Nearly a century ago, in the heat of the Spanish Civil War, Ethel MacDonald was ‘Scotland’s Scarlet Pimpernel’, writes Alison Campsie
She became the voice of the Spanish Civil War, the young woman from Bellshill who broadcast worldwide from the heart of the battle in Barcelona. Ethel MacDonald, who was born 110 years ago, became known as Scotland’s Scarlet Pimpernel following her time in Spain, where she organised escape plans, smuggling rackets and hunger strikes in every jail in the country from her own prison cell.
Ethel was 27 when she left Scotland for Barcelona. She had long been intertwined with the anarchist movement, having met Guy Aldred, charismatic founder of the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation and United Socialist Movement (USM), at just 16.
By then she was active in the Independent Labour Party in Motherwell and first sought advice from Aldred after a waitressing job in Dumfries fell through. It was the start of a lifelong association, with MacDonald arriving in Barcelona with Aldred’s partner, Jenny Patrick. They were the first of two members of USM’s planned anti-parliamentary delegation to Spain but fundraising for the expedition failed. In November 1936 the women found themselves alone, penniless but fuelled by ideological fire as the conflict raged through the streets and barrios.
A diary entry encapsulates her mood at the time: “If this journey does not make me do something worthwhile, nothing will. I feel that my future centres round here. I am optimistic, I am alive and I am prepared to risk everything in order to be alive.”
According to Daniel Gray in Homage to Caledonia, Scotland and the Spanish Civil War, the pair were possibly the first to report on the street fighting rocking the city, with their account appearing in the Barcelona Bulletin, which was co-published by Aldred and distributed around Glasgow.
But without a clear role in Barcelona, and an increasingly precarious living situation, MacDonald turned to Barcelona Radio, run by anarchist labour union CNT-FAI, to produce English-language broadcasts.
Her North Lanarkshire accent won her fans far and wide, with Gray quoting a story from the then-Glasgow Herald which documented her impact on the airwaves: “A prominent news editor in Hollywood says that he has received hundreds of letters concerning Ethel MacDonald, stating that the writers, in all parts of the USA and Canada, enjoyed her announcements and talks from Barcelona Radio, not because they agreed with what she said but because they thought she had the finest speaking voice they had every heard.”
It was, however, the content of her broadcasts that put her at grave risk after she repeatedly denounced the democratic course being pursued by the Republican government, with its critics – including those on the left – serially rounded up.
MacDonald, who helped to arm militia men and women fighting in the streets, went into hiding but was arrested, first for assisting “counter revolutionary aliens”.
She was imprisoned several times in Spain, with her family in Bellshill becoming increasingly fraught as communication faded out. This was around the time volunteer fighter Bob Smillie, from Larkhall, died in a prison in Valencia after being arrested by Republicans. News of Ethel was that she was seriously ill and in hiding.
A report in the Motherwell Times on 6 August 1937 told of a visit to MacDonald’s parents from volunteer soldier fighter Robert Martin, from Stevenston, who told of Ethel’s release from prison and relative good health. In truth, she was sleeping rough, but she finally arrived back at Central Station on 7 November 1937. There, she addressed a crowd of 300 people and spoke of hopes dulled by sadness and tragedy. By March 1938, the Motherwell Times reported that she had returned to Spain to carry out relief work.
She died in Glasgow in 1960.