My Classmate was a Kidnapper


On the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Train Robbery, I recalled the fact that I went to school with a kidnapper. And there is a link between the kidnapper and the famous robbery.

There can be few who do not know the story of the Great Train Robbery in 1963. I am old enough to remember it as I was eight years old.

The grainy black and white footage on the BBC news of the train stopped at the bridge where the loot was unloaded sticks in my mind. I well remember the national intake of breath at both the daring of the operation and the staggering amount of money that was stolen.

Two million pounds was more than most people, certainly in my strata of society, knew existed.

What followed, something I have rarely seen referred to since, was frequent sightings of runaway robbers hiding in various towns. I lived in the north east of Scotland, nearly 500 miles from the site of the robbery and, in my gang of eight year old friends, we were convinced that a Great Train Robber was hiding in the bushes just across the street from my house.

We never found a Great Train Robber, but I knew someone who did.

For my final year of school my family moved to Penicuik, which lies between Edinburgh and Peebles, and I completed my schooling at the local high school. There I met a remarkable man, Ivor MacIver who taught biology. He was a highlander, an ex-Royal Marine, drove HGV lorries and was a man who, having fulfilled his dream of going to The University of Edinburgh, uniquely took a double first in zoology and botany and entered teaching.

He was my inspiration for going to the same university to study biology and was one of the best teachers I ever encountered. But he’s not the kidnapper.

Looking back, I assume Mr MacIver was a highland Catholic. He had a large family and a small house. Some of the family were accommodated in a caravan in the garden and the boys unashamedly wore kilts to school. Nobody would have ‘messed’ with these boys or they would have had their big brother to contend with. And their big brother was Thorfinn MacIver. He sat in front of me in the Higher French class which, incidentally, I think we both failed. He was an assertive but gentle giant and played rugby for the school, very well. I certainly got the impression that he was frightened of nothing and nobody and he was held in high esteem by his peers.

I left school and my family moved from Penicuik to the west coast of Scotland. I rarely thought of Thorfinn until I heard of him many years later. I don’t remember the precise circumstances under which I saw his name, but it was on the Internet, and it was in association with escaped train robber Ronnie Biggs who had finally returned to prison in the UK in 2001.

Twenty years earlier in 1981, a semi-successful attempt to kidnap Biggs from Brazil, where he had settled in Rio, was made by a young American and a group of ex-British soldiers. The intention, allegedly, was to return him to the UK to face justice and complete his prison sentence.

Biggs was duly kidnapped and taken to a boat which foundered due to engine trouble near Barbados. The contents of the boat—Biggs and his captors—were imprisoned there until Biggs was released back to Brazil and the kidnappers were released, mainly into obscurity.

Doubt still surrounds the events of 1981 over whether the kidnap was staged as a publicity stunt for Biggs who subsequently made a film of the incident.

If I ever run into my former classmate Thorfinn MacIver I’ll be sure to ask him.

He ought to know, he captained the boat which took Biggs from Rio to Barbados.

Roger Watson is a Registered Nurse and Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice.