The death of Willie Macrae
IT has all the hallmarks of a thriller. The victim: the larger-than-life, globetrotting hero of a national movement. The setting: the rugged, misty arena of a mighty Highland glen. The event: death by gunshot.
A shot fired at night, in the dark, miles from habitation: the drama unseen, unknown, and unexplained. That’s the drama. The reality is the old, old tale of human blunder and carnal pride.
Ten years ago Willie McRae, prominent Glasgow lawyer and a senior Scottish Nationalist, was found dying in his crashed Volvo by the lonely A87, on a Saturday morning early in April. It seemed, at the time, a straightforward road accident. The Monday papers printed respectful obituaries to a well-kent figure, once prominent in the SNP, once — in October 1974 — short by merely 663 votes of replacing Hamish Gray as MP for Ross and Cromarty.
It was some time before the media learned that McRae had, in fact, been shot. And it was even longer before many began to query the prevailing line of officialdom: that McRae, driven by unknown demons, had taken his own life.
Ten years later the mystery boils on. There have been articles and investigations, a TV documentary; two books feature analyses of the mystery. The luckless McRae has been linked, at various times, with Mossad, with Asian extremists, with the ”Scottish National Liberation Army”; he has been accused, safely silent in his grave — without widow or children to defend him — of mental instability, alcoholism, homosexuality, malfeasance and megalomania; his demise, variously, has been attributed to agents of MI5, Strathclyde Police Special Branch, the British nuclear industry, and a drug cartel running dope through the West Highlands.
Do the facts favour conspiracy?
The facts include a succession of fantastic blunders in the spring of 1985 — born in the confusion of the day, fuelled by political self-interest in the weeks that followed, now sustained by the massive weight of bureaucracy in a state reluctant to admit secrets or error, which may be covering up a murder.
Having viewed exclusive evidence, I can now assert:
* At least six hours passed after the discovery of McRae before anyone realised he had been shot.
* By that time, a Northern Constabulary officer had failed to prevent massive interference with the scene.
* That officer was NOT the local constable, and, remarkably, several local officers were — on this weekend — absent or off duty.
* Raigmore Hospital, where McRae was first admitted, did not test his blood for alcohol or drugs.
* The Northern Constabulary had removed McRae’s car before the gun was found.
* There is no proof — of any kind — that the gun was found in proximity to McRae or to his car.
* The policeman who found the gun is adamant that it was well away from the car.
* The gun yielded no fingerprints whatever.
* There is no proof that McRae ever owned it.
* The one witness who assured the authorities he did own it has completely disappeared.
* The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Willie McRae did not conduct elementary tests that could have proved either suicide or homicide.
* Senior sources who insist he was never under ”secret state” surveillance admit that the possibility of homicide cannot be eliminated.
There is little doubt in my mind: Willie McRae was murdered.
* * *
McRAE was born in 1923 in Carron, by Falkirk. His father was an electrician, of Kintail extraction, where the family had many relatives. It was not a background of privilege, but it had all the romance of the lad o’ pairts. McRae excelled in school. He left Glasgow University with a first in history, simultaneously editing a local paper in Grangemouth. Commissioned in the Seaforth Highlanders, he transferred to the Royal Indian Navy. To the end of his life he had close contacts with the subcontinent; he made no secret of his sympathy with Indian aspirations to self-government.
After the war McRae returned to Glasgow and graduated anew in law. He was already active in the SNP. He has been linked to the famous Stone of Destiny romp in 1950. Less believably, he has been credited with assistance in drafting much of Israel’s constitution. (This sort of lore follows McRae everywhere: he is supposed to have been able to recite Tam O’Shanter at the age of six; won untold academic prizes; been fluent in Urdu, Hindi and other tongues; left the RIN as a commander; been on personal terms with David Ben Gurion, Indira Gandhi, etc etc . . . Much of this may be true.)
He was ”something of a bulldog to look at”; slicked hair, determined jaw, a penchant for three-piece suits, a stolid, pugnacious presence. McRae smoked, or rather ate, 80 or more Gold Flake cigarettes a day, untipped, specially imported from Dublin. McRae ”could take a good dram”, but intimates are adamant they never saw him the worse for wear. ”He hated being fuzzy-minded,” insists Michael Strathern, who knew him well.
