ONE of the many stories to fly under the radar thanks to coronavirus was the appointment of a Scot as director general of MI5.

Ken McCallum took over the Security Service just a few weeks ago – only the second time a Scot has led the UK’s domestic spying organisation. The last Scottish MI5 chief was Sir David Petrie, director general during the Second World War.

They are two very different men – reflecting the changing nature of our spying services. Petrie was born in Inveravon, Banffshire in 1879, and studied at Aberdeen University. Friends described him as a “rugged and kindly Scot … with immense physical and moral strength”. 

He started out as a colonial policeman, serving in the Indian Imperial Police from 1900 to 1936. Petrie ran MI5 when it was being tested in the crucible of the fight against Nazism. He retired in 1946, ladened with medals. 

McCallum is a middle-aged mathematician from Glasgow who has been at the heart of some of the biggest terrorist and spying sagas of recent years.

He graduated from Glasgow University in 1996 with a first-class honours degree. He has been in MI5 for almost 25 years. For the first 10 years, it was Northern Ireland which occupied his time, and he played a major role in the Ulster peace process. He then moved into countering Islamist terror, and specialising in cybersecurity.

McCallum led on counter-terror during the London Olympics. He has also focused on fighting far-right extremism. In 2018, McCallum headed the MI5 investigation into the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. He is also interested in how machine learning can aid spying. However, we know little about his private life, apart from the fact he’s a dad and likes hill climbing.

It is a mistake to think these two men are all Scotland has had to offer when it comes to great spies, though. Petrie and McCallum are just the tip of the iceberg. Scotland has a long, dark and fascinating history of espionage.

When it comes to spies, it’s always the people who most fascinate. Why did they become spooks? What did they do? So, let’s start with the characters who have dominated Scottish spying over the years.


The Jacobite turncoat

Meet Pickle the Spy – otherwise known as Alastair Ruadh MacDonnell, 13th chief of the Clan MacDonell of Glengarry. Here’s a man whose life could have jumped from the pages of an adventure yarn.

As a boy, McDonnell, a Catholic, was sent to France to finish his education. While there, the Jacobite leader John Drummond, Duke of Perth, raised the Royal-Ecossais regiment, made up of exiled Scots. MacDonnell was commissioned a captain.

In spring 1745 MacDonnell was sent back to Scotland to meet Jacobite chiefs. He was eventually captured, though, and sent to the Tower of London. Not long afterwards his brother was killed after the Battle of Falkirk.

He was recruited as a double agent by Henry Pelham, then British Prime Minister. Released under the 1747 Act of Indemnity, he was soon working as the infamous spy codenamed Pickle. Information from MacDonnell helped secure the arrest and execution of the Jacobite leader Archibald Cameron, who had escaped into exile after Culloden.

MacDonnell is thought to have pocketed the infamous treasure of Loch Arkaig, otherwise known as the Jacobite’s Lost Gold. During the 1745 rebellion, over a million French and Spanish gold coins were shipped to Scotland to assist the Jacobites. In the confusion of war, it “vanished” and Archibald Cameron was dispatched to Scotland in 1753 to find the money.

His other mission was the assassination of George II. While on the hunt for the missing gold, double agent Pickle betrayed him, and Cameron was hanged, drawn and quartered. Legend has it that MacDonnell claimed the missing loot and drifted into retirement.

The Scot who fought the Soviets

ROBERT Bruce Lockhart was a typical Scottish son of the Empire. Born into a prosperous Fife family of teachers, he was educated at Fettes College and then left for Malaya to run rubber plantations. His taste for adventure was soon plain. He ran off with “the beautiful ward” of a Malay prince, but later caught malaria and had to recuperate back in Britain.

He joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Moscow. A talented footballer, he joined a local team which won the Moscow League championship in 1912. Come the 1917 Revolution, Lockhart was British Consul General, eventually becoming the UK’s first envoy to the Bolsheviks.

He was now sleeping with the wife of a Russian count, who was also a suspected Soviet agent, and working for British intelligence. He was given £648 million in diamonds to fund a Russian agent network. In 1918, Lockhart and Sidney Reilly – aka The Ace of Spies – were accused of plotting to assassinate Lenin. Later, he was confined in the Kremlin as a prisoner but escaped trial in a spy swap. The Soviets later sentenced him to death in absentia.

