A history of courage and convictions
08 November 2006
by Judy Vickers
Edinburgh, Scotland: How often do you do it? As much as you’d like to, or can you just not get round to it with everything else going on in your life? Well, as Judy Vickers found out, for hundreds of Edinburgh people volunteering is a major part of their lives, be it working in a charity shop, feeding the animals or guiding visitors around a heritage centre.
And a new exhibition, organized by the Living Memory Association and the Volunteer Centre Edinburgh, celebrates the history of those in the city who over the centuries have given up their time to make a difference. Then there are those who have taken volunteering to a whole new level.
Steve Fullarton, 87 Retired engineer
The news was full of the conflict and most people agreed - the carnage was terrible and something should be done. So in 1938, at 18, he joined the International Brigade as a volunteer and travelled to Spain to fight Franco's fascist forces.
"Some people could ignore it, say: 'It's none of my business'. I made it my business. You couldn't ignore it," he explains.
Spain was a fledgling republic in 1936, when a coalition of left-wing parties won a general election. But their reforms infuriated right-wingers, and army generals, such as Francisco Franco, began to plot a coup. By July, just two months after the election, this had exploded into open war.
Glued to the cinema newsreels, Steve watched with mounting anger at the League of Nations' decision not to intervene, and atrocities such as the bombing of Guernica in 1937 by German forces.
In a country not long clear of its own conflict - Steve's father had died in 1936 of injuries sustained in the First World War - the news made a big impact. Steve recalls: "They bombed Barcelona and Madrid, which was the first time planes had been used to bomb civilians. People were horrified this kind of thing was going on but there was no attempt to stop them.
"There was this worldwide movement to provide food and ships for the Spanish Republic. I used to help with collections. A lorry would go around the streets with a man on a megaphone giving the reasons why people should contribute to the relief of the Spanish people."
The message fell on particularly fertile ground in working-class tenements and Steve would collect tins of condensed milk and sardines.
Volunteering for the International Brigade, a global body of mainly Communist anti-fascists set up to fight for the Republican cause, came about almost by chance, when at a Saturday night dance Steve spoke to the organiser of the local Communist Party.
Things moved quickly. After a brief visit to a Communist Party HQ in Glasgow, Steve was sent to Paris with five other Scots... although his volunteering almost came to an abrupt end thanks to flat feet.
But Steve argued his case, was allowed to carry on, and embarked on a journey to the south of France, then, overnight following smugglers' routes through the Pyrenees into Spain. Basic training was done with wooden rifles - "a la Dad's Army", he laughs - but by the time he was able to join a retreating British battalion at Reus he had a real rifle. "It was dated 1896 so you can imagine how modern it was."
Eventually the battalion crossed the River Ebro and joined the front line, although with little success.
Then a frontal attack was ordered on a hilltop strong point but was a spectacular failure with heavy losses. "When the battle was all over, there wasn't a sound. All around me there were dead and wounded. I don't know how anyone escaped. To start with I was the only one moving.
"I was tending to a wounded man, the lieutenant in charge of my unit. He told me to find a safe place to hide until it was dark, then come back for him. I was just getting in the hole I had selected when bang! That was me."
Steve lifted his head to see where the machine gun fire came from just as a sickening thud hit his right hip.
Still conscious, he managed to make his way back to the Brigade line, but then he slipped into unconsciousness before waking up in a makeshift hospital in Tarragona. There a surgeon with a long needle - but no anaesthetic - removed the bullet.
But just as he was on the road to recovery, the Republic agreed to expel foreign troops.
"To some extent I might have felt relief but the state I was in, I don't remember," he says. He arrived back in Scotland on December 23, 1938. It was a brief respite from conflict, though, as just nine months later the Second World War broke out.
Steve served in the RAF for five and a half years. On being demobbed in June 1946 he came home to Edinburgh and Ella, the city girl he had married in 1945. He returned to engineering, working as a draughtsman from the 1950s for a range of firms, including Ferranti, and the couple raised three children.
But in 1969, the year after his wife died, Steve returned to Spain, this time on a holiday - although he was well aware of the fact that the fascist leader he'd been fighting, Franco, was still in power. "So I kept very quiet," he laughs.
Jenny Gaiawyn, 27 Walking group co-ordinator, Gilmerton
Although 60 years separate Jenny and Steve, the language they use to describe their passion for their cause is remarkably similar."You can't ignore it. It's not about theology or politics, it's about humanity. When you have children dying, you have to do something about it," she says.
In Jenny's case, it's events in Iraq and Palestine which inspired her volunteering. She was first moved to do something when she heard about the plight of ordinary Iraqis living under UN sanctions. "There were children dying because they couldn't get medicine or water because of the sanctions. I was really shocked by that, it was completely abhorrent," she explains.
So she travelled to Iraq with a group called Voices in the Wilderness, taking medical supplies in August 2001. The group of five Britons and five Americans spent ten days visiting orphanages, hospitals and villages, experiencing life under the crippling sanctions - and under the Saddam regime.
Their supplies proved a drop in an ocean. Jenny visited a hospital where, with just two incubators, doctors told her that when more sick babies arrived they had to decide which ones to let die. And in a children's cancer ward in Mosel, the group witnessed the death of a 12-year-old boy.
"He passed on right in front of us. His mother was absolutely distraught. We were just holding her as she cried and saying sorry." A year later Jenny was in Palestine for three weeks. With a group of 26 others carrying aid, four Palestinian medics and two local female volunteers, she set off for a refugee camp from Nablus the West Bank town where she was staying, then under 24-hour curfew. Their problems began on the way back.
"At the checkpoint, the Israelis said we could pass but the Palestinians couldn't," she says. "Obviously we refused to let that happen. The four medics were taken away and beaten up but when they tried to seize the two young Palestinian women, we surrounded them."
Blows rained down on Jenny and the others and sound grenades, designed to temporarily deafen and disorientate, were let off. Eventually the soldiers let the whole group go. "I was hit in the face a few times, I had bruises on my chest and I couldn't hear very well," says Jenny. "The medics were in a worse state."
She returned to Iraq in April 2004 with a children's entertainment group, but after a plea from doctors, she joined another group attempting to get into the city of Fallujah, which was being bombed by Americans. As a result she found herself caught in crossfire between Americans and mujahadeen on the city outskirts. The whole group was ultimately taken to Fallujah as prisoners.
"I think I was resigned to it happening - I had been expecting it all along. In my mind was stuff about John McCarthy and I was thinking: this is it for the next four years. And I was feeling awful about my family," says Jenny.
In the end the group was only held for 24 hours. Accompanied by a local imam, as they left the city they did manage to persuade the Americans to open a checkpoint to allow civilians out.
"So I don't regret it because we saved lives by doing that," says Jenny.
Now working for Edinburgh Aids charity Waverley Care and the Royal Botanic Garden, Jenny still volunteers - working for a Palestinian education charity she helped to set up three years ago, Project Hope. "And as soon as I can I will be going back to Palestine," she adds.
Centuries of Volunteering in Edinburgh is on display at the Edinburgh Museum, Canongate, until March 2007.