A Scottish Spy: John Cairncross and the Cambridge Spy-ring

Research funded by the Society provided vital insights into the early life of this Soviet agent.

John Cairncross Security Department File documentIn the 1930s, a group of bright young men met at Cambridge University. These were Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. The Great Depression was a period economic and political turbulence, this, combined with the rise of far-right extremism, had a considerable impact at the University of Cambridge. Large numbers of students drawn towards radical Communist politics. Few students, however, were as effected by Cambridge’s inter-war politics as these young men. Soon enough, they had made contact with, and agreed to work for, the Soviet Union’s shadowy intelligence agency – the NKVD. Each of these men would rise to important positions within the British state, infiltrating MI5, MI6, the Special Operations Executive, and the Foreign Office, all the while feeding highly secret information to their Soviet handlers.

It was not until 1951, when trans-Atlantic counter-espionage efforts threatened to expose the ring, one of its members, that Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess sensationally disappeared, only to later re-emerge having absconded to Moscow. Over the following decades, MI5 would slowly catch up with the other two – Philby also fled to Moscow in 1963 and Blunt was publicly exposed as a spy in 1979. Though these embarrassing, and highly visible, revelations shook the British establishment, unbeknownst the public, another man, John Cairncross (1913-1995), had also been working for the Soviet Union in secret. Like the other four, Cairncross had attended Cambridge in the 1930s, where he too was radicalised. Prior to that time, he had also studied at the University of Glasgow and the Sorbonne, Paris. With his Cambridge degree in hand, as well as connections to NKVD recruiters, he went on to forge a career in the Civil Service, having joined the Foreign Office in 1937, from where he leaked vast quantities of secret information to Moscow.

Besides the Foreign Office, over the course of his civil service career, which ended in 1952, Cairncross also infiltrated the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the Second World War code-breaking bureau at Bletchley Park, MI6 and the Ministry of Supply. Acknowledged by the Soviet Union as one of its most important spies, he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. It has also been alleged that Cairncross was the first mole in the West to provide the Soviet Union evidence that the Allies were developing atomic weapons technology. Nevertheless, despite his significance (which, following provision of a confession to MI5 in 1964, was covered up by the British state), it was not until 1990 that he was publicly accused, by the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, as being the so-called ‘fifth man’ of the Cambridge Spy-ring.

Cairncross still remains the least known about and most enigmatic of the Cambridge spies. This, in part at least, stems from the fact that unlike the other members of the ring who were from highly privileged backgrounds, he was from a humble, lower middle-class home. Born in the mining town of Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, Cairncross’ father ran a local shop. Upon his arrival at Cambridge in 1934, Cairncross found his new environment starkly, unsettlingly and unwelcomingly alien: his social class, accent and mannerisms entirely at odds with those of his privileged Cambridge contemporaries.

Though much information has come to light regarding his role as a spy, the details of his formative years, where he grew up in Scotland’s industrial Central Belt, remain almost entirely unknown. With the assistance of funds provided by Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, I was able to conduct research on Cairncross’ early life, and the community in Lesmahagow, where he was born and raised. Local research, into the industrial and economic history of Lesmahagow and south Lanarkshire, was conducted Glasgow City Archive; Lesmahagow Library; and the South Lanarkshire Records Centre, East Kilbride.

This area of research proved particularly invaluable, shedding light on the impact of economic turmoil on the town and region during the 1920s and 1930s. Heavily reliant on coal mining, the town was particularly badly hit by the 1926 General Strike, the poverty of the Great Depression, far-left political radicalism in the Clyde region, and the general decline of the coal mining industry in the aftermath of the First World War. Though he was, later in life, keen to disassociate his upbringing with his later activities as a spy, this research shows the considerable extent to which he observed extreme poverty and radical leftwing politics from a very early age.

The grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland also facilitated research on the rich personal archives of John Cairncross’ brother and former Principal of Glasgow University, the late Sir Alec Cairncross, held by the University of Glasgow. Not only did this archive provide a rich variety of untapped sources, including letters between the two brothers and their other siblings shedding light on their family life, but also includes Sir Alec’s largely hitherto unpublished diaries. This latter material, in particular, provided a lifelong running commentary on his wayward brother’s developing character, before and after his time as a Soviet mole. Both of the Cairncross brothers were also alumni of Glasgow University, access to Glasgow University Archive also provided access to important insights into the university in the early 1930s. Finally, these funds also facilitated research in the National Library of Scotland and access to a wide variety of rare publications on Scotland in the inter-war period.

Ultimately, the research funded by the Society has provided vital insights, primarily into the early life of this Soviet agent, the socio-economic environments which shaped his early political and intellectual development, but also Cairncross’ life more generally. This research directly feeds into a wider project to write the first biography of this hugely important spy.

by Christopher Smith

Help us to do more

Help us: champion research; stimulate discussion; enhance public understanding; and share our extraordinary heritage. Donate directly to the Society now.