The Kremlin is “interested” in exploiting divisions in Scotland over independence and the union in order to weaken the UK, according to a former leading British intelligence chief.

Russia would also see the Scottish Parliament as a target for spying. In terms of Holyrood, the “espionage risk is big”. There was also some cyber-operation “activity around the Scottish independence referendum”.

The comments are made by Ciaran Martin in an exclusive interview in today’s Herald on Sunday. Martin was one of Britain’s most senior intelligence chiefs.

As founding head of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, he sculpted Britain’s response to cyber-threats. Martin also held the post of director of security and intelligence at the Cabinet Office. GCHQ is the UK’s secret intelligence listening-post.

The Kremlin would certainly look at Scotland in terms of cyber-operations destabilising Britain. Martin said: “The Russians are no more and no less interested in Scotland and questions of separation and union than they are in other fissures in British politics.”

READ MORE: Russian 'cyberwar' could exploit divisions in Scotland

He added: “They’re interested in division. Are they interested in fissures in British politics? Yes. Is the union-versus-separation one of those fissures? Yes. So are they interested in it? Yes.

“I couldn’t stand behind an assertion that there’s a systematic campaign fixed on that issue from any foreign actor. There may be, and there may be one in the future.

“This isn’t a warning. It’s just a statement of the obvious as they’re interested in exploiting divisions. There’s no evidence that they’re acutely or more particularly interested in exploiting this one than they are a bunch of other ones.”

Russia uses cyber-warfare “to destabilise the political systems” of target countries, Martin said, using hack-and-leak operations, disinformation, and deep fakes.

In terms of the Kremlin spying on Scotland, he added: “Would a hostile foreign actor be interested in the machinations of various politicians in Holyrood or Stormont [the Belfast parliament] as well as Westminster?

“The answer to that is ‘yes, they would actually’. At least, they’d be interested enough to go and acquire some data and see if there was anything interesting there. So the espionage risk is big.”

READ MORE: Russian 'cyberwar' could exploit divisions in Scotland

Stewart McDonald MP, the SNP’s former defence spokesman, has already been targeted by a Russian state hacking-operation. Martin said the motive for such attacks was “to mess with our heads, to mess with the system, to destabilise, to fragment national cohesion and scare people”.

Martin also said that there was some cyber “activity around the Scottish independence referendum. But as far as I know - and I would know - it was very peripheral. I don’t think it could have impacted anyone’s vote”.

Cyber-warfare has also changed how espionage affects Scotland. Martin said that if a foreign intelligence agency was “confined to human assets to gather information, that’s expensive and risky.

“Do you deploy someone to have a go at spying on Holyrood, a minor British political party or a major council in Wales? Probably not. But if you can send a few phishing emails to see what you can get, do you have a go? Probably.”

Martin dismissed claims by some Scottish nationalists that British intelligence has spied on the independence movement or the SNP. Legislation, he said, means UK government cabinet ministers must sign-off all “foreign and domestic security operations”. Judges also have oversight. Any operations must be “necessary and proportionate”.

UK cyber-operations have targeted British citizens like paedophiles and terrorists but in terms of “the way the law is framed I can’t see how a warrant could get past a judge for anybody seeking peaceful political change through lawful means, and I doubt it would get past a cabinet minister”.

Citizens pursuing “peaceful constitutional change aren’t legitimate subjects of interest”. Martin added: “Hand on heart, the intelligence services are not a means of suppressing legitimate domestic political activity.”