Scots Wha Hae…
Through interviews and extracts from letters, Daniel Gray sets out to pay homage to the Scots who went to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, as part of the International Brigades. Gray claims, and I have no reason to doubt him, that more Scots per head of population went than from any other country and sets out to show the strength of the Scottish reaction against Franco and fascism.
As a Scot, there are many things about the Scottish psyche that annoy me, but two stand out. The first is the habit of too many Scots to always boast about how we’re the best at whatever we do, and especially that we’re “better than England”. (This always seems like such a pathetic boast to me, even assuming it were true, since it comes inevitably from people who despise England – is it such a great boast to be better than a thing you despise? “I smell better than a skunk.” Wouldn’t it be better to be better than something you admire? “I smell better than a rose.” Anyway…) The second is the habit of many Scots to pretend that Scots are homogeneous in their views and, of course, always in agreement with the view of the person making the claim. So you will hear people say things like “Scotland rejects the Union” when in fact 55% of Scots voted to stay in the Union. Or “Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against our will” when in fact 38% of Scots voted to leave the EU. Daniel Gray commits both of these Scottishisms, repeatedly.
There is, I think, no doubt that proportionally more Scots went to Spain than from the other countries in the UK. However, as Gray tells us, the total figure was in fact 549. Not an insignificant number, but hardly a mass movement either. He goes on at length about how “Scotland” was totally behind these men and the Republicans generally, while simultaneously admitting to all the individuals and groups who were pro-Franco or neutral, including not only the UK government and the Tory Party, which at that time was the most popular party in Scotland (with 48.9% of the vote in the general election of 1935), but also the Catholic church and, not least, the Labour Party. He makes it clear that most of the men who went were members of or affiliated with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), an organisation that never rose to being anything more than a small minority group, even in its stronghold of Red Clydeside (simplistically, industrial Glasgow and its surrounds). He constantly goes on about the men going from “Scotland” while simultaneously showing by his own account that most of them went from the areas of Glasgow where the CPGB had most influence. He talks repeatedly about the German and Italian support of Franco, while doing his best to pretend that the CPGB and the Republicans were mostly independent of influence from the Soviet Union.
It’s not that there’s no truth in his account. From what I could tell the facts he gives are evidence-based. It’s that there’s far too much skewing of the narrative for this to count as history. It is hagiography, written by a man who clearly shares the political slant of the men and women who supported the Republicans. I would agree that majority opinion in Scotland would probably have been anti-fascist, and certainly it appears there was a lot of fund-raising for the Republican side as well as the people who actually went to fight. But then as now, Scots were not a homogeneous group, being divided between urban and rural, well-off and poor, Catholic and Protestant, Labour and Tory, etc., etc. Had he written a book about Glasgow’s support for the Republicans it might have felt more accurate, since Glasgow, although also not homogeneous, has for over a century been the major centre of left-wing support in Scotland.
Despite this, there is some interest in reading the accounts of the men who fought and the women who fund-raised, nursed, campaigned, etc. The book is not particularly well written and some of the chapters are shaky in their focus, often because Gray is distorting the narrative to suit his bias. But I found I learned quite a lot, though often by reading between the lines and resorting to Google to fact-check. I was hoping for a serious history book that would have done more than tell the individual stories of some of the men who went; that would delve into the rise of Communism in some areas of Scotland and would look in an objective way at how wide-spread this was, and equally how wide-spread or otherwise the support for Franco was. This book makes claims about the near-universality of Scottish support for the Republicans, and that may be true, but it doesn’t provide the evidence needed to back up the claim.
One last criticism, of the publisher, Luath Press. This is without exception the worst formatted purchased book I have ever read on Kindle. The font size changes randomly from paragraph to paragraph, the captions of pictures are inserted randomly within surrounding text, there are typos and formatting issues throughout. To actually sell a book in this condition is disgraceful and I’d think long and hard before ever buying another book from this publisher.
So overall, interesting enough if what you want are anecdotes about the Scots who went to war, but not a serious contribution to the history of the period, and not in any way comparable to the Orwell book it homages in its title.