‘Community spirit is still alive and well in North-east’

welcoming party: People holding a banner supporting refugees in Glasgow last year.

They were the children who survived Nazi blanket bombing during the Spanish Civil War.

In 1937 a direct plea was made to the UK to grant asylum to the 4,000 vulnerable Basque children.

After they reached the country they faced difficulties in receiving support – until communities stepped in.

The specially-formed UK Basque Children’s Committee was set up to help co-ordinate support.

More than 30 of the youngsters moved to Montrose to live in what was the only refugee colony of its kind in Scotland.

Author Forbes Inglis has researched and written extensively on the children’s experience.

He said: “The east coast traded with the Baltic, so it’s always been more open to new ideas and strangers than other parts of Scotland.”

Forbes’ comment came as the country marked the 1,000th Syrian refugee to find a new home in Scotland.

A total of 63 Syrians from nine families are now living in the North-east.

Syrian asylum seekers in the North-east are being helped by organisations, including voluntary initiative Aberdeen Solidarity With Refugees (ASWR).

It was up to similar groups around Montrose to take up the reins in the 1930s.

A year after the Spanish Civil War’s outbreak Guernica was flattened by the Luftwaffe, killing an estimated 1,685 people.

Youngsters were evacuated from Bilbao to escape from the 75,000 troops and heavy air bombardment. Fleeing the horror, 4,000 Basque children boarded a ship bound for the UK – it was designed to hold 800.

Travelling from England, 24 children stepped off the train onto Montrose station in 1937.

The 10 boys and 14 girls, aged between five and 15, were greeted with sunshine, amusements and a welcoming party waving banners.

“Viva Espana Salud,” read the signs – “Long Live Spain”. But not everyone was pleased.

Protests are said to have taken place and concerns were raised that they were Catholic children.

Forbes added: “There were regular campaigns for them to be returned home and even allegations of an increase in crime, but never any evidence of refugee incidents. There was a great anti-feeling in the country, opened up by the right-wing press, that this would be a dreadful thing.”

Their new home was Mall Park House, an estate surrounded by orchards, where they were also schooled.

The girls were taught cooking and housewifery, while the boys carried coal and chopped wood.

Local children and families would visit the house and friendships were soon made.

It cost £20 a week to look after them, with the numbers growing to more than 30 kids over the course of their stay.

Without any government assistance, it was up to local organisations, individuals and fundraisers to cover their living costs. The children even toured Scotland performing songs and traditional Basque songs and dances to raise money.

Shelley Milne from ASWR said: “It is utterly inspiring to be reminded, particularly in the context of the current refugee crisis, that despite the technological evolution of the last 80 years, that community spirit, goodwill and common human decency is still alive and well in the North-east.

“There are inarguable similarities between the actions undertaken by the people of Montrose during the Basque refugee intake and that of the people of the North-east in the current Syrian situation.

I can only hope that in another 100 years, there will still be groups like ours, striving to make a difference in their communities and the wider world.”

In April 1938, most of the Basque children left for home.

But, Scotland had left such an impression on them, two decided to remain to start a new life.

Others had no choice but to stay a while longer in the UK- they had no homes or family to return to.

A number returned in 1985 to thank the town for its kindness.

Now the stories of the children are remembered through the Basque Children of ’37 Association: UK.