Three things are certainly true. McRae, a gifted orator, and enthralling company, was adored by his friends. McRae was a committed, and for a time very senior, Scottish Nationalist — though, by 1985, less prominent. And he was a successful lawyer. Willie McRae was still happy to lend his energies to good causes. In the seventies he represented inshore fishermen against the creation of a torpedo-range off Wester Ross. In 1980 he was prominent in the public inquiry at Mullwharcher, Ayrshire, against UKAEA proposals for the dumping of nuclear waste.
McRae has been credited, single-handedly, with saving a local planning decision and denying the UKAEA permission. This was certainly a serious setback for the nuclear industry, which has still no long-term strategy for storing its toxins. ”Nuclear waste,” he declaimed, in a line that brought the house down, ”should be stored where Guy Fawkes put his gunpowder.” The press lapped it up. McRae became an increasingly vocal critic of the British nuclear lobby.
He seems to have had a hand in organising the ”Oystercatcher” operation to frustrate illicit test-boring in Glen Etive. It is unlikely, however, that he was linked to the cod-Provos of the SNLA, though he seems to have approved of the comic-opera Siol nan Gaidheal — even claimed to be a member. Certainly, as a lawyer, he acted for SNG members arrested during various japes. His heart, it appears, was set on playing in another public inquiry into the fast-reactor proposals for a ”European Demonstration Reprocessing Plant” at Dounreay. McRae, it has been asserted, was writing a tell-all book on the nuclear industry. Others claim that he hinted darkly of secret knowledge, that he had classified papers.
Can any of this be proved?
Willie McRae was brilliant, passionate, larger than life. He would have revelled in a new battle. But the EDRP inquiry was scheduled at Thurso for April 7, 1986. When that day came, he had been dead for precisely a year.
* * *
THE A87 road, from Invergarry to its junction with the Kyle of Lochalsh-Invermoriston carriageway, has been colourfully described as ”perilous, narrow . . . a road on which the most reckless of drivers would go slowly for fear of meeting another vehicle coming the other way”. In fact, the A87 is a new double-track highway, with mild and sensible bends, and is perfectly safe.
Here, well off the road, about 10am on the morning of Saturday, April 6, 1985, McRae’s car was found by an Australian tourist. Inside, comatose and with bloodied head, was Willie McRae. It was — one of many bizarre coincidences to dot this case — the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. It was the first known sighting of McRae since he left Glasgow the night before.
On the night of Thursday, April 4, McRae returned to his top-floor Glasgow flat — 6 Balvicar Drive — after a ceilidh with his godson, Howard Singerman. Early next morning, two passers-by saw flames from his window; one raised the alarm, and the other dashed upstairs and broke in. He found McRae lying unconscious on the hall floor. The fire brigade arrived and doused a fire in the bathroom.
McRae, though shocked and sooty, recovered fast and declined medical attention. His explanation for the fire seems weak. He claimed to have fallen asleep while smoking in bed, and awoke to find clothes smouldering. In panic, he had bundled them up and dashed out to dump the blankets in his new acrylic bath. He (presumably) turned the taps on; nevertheless, the bath caught fire.
McRae was highly embarrassed by the episode and remained in the flat throughout Friday. His business partner Ronnie Welsh visited him. McRae managed a joke. Later, a kindly neighbour brought him some soup. He refused the use of their bathroom. He knew where he could get cleaned up, he said. He was heading for a quiet weekend at his cottage, Camusty, by Dornie, some eight miles east of Kyle.
The episode is significant: first, because a fire in these circumstances is notoriously associated with drunken stupor, and — secondly — because Ronnie Welsh, whose role in McRae’s death is significant and strange, has since vanished. At 6.30pm, on Friday 5th, another neighbour arrived in Balvicar Drive as McRae pulled away. And so the maroon Volvo 244 — FGB 214X — and its ebullient owner began the journey they would never complete.
McRae used Camusty often. He knew the road well. We know that at some point McRae’s car developed a puncture. When the wreck was later examined, a ”clean” spare wheel was on the rear axle; the punctured original was on the back seat. Scott and McLeay’s account of McRae’s death is the best available (Britain’s Secret War, Mainstream, 1990); they typically speculate that McRae stopped to change the wheel after Invergarry. By then it would be about 9.30pm, and quite dark.
Alan Crowe was an Australian airline pilot. His present whereabouts are unknown. On Saturday 6th he and his wife, holidaying in the Highlands, noticed a maroon Volvo lying on the moor some distance short of the road’s junction with the A887. As couples do, the Crowes continued driving north for some time arguing over what they had seen and what they should do. They agreed to turn back and stopped in the lay-by.
