side as the enemy of religion. A number of them joined the Friends of National Spain, a pro-nationalist society founded by the great-great-grandson of Sir Walter Scott, Walter Maxwell-Scott and his wife Marie, an ardent supporter of Franco. The group held a number of incendiary public meetings in an attempt to garner support.

One of their most trenchant advocates was Mary Allen, the women's police representative for Scotland. She addressed the floor at a rally in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, and proposed a motion congratulating 'General Franco and the Spanish people on their heroic and successful fight to maintain Christian civilisation, freedom, and religion in Spain'. However, such sentiments were far from common among Scotswomen, who were more likely to be outside the Usher Hall protesting than inside seconding pro-Francoist motions.

Spain's Civil War politicised a generation of Scotswomen. Many never forgot the fillip it presented them with, continuing their activism through to the miners' strike in the 1980s and beyond. While the republican side may have lost the war, Scottish women accomplished victories: they demonstrated they could run campaigns, nurse, fight and write, and proved they had the acumen, political and otherwise, to compete and lead. For Mary Docherty and countless others, it opened up a whole new world.



The Red Duchess

The Duchess of Atholl (1874-1960) was Conservative MP for Kinross and West Perth, and the first Scotswoman to be elected to the Commons. From the instant civil war erupted in Spain, she campaigned fervently for the rights of the elected republican government and its citizens, incurring the wrath of her largely pro-Franco peers. Indeed, her support for the republic more or less ended her political career.

Atholl, dubbed 'The Red Duchess' because of her support for this outwardly left-wing movement, became chair of the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief and the Basque Children's Committee. She toured Scotland to raise support, stirring audiences into action with her spellbinding oratory, and visited Spain with Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. The fruit of her journey was the enormously affecting book 'Searchlight on Spain', which sold 300,000 copies in Britain.

The aristocrat's work demonstrated the social breadth of the Aid for Spain campaign in Scotland, and inspired women from all backgrounds.



Read on with NLS

  • Annie Murray letters and Aid Spain papers [National Library reference: Acc.9083]
  • David Murray letters on Ethel MacDonald [Acc.9714/1]
  • 'A Miner's Lass', by Mary Docherty (Lancashire Community Press, 1992) [HP2.93.4914]
  • 'Homage to Caledonia: Scotland and the Spanish Civil War', by Daniel Gray (Luath Press, 2008) [OP8.209.3/8]
  • 'Voices from the Spanish Civil War', edited by Ian MacDougall(Polygon, 1986) [HP2.86.3351]


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