Item in Glasgow Live 20:41, 3 April 2022, bearing this title “Remembering Fernanda Jacobsen: The kilted woman who left Glasgow to fight fascism”
Barely 20 years after women got the vote, Glasgow secretary Fernanda Jacobsen became the unexpected leader of Glasgow’s ambulance unit that travelled to Spain in 1936
By Glasgow Live 20:41, 3 APR 2022
A Glaswegian woman in a kilt with a ‘big bottom’ hardly sounds like your typical war hero. But that’s exactly how Fernanda Jacobsen was described by those that met her when she was sent to Madrid – the beating heart of the social revolution – to help the wounded as the Republican government faced off rebel armies in 1936.
17th January 1937: Members of a Scottish ambulance unit in Glasgow before their second visit to the Spanish Civil War
When military leader General Franco’s Nationalist – backed by fellow fascists Mussolini and Hitler – launched his bloody attempt to overthrow the elected Spanish government, Fernanda was one of the first of almost 2400 Brits – around 550 of them Scots – to leave the safety of their homes to join the fight against fascism.
A ‘furious’ middle aged woman, Fernanda was working as a secretary in Glasgow when she went to aid the humanitarian effort in the poorest and worst hit parts of Madrid. The Scottish Ambulance Unit (SAU) was formed by her boss, the wealthy and generous Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Sir Daniel Macaulay Stevenson.
He believed his fiery Spanish speaking assistant was the only person who could lead his team of medical volunteers to Spain safely – and when the first convoy of six ambulances left in September 1936, Miss Fernanda Jacobsen stood – a little over 5ft – as their loyal Commandant.
Fernanda was only meant to stay in Spain a few days, helping with translation and sourcing contacts. But soon she became indispensable, running the entire operation. Despite having no medical training Fernanda found herself at the heart of the fighting in Toledo and around Madrid.
The Spanish newspaper Politica said at the time: “The work already carried out by these Scotsmen who came to Spain to mitigate the sufferings of war is really extraordinary.” Indeed, local people were so amazed by the resilience of the Scottish force, they named them “Los Brujos” – the wizards.
Another paper in 1938 called Despúes praised Fernanda and her ‘chicos’ for their humanitarian work in an article entitled ‘¡ESCOCIA POR ESPAÑA!’. Fernanda worked with the Scottish Ambulance Unit in Spain for two years, only briefly returning to Scotland when all international forces were recalled.
Franco’s military coup ultimately succeeded and the dictator declared victory on April 1, 1939. The government-led Republicans were crushed. But Fernanda was desperate to return so she took a job as a fitter in an aircraft factory in St Albans and planned to ask the Spanish consulate for help. She later received an OBE for her work in Spain.
A tiny woman with a fiery temper, Fernanda was described ‘as indefatigable and bossy as Florence Nightingale herself’ – and she was never seen without her kilt, military jacket and Glengarry bonnet.
She later said: “My kilt costume was always my best protection, a perfect ‘salvo conduct’. There are always troubles if I am absent and the Macaulay kilt gets me everywhere without harm to me or those accompanying me”.
Not all heroes wear capes – some prefer tartan.
- Article by Linda Palfreeman on “Fernanda Jacobsen and the Scottish Ambulance Unit during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)” AT https://repositorioinstitucional.ceu.es/bitstream/10637/10683/1/Fernanda%20Jacobsen%20and%20the%20Scottish%20Ambulance