His autobiography Memoirs Of A British Agent became the 1934 Hollywood movie British Agent, starring Leslie Howard. During the Second World War he co-ordinated all British propaganda against Nazi Germany. His son, Robin Bruce Lockhart, wrote the book Ace Of Spies which became a TV series starring Sam Neill in the 1980s. He died in 1970 after struggling with alcoholism most of his life.

Oor ain Jane Bond

SCOTLAND had its own female version of Indiana Jones working as a spy – Lorraine Adie Copeland, half archaeologist, half Jane Bond … and her son turned out to be Stewart Copeland, drummer in the band The Police.

Born in Scotland in 1921, Copeland came from a wealthy family – her father was a neurosurgeon with offices in London’s Harley Street.


Highly intelligent and well educated, during the Second World War she was recruited by the Special Operations Executive. SOE ran espionage and sabotage missions in occupied Europe. She met her husband at this time, the famed American spy Miles Copeland, described as charming and charismatic.

The pair married in 1942 and Copeland was soon involved in espionage in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. It was while she was in the middle east that she began studying archaeology, eventually becoming a world expert on the Stone Age.

Friends remember her as highly outspoken. The couple were friends with Kim Philby, Britain’s most notorious double agent, a member of the Cambridge spy ring who worked for the KGB while a senior MI6 officer. In Beirut, the Copeland home – the site of many glamorous parties – was known as “The CIA House”.

What better couple to work as international spies – a beautiful, intelligent Scot, and a handsome, dashing American.

They could have been characters in an Ian Fleming novel. She died in 2013 at her French home, taking her secrets to the grave.

Scotland’s spy for Imperial Japan

NOT all of Scotland’s spies are charming rogues or brilliant beauties, some are just sleazy traitors. Step forward William Forbes-Sempill, the 19th Lord Sempill. Born at Craigievar Castle in Aberdeenshire, he was educated at Eton before joining the Royal Flying Corps at the outbreak of the First World War. He was one of the most successful airmen of the conflict.

However, his fame and glamour were a cover for something much darker. In 1920, he led a British mission to Japan to help develop its airforce. However, when the Anglo-Japanese Alliance ended in 1921, Sempill should have cut all military contact with Tokyo.

He didn’t. He began passing classified information in exchange for money. When MI5 tapped his phone, they discovered his manservant was a Japanese sailor.

There was a risk that if Sempill was interrogated, Tokyo might work out that Britain had cracked Japanese codes. It was decided it wasn’t in Britain’s best interests to prosecute him.

However, it’s also pretty clear his position played a big part in saving his skin – his father was aide-de-camp to King George V. Unbelievably, Sempill went on to work at the Admiralty, with access to secret information.

By 1939, it was clear that Sempill was also pro-Hitler – and still spying for the Japanese. Churchill believed that when details of his own personal movements were intercepted on their way from the Japanese Embassy to the Tokyo Foreign Ministry, Sempill was involved.

By autumn 1941, Churchill proposed getting rid of Sempill by offering “him a post in the north of Scotland”. However, come Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Sempill’s offices were raided and secret documents uncovered which shouldn’t have been in his possession.

It was clear evidence of treason, but again no prosecution followed. Sempill agreed to retire from public office and died in 1965.


IT isn’t just people who have made their mark on the art of spying when it comes to Scotland – it’s the landscape itself, ideally suited to training spooks, saboteurs and assassins.

Special Operations Executive (SOE) used Scotland’s wild Highland terrain to train agents during the war. SOE had around 30 camps in secluded locations across the country. One site, in Inverlair in Inverness-shire, known as “The Cooler”, was used to house agents who had either failed training or been recalled from duty.

The Cooler was meant to provide time to decompress, and to ensure anyone unstable didn’t leak sensitive information.

The north of Scotland was also useful for infiltrating Nazi spies due to its remote coastline. One of Hitler’s top agents, Vera Eriksen – the German Mata Hari – was snared at a Buckie railway station.