The car, a long beast, was ”straddling a burn”, some ”100 yards beneath the road”. Even more oddly, it was pointing south, back towards Invergarry. The Crowes could make out a slumped body, but it is not clear if they left the road to look.
Certainly they flagged down the next car to pass. There occurred the next — and double — coincidence. The driver was a doctor, Dr Dorothy Messer (now Dr Dorothy Lochhead), travelling with her fiance, George Lochhead; and one of her passengers was an SNP councillor from Dundee, David Coutts — who was heading north with his wife Alison, and who knew McRae.
Together they bounded down the hillside. Coutts saw an SNP car-sticker and exclaimed; seconds later he saw McRae’s face, and had the shock of his life. McRae’s hands were ”folded on his lap”; his head was ”slumped on his right shoulder”, and there was a ”considerable amount of blood on his temple”. McRae was not wearing his seat belt.
Our farce begins.
At this point everyone assumed, quite reasonably — but without, in hindsight, anything more than circumstantial warrant — that they were dealing with a normal road accident and seeing typical bloody head injuries. Further, there was a doctor present — a pleasant, competent, professional doctor — who made the same assumption and reinforced the mistake of them all.
More cars had paused to goggle. One was sent to call ambulance and police. Dr Messer ”pulled McRae upright” and examined him. (If this is true why did she manipulating a casualty who, for all she knew, could have had serious spinal injuries?) According to Scott and McLeay, she knew that he was ”still alive . . . his chest was moving and he was still breathing”. One of McRae’s pupils was dilated, a ”sign of extensive brain damage”. She estimated he had been in that position for 10 hours — putting the time of the incident about midnight. And the assumption of timing has stood, ever since.
The ambulance came from Fort Augustus with its sole driver. Coutts, Messer, Lochhead, and the driver began the difficult job of removing McRae from the car. They appear to have wrenched the door open — a little way — but it was impossible to open fully. And McRae was a ”big bloke”.
It was now raining heavily. A young constable arrived from Fort William. He calmly found a hold-all in the car and asked Coutts to gather the various effects. Should the constable have known better? Like everyone else — who, in fairness, argues with a doctor? — he must have assumed it was a normal road smash. Nevertheless it was a total coach-and-horses through the manual of the Northern Constabulary. The scene of what would be, within hours, a homicide investigation was being trodden, pawed, manhandled, and wrecked by a dozen helping hands and friendly feet.
As Coutts gathered McRae’s belongings he noticed that the rear window was partially smashed. (The front screen, all but the ambulance driver later agreed, was intact.) He also noticed a heap of other papers, away from the car — ”meticulously ripped up” — topped, in a weird pyramid, by McRae’s smashed watch and a garage bill with McRae’s name on it. Flashing this before the constable, according to Scott and McLeay, Coutts convinced the constable that the victim was, indeed, Mr William McRae.
Coutts later claimed that, as they wrestled with McRae’s rubbery body, the constable’s cap fell off. Coutts says he bent to pick it up, saw right under the car and the driver’s door, and saw nothing. This point was later critical. According to Scott and McLeay, there was ”no sign of a briefcase” in the effects Coutts collected. ”Nor any cartons of cigarettes . . . McRae took his briefcase with him everywhere . . . likewise he always had a large carton of cigarettes . . . ” The effects Coutts did gather totalled ”a couple of books, a Bible, a half-consumed half-bottle of whisky”.
Ambulance, McRae, and Dr Messer travelled to Raigmore Hospital — a journey of under two hours. There, it was quickly decided to transfer McRae to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary — ”standard procedure in . . . any type of head injury”. He was put on a life-support machine on arrival at Forresterhill. It was in Aberdeen that someone, unknown, probably a nurse cleaning his head, suspected for the first time that this was no mere road accident. McRae was X-rayed and a bullet detected in his head. His brain was macerated and his vital functions all but gone. (One nurse later claimed there were two bullets in McRae’s head; she may have been confused by different X-ray shots.)
Early on Sunday April 7, after consultation with next of kin — Dr Ferguson McRae, brother, and his wife Moira, both present; Ronnie Welsh, friend, rung for opinion — Willie McRae’s life-support machine was switched off. His death certificate sets formal time of demise at 3.30am.
