The Herald

Valentin Sagasti Torrano


Architect Born: March 11, 1930; Died: April 21, 2015.

VALENTIN Sagasti Torrano, who has died aged 85, was an architect who, as a young boy, was one of hundreds of children evacuated to the UK to escape the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. They were known as Los Ninos Vacos – The Basque Children; their experience­s were described in the film To Say Goodbye.

He was born in the northern Spanish city of San Sebastian in 1930. With the Spanish Civil War moving north closer to the Basque region, the family was evacuated to the relative safety of Barakaldo near Bilbao, except his older sister Aurora who was sent to live with an aunt in Estella. Val also had two younger sisters, Carmen and Juani, who was born in Barakaldo.

The bombing of the north then moved closer and one day Val and his sister Carmen were lucky to survive an attack. The sirens sounded as they were playing in the street and everyone rushed to hide in a nearby railway tunnel. When a train suddenly appeared, Val held Carmen’s hand tightly and pulled her to one side of the entrance. Unfortunat­ely, those inside the tunnel could not escape and the carnage was terrible.

After the bombing of Guernica in April 1937 by the German Condor legion in support of General Franco, the decision was made to evacuate the children and adult helpers to the safety of other countries. Val and Carmen were taken to the port but at seven years of age Val was considered too young to care for his younger sister so he boarded the boat alone. With 4,000 children and adult helpers, the SS Habana sailed for Southampto­n on the May 21, 1937. It was supposed to be only for three months. Val never felt fear but knew loneliness. A hand was always there to guide him to the company of others with the words: “Here. Take care of him.”

After his arrival at the receiving camp at Eastleigh, the children were dispersed around the UK. Val was sent to a hostel at Brampton near Carlisle. A troupe was formed to entertain the local community with Val the only boy member.

In August 1939, he was moved again, this time to stay in Glasgow with a foster family, Mr and Mrs Blackwood. He was now able to start his schooling at Carntyne Primary School. He was ten years old

he Clydebank blitz caused yet another evacuation with Val and “Mum” Blackwood moving to the Meadowpark holiday camp near Irvine. His schooling continued at Bank St Primary and the annex of Irvine Royal Academy. During this period the Ayrshire Education Department gave a three-year grant for Val to continue his education. He never forgot this and some years later donated a trophy in recognitio­n of the happy times and assistance he had experience­d. The trophy, still presented annually to the best pupil at technical subjects, was dedicated to Mr Wotherspoo­n, the woodwork teacher who had shown so much interest and attention.

Contact with his Spanish family was difficult as they were also evacuated for a short time to France. The few letters between them had to be translated as Val had forgotten his Spanish language. Thirteen years after his evacuation, he attempted to return to see his family in Spain. He hitchhiked through the UK and France but could not enter Spain as he was now an “alien” and would have been arrested and conscripte­d into the army. He finally met his family for a picnic in no-man’s-land on the bridge over the border.

He met his wife Vera in Glasgow and after a short period in London they settled back in Glasgow eventually having three daughters, Eliena, Angela and Julia.

On leaving school, he became a draughtsma­n working as an architect’s assistant at Gratton & McLean. He studied part-time at the Glasgow School of Art and became a senior architect with Parry & Hughes before forming his own practice, Sagasti Associates.

As a Nino Vasco, he was one of about 250 children who never returned home. The history of the Spanish Civil War could never be complete without the stories of the children being recorded. In 2012, after reading their memories, screenwrit­er Izaskun Arandia told their story through an animated film To Say Goodbye, which was shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Val was one of those whose voices were used in the narration. He was proud to attend the screening and sit with his Spanish family, as they were able to see and hear his story.

He is survived by his daughters Eliena, Angela and Julia and his grandson Adam.

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