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Pentland Heist

Updated: Oct 21, 2018

Thirty years ago, Pentland Hills Regional Park was at the centre of a police investigation when what appeared to be little more than a winter road accident in the hills transpired to be one of the bloodiest heists ever played out on Scottish soil.

On a snowy morning in January 1985, a local farmer discovered an army Land Rover lodged in a ditch in the Pentland Hills, on a quiet country track near Flotterstone Inn. Its lights were still glowing and window wipers on. Spotting blood on the front seat and a shattered front window, he reported it to the police, who, unbeknown to him, were already looking for the vehicle. They had been contacted by army officials at the Glencourse Barracks on the back of a chain of events which had aroused suspicion.

Police followed a trail of blood in the snow which led to the remote and disused Loganlea Cottage, where they made a gruesome discovery – the bodies of three army personnel, each of whom had been shot dead. They were Major David Cunningham, Staff Sergeant Terrence Hosker and Private John Thomson.

But it was not so much what they found at the scene which shaped the investigation but rather what was missing. The three army men had been making their way back to base with almost £20,000 – the payroll for their comrades at Glencourse. The sack stuffed full of money, freshly collected from a branch of the Royal Branch of Scotland in Penicuik, was nowhere to be seen; the motive for the killings was seemingly clear.

Today Loganlea Cottage, once used by water workers, still stands empty.

The site is enveloped by inviting countryside, and few passers-by are aware that this quaint building has an integral part in Scotland's criminal history. In 1985, it was a crime scene with the police throwing resources at a type of crime which fortunately was at the time and still is today, rare.

The fact that three men had been murdered in cold blood ensured that the subsequent manhunt was one of the biggest and most concerted ever mounted. The fact that all three were army men intensified the shock that people felt over their deaths and the services' cloak of invincibility seemed to have been thrown to one side. Terrorism (related to the troubles in Northern Ireland) was at the forefront on everyone's mind initially, but the evidence didn't stack up. Scotland had publicly been declared safe from IRA attacks, and as the circumstances were examined further it became clear that robbery, not politics, was the motive. They were dealing with a cash heist.

It transpired that the army guarded the country with more diligence than the did the force's money. As the probe into the missing money began, a familiar routine was revealed, where rather than an armoured security van, a canvas-roofed Land Rover was used to make the payroll journey from the Glencourse Barracks to Penicuick and back. The trusty Land Rover had been part and parcel of army life since they were first developed in the late 1940s. From carrying supplies and troops to serving as field ambulances, their versatility has been a boon for the army for decades, but with no security features it was never designed to be a cash-carrying vehicle. However it was regularly used for the payroll run at Glencourse, manned by three people, and with a nod to the lack of external security features the crew was under strict orders – no stopping, no passengers and no diversions except under police direction.

The payroll run could be anything up to £60,000. On the day of the shootings, the Land Rover was carrying £19,000.

At base on the day, colleagues became concerned when the three men on the payroll run did not return on schedule, and notified police. And at around 11am officers were alerted by the farmer who found the Land Rover. Focus was directed towards the army as knowledge of the payroll run and the use of a firearm in the murders pointed towards the sickening realisation that it was an “inside” job.

Soldiers stationed at Glencourse and the nearby Ritchie Camp at Kirknewton were interviewed immediately. The discipline at the heart of the army lent a sense of order and protocol during those crucial early stages, which gave a significant head start to the officers detailed to deal with the colleagues of the murdered soldiers. They knew where everyone was and had access to well-kept logs of people's movements and other aspects of life at the base. Ledgers pertaining to use of the weaponry held on site were being carefully examined within hours.

In tandem, police were gathering forensic and ballistic data from the scene. What the man who fired those fatal bullets would not have bargained on was that not only can the type of gun used be identified, but the exact one, thanks to the ballistic “fingerprint” - the mark each gun leaves on every round it fires. Nine cartridges from the same weapon were retrieved and cross-referenced with the weaponry logs at Ritchie Camp. The results were available on the evening after the payroll robbery.

At 8am on 17th January, a soldier called Andrew Walker had signed out a sub-machine gun with the apparent intention of using it for weapons training with a young soldier at Glencourse. He returned it at 2pm with no concerns raised. He was 31 and his address was Kaimes Avenue, Kirknewton. As soon as the results of the ballistics investigation confirmed that the gun he had had in his possession was the one that had fired the deadly shots, he was charged with the murder of his three colleagues.

At his High Court trial in Edinburgh in May 1985, evidence from 125 witnesses painted a picture of desperate actions by a desperate man. He was due to depart for a tour of duty in West Germany, leaving behind his wife and two young children and he had debts to settle. He had hitched a lift in the payroll Land Rover in November and December 1984, testing his ability to breach security procedures. The problem was – and Walker was well aware of it – that by using his uniform to gain a seat on the return journey from the bank on that January morning, he would be easily identifiable to his colleagues which meant the only way of escaping with the money was for him to kill those men.

After persuading the crew to give him a lift back to base, he presumably chose an opportune moment to produce the gun he had concealed within his uniform. A witness reported hearing a shot near to the Mauricewood housing estate, on the approach to Flotterstone, and it is believed that Major Cunningham may have been the first victim at this point. Hosker is thought to have been the next to suffer, with Thomson, the driver, spared only until they had reached their destination at Loganlea Cottage. The plan began to unravel as Walker made his escape in the Land Rover with blood dripping from it. Fresh snowfall and ice on the track, coupled with his hasty retreat, led to the vehicle careering off course and into a ditch. From there, his plan for an exit on four wheels was replaced by one on two feet.

He hitched a lift first in the direction of Edinburgh and then back towards Penicuik, where he retrieved a distinctive Fiat Mirafiori that he had borrowed from a fellow soldier. He undertook various activities in order to establish his alibi, but it quickly fell to pieces in the public arena of the investigation.

He was known to his army colleagues as Billy Liar - a nod to his tall stories and boasts. Beneath that was a steely aggression, something he had demonstrated from a young age by reaching the semi-finals of the national amateur boxing championships while representing his Edinburgh club Sparta.

In the build up to the murderous heist, he had fallen foul of army superiors – fined at first for failing to return to his unit after leave and then again for failing to appear for duty and lying to his commanding officer. Eventually, just a week before the robbery, he was dismissed from his job as a firearms instructor at Glencourse and was returned to his battalion at Kirknewton. In the words of his military record, Walker had become “quite unreliable and was losing the confidence of his comrades and superiors.” In hindsight, that assessment was an incredible understatement of the character of the man under investigation for one of the greatest crimes in modern-day Scottish military history.

Intriguingly, the £19,000 has never been found. Walker always maintained his innocence and never revealed what he did with the money. It remains one of the few remaining mysteries yet to be solved, three decades on from one of Scotland's most shocking criminal episodes.

The Pentland Hills near Loganlea
The Pentland Hills near Loganlea

First published in Konect September 2015

This article is extracted from “Heist” by Paul Smith, published by Birlinn, 2014. Abridged by Helen-Jane Shearer with permission of the publisher.


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