* * *
THE farce wound up a gear.
Chief Superintendent Andrew Lester, head of Northern CID, took over the investigation immediately. Yet, and before any weapon had been found, the car was calmly removed at midday on Sabbath, April 7.
On Monday a weapon was found, in the burn over which the car had lain — under a ”deep, narrow overhang”, according to Scott and McLeay, who happily — without a word of proof — describe it as a ”Smith and Wesson 45 revolver” (presumably a .45, though the decimal mark is missing from their text). They continue: ”Two shots had been fired. The only fingerprints on the revolver were McRae’s. The bullet in McRae’s head was from his revolver”. For none of this do they cite a single source. Some key elements are in fact untrue.
They also assert that the gun’s location — some 20 yards from the car — is not in dispute either. And it was this assertion — repeated within weeks of McRae’s death, and which would go unrefuted by any authority for a full five years — which, more than anything else, has fathered talk of murder and talk of conspiracy.
A man who has just shot himself in the head cannot then fling the weapon of self-murder a distance of 60 feet. And other questions began to surface. What about McRae’s personal belongings? It was ”common knowledge” that his briefcase, files, cigarettes, and a souvenir #100 note were missing when he was found.
Yet the farce compounded.
Two years later, when friends of Willie McRae decided to erect a permanent memorial on the site, local SDP/Alliance councillor John Farquhar Munro — without consultation — gaily tipped a truckload of rock on his selected spot as the basis of a huge cairn. But, when the site was dedicated in April 1987, David Coutts repudiated it. He was adamant it was the wrong spot; that he and his friends had found McRae nearly one and half miles farther south.
The dispute is important: Coutts’s site was in Lochaber District, and thus the relevant procurator-fiscal was at Fort William. But McRae’s case was in the hands of Thomas Aitchison, procurator-fiscal at Inverness. Coutts later wrote to Aitchison, in 1987, politely asking for confirmation of the site of incident. He was surprised to receive in reply a hectoring letter, not from the procurator-fiscal, but from the Solicitor-General — ignoring the question at issue.
Information I have received now suggests that neither Aitchison nor Fraser could, in fact, confirm the site of the incident — because the official grid reference from the Northern Constabulary, which one or both should have checked, was fantastic and absurd. Hence the refusal to answer David Coutts’s most reasonable question: the authorities did not know.
It was to Inverness that McRae’s body went for autopsy — where Dr Henry Richmond, local forensic pathologist, was in charge of the post-mortem. Scott and McLeay question this. There was a more experienced forensic pathologist on hand in Aberdeen, they say — Dr W T Hendry — who had dealt with several gunshot victims.
Richmond had to conduct his autopsy without the gun — which was still missing, say the authors. He had to deal with a man who had survived fatal wounding and been repeatedly washed and treated. And Dr Richmond was almost certainly not experienced on gunshot cases. (Dr Richmond refused to confirm or deny this; he has since retired.)
No-one, not even Dr Ferguson McRae, apart from the Crown Office and the investigating authorities involved, has seen Dr Richmond’s final report — or any of the other papers in the McRae file. David Coutts was at length permitted by the Northern Constabulary to view photographs of the scene. It failed to clarify his mind on the site. (The area, in fairness, is bewilderingly barren and alike to the southern mind.) Coutts later claimed that one or two photographs showed an x marking the spot where the gun was found — subsequent to the removal of the car. The Northern Constabulary refused Scott and McLeay access to the photographs.
There has never been a Sudden Death Inquiry into Willie McRae’s death. Though even in June 1985 Aitchison kept the possibility open — ”all sorts of factors are coming in”; it has been suggested that a highly secret investigation had begun into the conduct of the Northern Constabulary — the file was closed in July. It remains officially ”undetermined” — the Scots equivalent to the ”open” verdict of an English inquest. The off-the-record ”spin” put on events, by various senior law officers, has been one of suicide. Liberal MP Archy Kirkwood, and others, were — variously — given broad hints that McRae was homosexual; that he had psychiatric problems; that he had business troubles; that he was facing a third drink-driving charge after two convictions; that he had spoken of suicide to some close to him.
Scott and McLeay openly finger the jovial Peter Fraser, then MP for Angus East, Solicitor-General for Scotland. In fairness, Fraser was in an awkward position. At the 1983 General Election he had fended off his Nationalist predecessor in the Angus seat — Andrew Welsh — by only 3527 votes. In 1985 he was highly vulnerable to charges of making personal capital out of the decidedly odd death of a Scottish Nationalist. (Welsh did, indeed, topple Fraser in 1987.)
