These maritime passages were the only routes for Soviet submarines to leave naval bases in northern Russia and provide access to the Atlantic and onwards to the east coast of North America.
That made Scotland the first big target, and accounted for a build-up of sophisticated anti-submarine warfare facilities and early warning systems in the country.
It was here and in Scottish skies that the first sea and air battles would have been fought; and it was from the American and British bases on the Clyde at Holy Loch and Faslane that the strategic submarines would have launched the response by way of Polaris and Poseidon missiles, each capable of destroying Hiroshima several times over.
When the confrontation with the Soviet Union ended in the 1990s, there was a peace dividend of sorts. The American submarines left their forward operating base at Holy Loch in 1992, presumably never to return, and consecutive UK defence reviews changed Scotland’s Cold War infrastructure for ever. Two of the three RAF bases in Scotland — at Kinloss and Leuchars — were closed in 2012 and 2015 respectively and re-emerged as army barracks, leaving only RAF Lossiemouth with its Eurofighter Typhoons to continue the watch in northern skies.
In addition, previously secretive facilities such as the American navy’s listening post at RAF Edzell in Angus were abandoned, and when the maritime headquarters at Pitreavie in Fife closed in 1996, and its command bunker was sealed, it seemed as though the final vestige of Cold War history in Scotland had been eradicated. That should have been that — but it was by no means the final curtain.
Still very much in business was the hugely expensive naval base at Faslane, which cost £1.9bn at 1994 prices. Faslane is an extraordinary asset, but it will be the elephant in the room should Scotland gain independence in the immediate future. The SNP’s position is that all nuclear weapons will have to be removed from Scotland, but at the same time the party has made it clear that an independent Scotland will apply for membership of nuclear-equipped Nato.
This represents a challenge and an opportunity.
Given the strategic importance of Faslane and the undoubted importance of submarines in modern naval operations, not least in intelligence gathering, why doesn’t Scotland follow Iceland’s example and lease the base to Nato, just as our northern neighbour did with the air force base at Keflavik — a crucial asset from 1949 until 2006?
Under a bilateral agreement with America, Iceland provided the alliance with land and facilities as its main contribution. Operating under the title of the Iceland Defence Force — the host country does not possess an army — Keflavik emerged as a key asset in the Cold War.
There were winners all round. For a country with a modest financial sector, Iceland benefited from the boom created by the US connection. Nato had just been formed and was facing up to the maritime nature of its confrontation with the Soviet Union. The alliance understood the strategic importance of the north Atlantic. Iceland was a founder member of Nato in 1949; five years earlier, the country had achieved independence from Denmark — an important staging post on its journey to become a fully fledged nation.
The move to join Nato and to lease the base was not universally popular, however: nationalists feared a dilution of Icelandic culture and socialists wanted closer ties with the Soviet Union.
But realism overcame ambivalence under the leadership of foreign minister Bjarni Benediktsson, and throughout the Cold War Iceland was central to Nato strategy on its northern flank.
Under the terms of the agreement, Keflavik was debarred from housing nuclear weapons, but this did not prevent America’s National Security Agency from considering the possibility of storing nuclear warheads there in the early 1960s.
Recently released papers show the extent of the planning, but the idea was dropped when US ambassador Tyler Thompson warned it would cause a “dramatic row” and should be abandoned. Officially, that is what happened, but rumours to the contrary persist.
According to Richard Fieldhouse of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the US continued to deploy 48 nuclear weapons in Iceland until the end of the Cold War.
The nuclear issue could still prove a sticking point for all that the SNP did a U-turn over Nato membership in 2012 and for all that political parties have not been unknown to trim policy when it suits changed circumstances.
I am opposed to nuclear weapons on grounds of cost, morality and lack of effectiveness, but an independent Scotland will not be so awash with cash that it can ignore an asset such as Faslane, which could attract a rental of £1.1bn a year.
The SNP promises that Faslane will be “a vibrant and sustainable conventional naval base” but it makes no sense to house conventional naval forces in a modern, purpose-built base designed to operate nuclear submarines — and which newly independent country needs such an elaborate facility? Iceland makes do with three patrol vessels and smaller boats operated by 200 sailors.
Outside the main gate of the base at Keflavik, a sign read “Nato Iceland Defence Force, Republic of Iceland/United States Dept of Defence”. For a similar sign outside Faslane, change “Iceland” to “Scotland” and it all makes sense.
Facing the Bear: Scotland and the Cold War, by Trevor Royle, is published by Birlinn