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Inverness hotel was once a haunt of spies: espionage revelations uncovered by history forum

By Val Sweeney

The Station Hotel was used by spies. Image courtesy of Highland Railway Society/Am Baile.
The Station Hotel was used by spies. Image courtesy of Highland Railway Society/Am Baile.

INTRIGUING revelations of espionage and enemy spies in the heart of Inverness have emerged during research into the role of a city hotel during World War I.

Throughout its long history, the Royal Highland Hotel – formerly the Station Hotel – has looked after the needs of thousands of guests.

Located in Academy Street – next door to the railway station – it became a bustling place during the 1914-18 conflict when Inverness was a hub of activity with thousands of military personnel passing through. But it has also transpired that during the early years of the war, it was the haunt of enemy spies. Two – a man and a woman – were arrested and taken to London to be tried thanks to the vigilance of hotel staff.

The information was uncovered during research by members of the Inverness Local History Forum and passed on to the hotel which is planning to put up plaques to commemorate the hotel’s role during the war.

Indranil Banerjee, the hotel’s general manager, said it was a fascinating discovery and he hoped to find out more.

All that is known so far is that following the spies’ arrests some hotel staff went to London to give evidence. The man ended his career in the Tower of London while the woman was sentenced to "penal servitude for life".

"It is extremely exciting and it goes to show what sort of prominent place the hotel was during the war," Mr Banerjee said.

As well as being a hangout for spies, the research revealed the hotel played a vital role in supporting the war effort, given its location at the gateway to the strategically important north of Scotland which was later declared a special military area.

Before naval barracks were provided in the area, between 100 and 150 naval rating arrived in Inverness by rail late at night only to discover the last train to their next destination had left. The hotel came to the rescue, taking them in and giving them mattresses on the floor.

The hotel’s laundry also took on the task of washing blankets for the admiralty and a special naval mail sorting office was built which incorporated part of the laundry.

With naval depots in Invergordon and Scapa Flow, it handled millions of letters and parcels. The early morning editions of The Daily Mail, printed in Manchester, and Glasgow Herald were also delivered to Inverness so they could be read the same day on board the ships at Scapa Flow.

"It was a lifeline postal depot for those on the ships in the north," Mr Banerjee said.

The hotel was also an important stop for those travelling on the naval troop train which ran daily between London Euston and Thurso in about 22 hours.

Named the Jellicoe Express after Admiral John Jellicoe, it was dubbed The Misery Express due to the crowded, cold and foul-smelling carriages. Many men ended up standing for the whole journey in carriages which had no corridors, toilets or catering facilities.

It would undoubtedly have been a great relief for the unfortunate passengers when it stopped for about 30 minutes at Inverness where the hotel provided a meal.

The hotel was often called upon to cater at short notice for shipwrecked or torpedoed seaman and crews from captured German ships, sometimes resulting in an additional 1000 meals each day.

The Royal Highland Hotel is keen its role during World War I is recognised with a permanent reminder. "We are planning to put up some sort of plaque inside and outside," Mr Banerjee said.

"A design has yet to be finalised.

"It would have to be done so it goes with the integrity of the building. We are not doing it in a big hurry – we want it to be done right."

The Inverness Local History Forum, meanwhile, is campaigning for a plaque to be installed on the station which was a departure point for tens of thousands of servicemen as they went off to fight – some never to return.

It has submitted a formal request to ScotRail Alliance, highlighting the station’s importance during World War I when it was policed by armed soldiers and those wishing to travel had to have a special permit.

Permission to enter the station also had to be obtained in advance, even for those wishing to say their farewells.

Civilian passengers disembarking were not allowed to leave the station unless they had a permit and British subjects resident in the town had to carry a passbook.

In January 1916 the Highland Railway Company provided a much-needed tearoom by transforming the first-class waiting room on the north platform. It was managed by the Inverness Citizens’ Committee and supported by public donations of money and gifts.

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