She had landed by boat nearby. Eriksen was found, along with fellow agent Karl Drucke, with a knife, pistol, money, a radio and a list of RAF bases. Another pair of Nazi spies was caught in Scotland because they were cycling on the wrong side of the road.

SOE used Arisaig House for Commando training; Glasnacardoch Lodge at Mallaig was a weapons cache and firing range; Drumintoul Lodge in Aviemore and Glenmore Lodge in Inverness-shire were used for training commandos to fight in occupied Norway; Achnacarry Castle was a general commando training facility; and Belhaven School, Dunbar was used to train wireless operators behind enemy lines. 

Unsurprisingly, then, the SAS was founded by a Scot – David Stirling, who was born in Lecropt, Perthshire in 1915 into a wealthy, well-connected military family.

He studied at Cambridge and dreamed of becoming an artist in Paris. At over six feet, he was training to climb Everest when the Second World War broke out.
Commissioned into the Scots Guards, he then volunteered as a commando in the unit known as Force Z.

He eventually persuaded top brass to allow him to set up an experimental special operations outfit designed to operate behind enemy lines. Stirling’s right-hand man was Jock Lewes, the SAS’s principal training officer and inventor of the Lewes Bomb.

Stirling led from the front. His men would drive through German aircraft bases in North Africa shooting up planes and setting off explosives. In one raid, they took out 37 aircraft, mostly bombers, with just one man lost.

Stirling, who was dubbed “The Phantom Major” by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was captured by the Germans in 1943. He escaped, was recaptured and sent to Colditz. Field Marshall Montgomery described Stirling as “mad, quite mad”, but believed men like him essential to winning the war.

After the war, Stirling set up a mercenary outfit. He was linked to a failed coup against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. He later established an organisation called Great Britain 75 – made up of aristocrats and ex-soldiers – who planned to take over the running of the UK in the event of civil unrest and government collapse. Stirling also worked to undermine trade unionism. 

The flawed father of British special forces died in 1990.


IT’S little wonder then that the current series of SAS: Who Dares Wins finds a natural home in Scotland. It’s filmed on Raasay. In its latest bizarre outing, celebrities like Katie Price and Joey Essex are put through special forces training while being humiliated by retired SAS operatives.

Of course, there’s a slightly more upmarket side to Scotland’s spooks on film and in literature. Without Scotland, the spy genre would be a shadow of itself. Richard Hannay is the prototype fictional spy hero.

A creation of the Scottish author John Buchan, Hannay made his first appearance in the 1915 thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps about German spies operating in Britain in the run-up to the outbreak of the First World War.

The plot mirrored real attempts by the Kaiser to use spies in Scotland to gather naval intelligence. Hannay, who is also Scots, appeared in six more novels, and is based on Edinburgh’s Edmund Ironside, a spy during the Boer War.

As an aside, Buchan’s contemporary, Compton Mackenzie, the adoptive Scot who wrote the novel Whisky Galore, was a spy in the eastern Mediterranean during the First World War.

He was later prosecuted in 1932 under the Official Secrets Act for his wartime autobiography Greek Memories. He pleaded guilty to avoid trial and prison. The book revealed that UK embassies were used as spy cover, named the section of British intelligence which we now know as MI6, and revealed that the head of MI6 was known as C.

Of course, C is the inspiration for the fictional spymaster M in the James Bond novels. Not only was Bond played most memorably by Sean Connery, but 007 is also a Scot. In the novels, Bond’s father is Andrew Bond from Glencoe. After a brief stint at Eton, Bond gets expelled – for hanky-panky with a maid, of course – and completes his education at Fettes.

There are echoes of Bond in the life of his creator, Ian Fleming. Fleming had a Scottish father – Valentine, a Tory MP from Newport-on-Tay in Fife. Fleming’s grandfather was the Scottish financier Robert Fleming.

And, of course, in a neat full circle, the latest Bond movies shot some of their most iconic scenes in Scotland, with Skyfall filmed around Glen Coe and Glen Etive. The upcoming Bond movie No Time To Die also features stunning action sequences shot around Badenoch.

So, the long and strange love affair between Scotland and spies continues into the future.