Spies revealed: Edinburgh was hotbed for espionage

Chief Constable of the Lothian and Peebles Police William Merrilees says goodbye after retiring. Picture: TSPL
Chief Constable of the Lothian and Peebles Police William Merrilees says goodbye after retiring. Picture: TSPL
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A FIGURE lurks in the shadows revealed by the glowing tip of a cigarette. An innocent advert in a national newspaper is deciphered by those in the know as a direct order for action. Secrets are inadvertently whispered across silk pillows to devastatingly beautiful women with exotic accents.

The world of the spy is nothing if not mysterious and glamorous. At least that’s the popular portrayal of secret agents thanks to Ian Fleming’s James Bond and his tuxedoed ilk. Mind you, if you prefer your spies a little seedier, their macs a little grubbier then perhaps John Le Carré is your spy author of choice.

There’s certainly no denying that the world of espionage is a big seller when it comes to novels and films – and next week’s Spy Festival, organised by Edinburgh University, will aim to decipher just what it is about spy fiction that gives it such a widespread appeal.

But in the real world Edinburgh, because of its renowned universities, has long been a hotbed for espionage recruitment – by many different shades of government – while its also been a city where spies from other countries were sent to uncover our national secrets.

Back in August 1914, American tourist Charles Inglis checked into the North British Hotel on Princes Street. But in reality he was a 37-year-old retired German naval officer-turned-spy named Carl Lody, who had been sent from Berlin to Edinburgh to study the goings-on on the Firth of Forth, where some British warships were at anchor.

Lody spoke with an American accent but his lack of training soon showed. Apparently he would communicate with the Fatherland through regular telegrams or by post with another German agent in Stockholm called Adolf Buchard, who was already under surveillance and all his communications monitored. The authorities in Britain allowed Lody to send his information, as most of it was wrong – including a report about the landing of large numbers of Russian troops heading for the Western Front.

But Lody grew nervous – quite rightly. He was being shadowed by a member of the British intelligence services, so moved out of the hotel saying he was going to Liverpool.

Instead he moved to a boarding house or 12 Drumsheugh Gardens, but even the family he lodged with began to get suspicious of the odd hours he kept, and the occasional slip in his accent. He moved on to Liverpool where he sent reports about warships docked there, before finally being arrested on his way to a British naval station in Ireland.

He was taken to London and charged with spying for Germany, convicted and executed by firing squad at the Tower of London in the November.

As short-lived as Lody’s espionage career was at four months, a spy who had rather more longevity was Edinburgh University alumni Dr Robin Pearson, left, who allegedly betrayed his friends and colleagues while working as an agent for the Stasi, the former East German secret service.

Pearson was apparently recruited in 1977 while studying for a year at Leipzig University as part of his Edinburgh University course in German and history, and given the code-name Armin. Upon his return to the Capital he apparently began to systematically spy on his fellow students – reading their dissertations in a bid to look for clues to their political leanings.

Even when he left Edinburgh for Leeds, his spying continued until 1989. A BBC documentary in 1999 revealed that MI5 had known about Pearson since 1994 and when confronted he admitted that he was “Armin”.

It’s believed around 600 students from Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Bradford and Leeds universities took part in the same exchange programme as Pearson – from which the Stasi claimed to have recruited one in ten students.

But then according to a former Edinburgh University academic, the place was riddled with spies in the 1970s.

When the Pearson revelations were aired, retired professor John Erickson said he had been approached by “a large number of people working undercover for foreign agencies” when he headed the university’s Centre for Defence Studies.

In fact, espionage was so common that, as an authority on strategy and military technology in the Middle East, Soviet Union and China, Professor Erickson – who passed away in 2002 – had to introduce strict rules to prevent himself becoming embroiled.

He said at the time: “A lot of people had interests which were not academic. It got to one stage where we had to exclude Arabs and Israelis.

One party would keep asking what the other party was interested in.

“We had to take extensive procedures: under no circumstances would anyone be allowed to use or bring in classified materials, there would be no encouragement of work which would not be thoroughly academic and under no circumstances would anybody be encouraged to undertake classified work whatsoever.”

He added: “But this didn’t just go on in Edinburgh University – it went on in all universities across Britain.”

