Brave Scots who fought the fascists

It was a war waged far away in a foreign country which their own leaders wanted nothing to do with.

But more than 500 Scots made a personal stand and volunteered to fight for the republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. Many lost their lives. Now, 60 years on a new book tells their stories


"I would not have stopped him even if I could, because I believed he was right," wrote Harold Fry's wife after his death on the battlefields of Spain in 1937.

Hide Ad

Her words reveal the passions the Spanish Civil War and the Republican cause could inspire.

Life couldn't have been easy for Mrs Fry, left a widow with a month-old baby – a child her husband had never seen – but her beliefs remained unshaken.

Her letters are among some of the extraordinary documents uncovered by Daniel Gray, below, author of a new book, Homage to Caledonia, tracing the stories of the Scots volunteers who fought against the fascist forces in Spain in the 1930s. Sadly, her name and that of their child isn't recorded; she signed herself as merely Mrs Fry.

As a veteran of the First World War, Fry, an Edinburgh shoe repairer, was hardly a stranger to the battlefield, but it was his military experience which led to his being put in charge of a machine gun company.

When he was seized by fascists, it was that senior role which meant he was singled out for brutal beatings by his captors.

His comrade in arms and future Edinburgh councillor Donald Renton later paid tribute to his bravery: "His broken arm was swinging and the agonising pain brought beads of sweat to his brow, but even then his quiet words of encouragement helped guarantee us against panic.

Hide Ad

"Even the Moors who bound his shattered arm in telegraph wire and beat him up could not make him forego his attitude of quiet contempt towards them."

Sentenced to death, Fry returned safely to Edinburgh in May 1937 after rounds of negotiations. His wounds had barely healed when he decided to go back to fight for a second time four months later, leaving his heavily pregnant wife at home.

Hide Ad

This time the 37-year-old did not return. Made commander of a British Battalion in Spain, he died during the Battalion's disastrous attempt to capture the village of Fuentes de Ebro.

Mrs Fry wrote: "His experience of fascist methods of warfare and their brutal treatment of prisoners behind the lines only helped to strengthen his determination to carry on the fight until Franco, Hitler and Mussolini were beaten."


"IT was the most important thing of my life. It was a terrific experience I would never like to have missed," said Annie Murray – one of only a handful of Scottish women who put their lives on the line to serve in the war – on her return from Spain.

The Edinburgh nurse came from a highly politicised family, being the first of three siblings to volunteer for the cause, desperate to defeat Franco and his fascist regime.

Her brother Tom Murray – an Edinburgh Labour councillor – was one of two Scots awarded special citations from the Republicans for their efforts during the war.

"She really was an incredible woman," explains Daniel, 26, a curator in the National Library of Scotland's manuscripts department. "The 1930s were a man's world and it is extremely difficult to appreciate with modern perspectives what she and other volunteers did. Many of them had never even left Edinburgh before, never mind the country."

Hide Ad

Born in 1906, Annie was in her early 30s when she first arrived in Spain on a political mission where she would stay for the next three years.

Leaving her career at the city's Royal Infirmary to volunteer in the British Medical Aid Committee, she wrote at the time that she went to Spain because she "believed in the cause of the Spanish Republican government".

Hide Ad

She moved around the country, basing herself in different hospitals before taking a post on a medical train, frequently coming under Nationalist fire.

Writing during the war to her family, she described one of the earliest wounded combatants she saw – a Nationalist soldier: "His broken, lacerated leg was literally crawling with maggots."

It was an incident towards the end of the war which moved her most deeply though – in Portbou, north of Barcelona, Annie saw young children blown to pieces by bombs dropped by Italian planes, disguised in sweet tins. Survivors were left with horrific facial and hand disfigurements.

In a letter to her sister Agnes she said: "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. What a bloody awful war this has been."


JIMMY Rutherford was just 20 when he was executed by a firing squad for his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.

Hide Ad

The young man from Newhaven had sneaked back into the country after being released from a prison, through international negotiation, just one month before.

Writings from his fellow soldier Tommy Bloomfield, of Kirkcaldy, reveal that during their three-and-a-half months as prisoners, they do not remember having a wash or being offered clean clothes.

Hide Ad

"We could pick the body lice off the outside of our trousers . . . they were so fat that when you cracked half a dozen between your thumb nails, you had to scrape your nails on the floor to kill more," he wrote.

The torturous experience did not put Rutherford off going back to Spain. He told his father: "If all the young men had seen what I saw out there, they would be doing what I am doing."

Rutherford, now going by the name of James Small, was smuggled back into Spain in May 1938 by his comrades, only to be recognised by a Nationalist.

His fingerprints were checked and matched, and on May 24, 1938, he was executed.

With no Scottish volunteers from the war left alive today, Leith author Daniel – the first to write extensively on the part Scots played in the battle – is determined their roles should never be forgotten.

He said: "It would be amazing to hear from their families – something I very much hope will happen as a result of this book."

Hide Ad

Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray is published by Luath Press, priced 16.99


THE Spanish Civil War began in 1936 when a group of military generals rose up in a bid to overthrown the elected Republican government.

Hide Ad

The Fascist governments of Italy and Germany sent help to the right-wing rebels, but despite pleas from the Spanish government, Britain, France and other democracies decided not to interfere in the conflict, instead pursuing a policy of appeasement.

However, anti-fascists of various nationalities responded to the Republicans' call. Many, but by no means all, were Communists. Around 32,000 volunteers from 53 nations were formed into International Brigades and fought for the Republicans in the years between 1937 and 1939. Many lost their lives.

The leader of the rebel Nationalist forces, General Francisco Franco, was eventually victorious and ruled as a Fascist dictator in Spain until his death in 1975.

Last month, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon ordered an investigation into the disappearance of 114,000 people during the civil war and Franco's dictatorship.

Garzon has demanded the opening of 19 graves so far. These include the Andalusian site which is said to be the grave of poet and hero of the Republican cause, Federico Garca Lorca.