To mark the 78th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, I’m putting a spotlight on one of the many Scottish women who showed support and travelled to Spain in 1936.
Ethel MacDonald was born in Motherwell in 1909 and was active in left-wing politics by the time she was sixteen. In 1931 she met journalists Guy Aldred and Jenny Patrick and three years later they established the United Socialist Movement (USM), a Scottish anarcho-communist group which had broken off from the Independent Labour Party (ILP). When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Ethel and Jenny were sent over as representatives of the USM to Barcelona and Madrid respectively. They had very little money and had to hitch-hike all the way from France. Soon after arriving in Spain, Ethel gave regular English language broadcasts on Barcelona Radio, which was run by the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). She was praised for her excellent radio voice as well as for her passion for revolutionary left-wing politics.
“What are the actions of the parliamentary parties with regard to support of the Spanish struggle? They talk, they discuss, they speak with bated breath of the horrors that are taking place in Spain. They gesticulate, they proclaim to the world their determination to assist Spain and to see that Fascism is halted; and that is all they do. Talk of what they will do… This is not the time for sympathy and charity. This is the time for action. Do you not understand that every week, every day and every hour counts. Each hour that passes means the death of more Spanish men and women, and yet you advertise meetings, talk, arrange to talk and fail to take any action.” (Extract from radio broadcast on 19th February 1937)
During the so-called May Riots of 1937, when hundreds died and anarchists were being assassinated in their own homes, Ethel risked her own life by helping anarchists who were wanted by the Communist secret police to escape Spain. Her bravery was picked up at home by the British press who nicknamed her the ‘Scots Scarlet Pimpernel’. Ethel herself was arrested following the death of ILP member Bob Smillie, who she very publicly claimed was killed during a beating by prison guards. She was released for a short time before being imprisoned again. After being freed for a second time she had to go into hiding in Barcelona before eventually escaping back to Scotland in September 1937. On her return to Glasgow two months later, she was greeted by a crowd of 300 people, to whom she gave a disillusioned speech:
“I went to Spain full of hopes and dreams. It promised to be utopia realised. I return full of sadness, dulled by the tragedy I have seen. I have lived through scenes and events that belong to the French revolution.”
After returning to Scotland she founded The Strickland Press with Guy Aldred, Jenny Patrick and John Taylor Caldwell. She died in 1961 from multiple sclerosis, unable to speak.
This outspoken, revolutionary and remarkably brave woman is just one of the many mentioned and celebrated in the Clydeside Women’s Heritage Bike Ride, which launched on June 28th (leaflets are still available if you pop into the Glasgow Women’s Library).
Further reading: Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray (2009); Ethel MacDonald: Glasgow Woman Anarchist by Rhona M. Hodgart (2003); An Anarchist’s Story: The Life of Ethel MacDonald by Chris Dolan (2009)