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From a small town in Scotland to Spain: New play tells untold story of four miners who fought in civil war

The cast of 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War (Jassy Earl Photography )
The cast of 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War (Jassy Earl Photography )

IT’S a story many people haven’t heard before.

In 1936, four men from Prestonpans, East Lothian, left their lives and everything they knew to join the Scottish ranks of the Spanish Civil War’s International Brigade.

Miners George Watters, Jock Gilmour, William ‘Bill’ Dickson and Jimmy Kempton’s life-changing decision will be brought to the stage by theatre company Wonder Fools.

The play will be performed right where the story begins – in Prestonpans – and is also coming to Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre.

The show’s creators Jack Nurse and Robbie Gordon chatted to the Sunday Post about unearthing local tales and getting involved with the East Lothian community.

JACK and Robbie discovered the tale of the four miners thanks to Robbie’s grandfather, who was Lord Provost of Prestonpans.

“He’s been a pot of ideas for us,” explained Jack. “He gave us the inspiration for one of our other plays too, McNeill of Tranent, about the fastest man in the world.

“We thought it was an important untold story we could shine a light on.”

Robbie laughed: ” I thought he [my granddad] was making it all up at first.

“The facts were stranger than fiction.”

Both theatre-makers studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland together and enjoyed resounding success with their degree show piece The Coolidge Effect.

The duo started work on play 549: The Scots of the Spanish Civil War back in 2015.

Jack said: “We really buried ourselves in research.

“There’s a book called Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Gray which we found really useful, and there’s also a verbatim account of George Watters’ experience we used.”

The pair also reached out to the East Lothian community in an effort to speak to friends and family of the four men.

(Jassy Earl Photography)

Jack said: “We got a phonebook and rang anyone in the area with one of the surnames – Watters, Gilmour, Dickson and Kempton.”

Robbie added: “There was a real willingness from the families to get involved.”

Being from the area, drawing attention to the history of Prestonpans and East Lothian has a real significance for Robbie.

He said: “Being from a small town, when you’re younger, you get that sort of feeling of ‘nothing ever happens here.’

“I’ve started to realise the amazing things that happened here.

“Extraordinary things really do happen to ordinary people.”

Jack and Robbie have been spreading the word about these incredible stories in local schools across East Lothian.

Robbie said: “We ran workshops with kids from eight to 18 years-old. It was a fascinating process.

(Jassy Earl Photography)

“There’s misconception that people who live away from cities can be inward looking. I found the exact opposite.

“The kids understood about international conflict. A lot of them saw parallels with Syria.

“The children were really politically engaged and full of empathy. Working with them makes me hopeful for the future.”

The huge community interest in the project was revealed when Jack and Robbie held an informal reading rehearsal in Prestonpans Labour club.

“We weren’t sure who would come – or if anyone would come. In the end, over 100 people turned up,” said Jack.

“It was a special thing to have all the accounts from the different families come together.

“Some of the people who had contributed found out new things about their relative’s experiences.

“It was quite an emotional evening.”

(Jassy Earl Photography )

Part of the ethos behind theatre company Wonder Fools is to make the arts more accessible.

“We want to change the demographic, we think theatre should be for everyone,” said Jack.

“We chose Prestonpans Town Hall for the premiere so that the community could see it in a familiar place.”

“It’s a great venue because it means the local school can just walk along to see it,” added Robbie.”

The community-driven aspect of the play ties in with the themes of inclusivity and togetherness.

“Although it deals with civil war, the play isn’t really about fighting,” explained Robbie.

“It’s about solidarity and empathy.

“The core message of the project is caring, caring about people you’ve never met and helping people you don’t know.”

The play will come to Prestonpans Town Hall from 7th – 10th February, and will then arrive at The Citizen’s Theatre from the 13th – 17th.