Another former Edinburgh University student was Klaus Fuchs, the German Communist whose spying in Britain and the US is said to have provoked the West’s Cold War obsession with nuclear espionage.

Forced to flee Germany to France then England in 1934 after involvement in the anti-Nazi movement, the confirmed Communist came to Edinburgh to study physics.

But ten years after graduating – seven after becoming a British citizen – he confessed to passing atomic secrets to the Russians and his trial in 1949 led to America suspending co-operation with Britain in developing nuclear weapons. He served nine years of a 14-year sentence for espionage before moving to East Germany.

War always means espionage levels increase, and the Second World War saw spy Robert Petter arrive in Edinburgh. He had been dropped by seaplane off the Aberdeenshire coast on September 30, 1940 to spy on east coast air bases.

But police were tipped off and while he tried to get to London, the German agent was ultimately arrested in Waverley Station by Detective Willie Merrilees disguised as a railway porter.

He was convicted for treason and hanged in 1941, but his belongings including a Mauser automatic pistol, the first flick-knife Edinburgh police had ever seen, his false Swiss passport and a radio transmitter in a suitcase have all been on display at the National War Museum of Scotland.

Of course the best-known spy ever to emerge from Edinburgh University is Dame Stella Rimmington, who became the first female director general of MI5. She was a student of English there just as the Cold War was getting into full swing – though it was her husband’s job in India which first introduced her to the world of espionage as she got an assistant’s job with MI5’s man in the country.

From 1969 to 1990, back in the UK, she worked in counter-espionage, counter-subversion and counter-terrorism before being prompted to Deputy Director-General. In 1991 she visited Moscow to make the first friendly contact between British intelligence and the KGB – and on her return was told she’d been promoted to DG.

She made the security services far more transparent, and even allowed for spies to be recruited through advertising. She has written her memoirs and spy fiction – and will be the big name at next week’s Edinburgh spy fest.

Also on the bill is author Charles Cumming, another Edinburgh University graduate, who chose writing about fictional spies to the real thing.

He had just graduated when at a dinner party hosted by his mother he met “Anthony, recently retired from the Foreign Office”, who later asked his mum if he’d consider joining the diplomatic corp. Within days Charles had received a letter from the Foreign Office inviting him to attend an interview, he was asked to sign the Official Secrets Act and was interviewed by two “spies”.

However, it was when he sat the civil service test, that he realised that it was the wrong career choice – and he says the intelligence service had reached the same conclusion.

But he believes he gained some insight into what characteristics are needed to make a good spy: “A person who does not immediately stand out from the crowd. Good spies, in my experience, wear their personalities lightly, are invariably introspective and thoughtful.”

Not quite James Bond then.


THE intriguing world of fictional espionage will be investigated during the city’s first Spy Festival which starts this Sunday.

As well as screenings of classic spy films like The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, highlights include a talk by Edinburgh University alumni and former MI5 Director-General Dame Stella Rimington on the differences between spy fact and fiction, and a discussion on the work of much loved author John Buchan.

Professor Penny Fielding, of the University’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures says: “The world of espionage has not only provided authors with some of their most memorable plots but spy fiction also confronts some of the ethical, cultural and historical events which have shaped the modern world.

“This inaugural Spy Week is an opportunity to celebrate and explore that work.”

Her colleague Simon Cooke adds: “There are festivals of crime fiction, so we thought why not espionage? It’s a genre which has broad appeal as can be seen from the variety of fiction written and the film which are produced.

“At the present moment we have so many anxieties about surveillance and being watched but we are still intrigued by the person who is the spy, because of the fundamental human questions – do you really know the people around you and who are you really? Are you the person you present to the world? And how does the spy hold on to who they really are? That is why I think the world of espionage appeals.

“We are hoping to make this an annual event so we hope a lot of people will come along. But to be clear – this is not an undercover operation to recruit new spies,” he laughs.

Also taking part will be action thriller writer Tim Stevens and Jeremy Duns, the creator of fictional British double agent Paul Dark.

The week has been organised in partnership with the Edinburgh Filmhouse, National Library of Scotland, and Blackwell’s Bookshop.

• Edinburgh Spy Week runs from Sunday, April 6 to April 12. For more information go to www.spyweek.llc.ed.ac.uk.