Nevertheless the Solicitor-General’s behaviour is decidedly odd. He enthusiastically adopted a high profile in the McRae case. He consulted none other than Gordon Wilson, SNP national chairman, to see if his party wanted an inquiry. The Nationalists, in fact, were clamouring for one — but Wilson, having consulted McRae’s relatives, said no. Glasgow Central Labour MP Bob McTaggart, and David Coutts, fought desperately for a public inquiry. They were reluctantly silenced as the objections of the McRae family became apparent. They — especially Dr Ferguson McRae — were highly hostile to talk of an FAI. This, of course, strengthened the suicide hypothesis; was there was some terrible thing the McRaes wanted kept quiet? Yet, in July 1985, the Crown Office said bluntly: ”No further information on the circumstances of this death will be made public.”
Still, Gordon Wilson — hassled by his own followers — appointed Winnie Ewing to carry out an internal SNP investigation. What Ewing learned about McRae’s death troubled her. She wrote to one or two senior colleagues, concluding: ”In my opinion this was not suicide.” In the spring of 1987 Mrs Ewing applied — as a Scots lawyer — for sight of the relevant Crown Office papers, offering the customary oath of confidentiality if, on examination, she was satisfied it was indeed suicide. She had a list of 33 unanswered questions pertinent to the case.
Permission, in a crass act of public relations, was bluntly denied. And then, to general astonishment, the SNP gave up. No prominent Nationalist has since immersed himself in the McRae mystery. It only fuelled the lunatic fringe — now convinced that McRae had been a key subversive, finally silenced by the British State, whom even the SNP were desperate to disown.
The former Solicitor-General, now Lord Fraser of Carmyllie was forced into new admissions in April 1990, pressured by none other than Nicholas Fairbairn. Fraser, in a letter made public, ”reluctantly” confirmed that McRae died of a contact wound in the head, and that the gun had been found beneath where the door of the car had been. These two points supported the suicide view. So why were they not made long before?
Bizarrely, in April 1987 — off the record to television’s Roger Cook — Fraser reportedly said: ”I don’t think the gun was found 40 to 50 feet away, though it was certainly further away than it would have been if it had just fallen from his grasp and it is unlikely, given his head injury, that he could have thrown it . . . ” (Lord Fraser has denied ever saying this.) He continued: ”I agree that the angle he was lying at and the recoil from the gun is far more likely to have resulted in his arm being found outside the window . . . ”
The truth is that the likeable, bouncy peer must rue the prominent stance he took on the McRae case in 1985, and his decision not to push for an inquiry. Ten years later the story has refused to go away. And Lord Fraser has become the Demon King to all convinced of murder and cover-up. It must haunt him to this day.
A decade after his death, McRae is now more famous for his weird passing than his lively life. His shooting has become a PR industry. Such creepy fellows as David Dinsmore and Adam Busby — out-and-proud SNLA terrorists — have claimed links to McRae; said the ”secret state” was shadowing him; even described — and supplied registration numbers — of Special Branch cars that followed him. One (PSJ 136X, a Triumph) did indeed prove a ”blocked vehicle” when a journalist checked it on a police computer; it was either Special Branch or MI5. This according to Scott and McLeay; more anon.
Yet one need not believe the paranoid theories of State-murder. There may be a more innocent, if nearly as awkward, explanation of the reluctance of authority to investigate. Like a compounding, convoluted chain of blunders — ”Whisky Galore” jurisprudence in the North — in the wet spring of 1985.
And too many would-be investigators today, eager to nail the McRae mystery once and for all, who start in the wrong place. With theories advanced by some eager that McRae be buried in history as a sad old failure who killed himself. And, equally, theories from all manner of folk that McRae was ”sanctioned” by one of any number of nefarious or official organisations, whose vital interests he threatened.
The answer to the mystery of Willie McRae must lie not in gossip, nor conspiracy, but in the cold facts of a bloodied body, a mangled car, and a windswept moor.
And these facts — or, at least, the map to the right questions — lie in a buff folder, perhaps three inches thick, starting with a little plastic-covered album of colour photographs. It looks for all the world like an estate agent’s housing schedules. No journalist had ever glimpsed it. But it holds the key to that killing in the glen — and I have seen it.