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A native of North Lanarkshire,[note 1] Ethel MacDonald, the fifth of nine children, left home at sixteen, joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and worked at various jobs. In 1925 she met Guy Aldred and, with him, became politically active in the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF). In 1933 she accepted his invitation to work as his secretary, and joined him in the June 1934 formation of the United Socialist Movement (USM).
Spanish Civil War
In November 1936 MacDonald travelled to Barcelona with Guy Aldred's partner, Jenny Patrick, to represent and show the support of the Scottish anarchist movement for the Republican (Loyalist) side in the Spanish Civil War. In January 1937 she began to transmit regular English-language reports on the war on Barcelona's widely heard Anarchist radio station run by the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) [National Workers Confederation]. In the crackdown following the events of May 1937 she assisted the escape of anarchists wanted by the Communist secret police and smuggled into prison letters and food for fellow anarchists held by regional authorities.
Through her activities in helping anarchists escape Spain, she became renowned in the British press as the "Scots Scarlet Pimpernel". Between July and November 1937, she was a national figure in the newspapers, with daily reports and inquiries as to her whereabouts and activities. Eventually she herself was arrested by a faction of the Loyalist forces, but later released. She returned to Glasgow that November, following speaking engagements in France and Amsterdam.
After her return from Spain, Ethel MacDonald worked closely with Guy Aldred, Jenny Patrick, John Taylor Caldwell and other Glasgow anarchists on a shoestring publishing enterprise, The Strickland Press, which published regular issues of the USM organ, The Word. They continued their activities through World War II and the 1950s peace movement, with MacDonald considered as the unofficial manager, bookkeeper and printer of the Strickland Press.
- Caldwell, John Taylor (1988). Come dungeons dark: the life and times of Guy Aldred, Glasgow anarchist. Edinburgh: Luath Press. ISBN 0-946487-19-7.
- Caldwell, John Taylor (1999). With fate conspire: memoirs of a Glasgow seafarer and anarchist. Bradford: Northern Herald. ISBN 0-9523167-1-4.
- Hodgart, Rhona M. Ethel MacDonald: Glasgow Woman Anarchist. Kate Sharpley Library. ISBN 1-873605-28-5.
- Dolan, Chris (2009). An anarchist's story: the life of Ethel MacDonald. Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-685-4.
- Gray, Daniel (2008). Homage to Caledonia. Luath Press. ISBN 978-1-906817-16-9.
- Ethel MacDonald - An Anarchist Story by Mark Littlewood
- Biography by John Couzin: "Life story of one of Glasgow's women anarchists that I feel very strongly is worth remembering."
- The Volunteer Ban - speech given by Ethel MacDonald on Radio Barcelona and subsequently published in Regeneración (1937).
- Ethel MacDonald Entry in the Daily Bleed