Len Murray gives his personal view on the life and death of former

colleague and friend, Willie McRae

HE DIED on April 6, 1985, aged 61, and controversy still surrounds his

Loading article content

death. Many, particularly among the Scottish Nationalists, maintained

that he was murdered. They maintained that the Secret Service had killed

him because of his political views. For Willie McRae believed

passionately in the Nationalist cause. He had been a vice-president of

the Scottish National Party but his was an extreme brand of nationalism

which was not universally popular within the party. The extremists made

him a martyr; they formed the Willie McRae Society and indeed they

erected a cairn to his memory near the spot where he was found.

There never has been an official verdict on Willie McRae's death

because there was never any official public inquiry. Those who

maintained that Willie was murdered by the security services or the

national intelligence forces because of his extreme nationalist beliefs

campaigned long and hard to try and persuade the Lord Advocate to hold a

fatal accident inquiry. The Lord Advocate, who canvassed the views of

Willie's family before coming to a decision, decided not to hold one. I

imagine that that was in accordance with the wishes of his family but,

as a result of there having been no inquiry, the rather emotional idea

that Willie was murdered by the Secret Service was given credence and

was never finally dispelled.

I honestly do not understand how it is that such a conclusion could be

reached upon so little information because there is precious little

information within the public domain. Any that is there is the result of

gossip, rumour or speculation.

The report on the post-mortem examination which was conducted on his

body was quite rightly never made known. That report would have

contained vital information upon, among other things, the wounds which

Willie sustained.

We have no idea if there was bruising or soot or tattooing around the

wound or any of the tell-tale signs of close-range entry. Indeed so far

as I am aware there is no relevant information on the wounds at all. A

great deal can be told by expert forensic examination of gun-shot


The distance of the gun from the body is another vital piece of

information. There is no authoritative information available so far as I

am aware on either of these two vital areas. In the absence of that

information it is impossible to reach any informed conclusion.

A hand gun believed to have fired the fatal shot was found near the

body and the precise spot where that was found could also shed light on

what caused Willie's death. If it were found beyond perhaps a distance

of about one metre from the body then that would tend (I put it no

higher than that) to indicate something other than suicide. But even

that must depend upon, for example, the lie of the ground.

I also have this difficulty with what I call the ''liquidator

theory''. If officialdom were behind Willie McRae's death then why leave

doubt about it? It would be a matter of unbridled astonishment to me if

it were seriously suggested that a killing could not be dressed up to

look like suicide. Instead he was killed, according to the proponents of

the liquidator theory, in such a way that there is apparently room for

some doubt as to cause of death. Besides, why on earth should a

liquidator leave the weapon (if it were the murder weapon) near the body

at all?

In my naivety I have difficulty in believing that in this country we

have any official liquidators who get rid of people with unacceptable

political views. Why should Willie McRae be singled out? What was so

unique about his political views that he alone of all politicians in

recent years has met such a fate? Those who believe in the liquidator

can point to no other politician in recent years who may have been

killed off in this way.

It may be that Willie was murdered for some reason other than his

politics although no-one has ever come up with one. Personally I tend to

believe that Willie died at his own hands.

I probably knew Willie McRae better than most. I first met him in 1954

when I was introduced to him by the headmaster of my former school and I

became Willie's apprentice. When my apprenticeship finished I was his

assistant for several months and thereafter (after an interval of one

year) I became his partner. We remained in partnership for 22 years

until he left the firm in 1981.

Let no-one criticise or judge him over the matter of his death. Let

no-one cast the first stone. If he did take his own life then when it

comes to the final accounting there will be very many credits on the

balance-sheet of his life, credits which are likely far to outweigh any

debit brought about by his peccadillos or by the manner of his death.

Not only did he fight like a tiger when he believed that right was on

his side but he did more for young people coming into the legal

profession than anyone else I know. He devoted endless time and went to

endless trouble to assist those who needed his help. Many a member of

the legal profession practising in Scotland today owes his presence or

his continued presence in the profession to Willie.

Willie McRae was one of the most unforgettable characters I ever knew

-- indeed I can think of none more unforgettable. He was a man of great

intellect with a superb ability to identify issues. He had a razor-sharp

mind and a wit to match it. But he was also a man of great emotion; the

emotional pendulum could swing probably further with him than with any

other I knew.

He had a lot of professional and personal worry at the time of his

death and he was so supercharged with emotion that he was very liable to

succumb to the pressure of it all and take his own life. That is what I

believe happened. That, however, is something between Willie and his

Creator, a Creator incidentally in whom he always believed.

He was unique and often outrageous. But his outrageousness was such

that the profession in the main not only accepted it but rather

grudgingly admired it. That was Willie; that was how people viewed him.

Even so, at times the letters which he wrote often made me cringe. He

did not hesitate to say exactly what he thought. Not for him the

diplomacy of the professional letter-writer; rather he preferred a

bluntness which was frequently positively embarrassing. On occasion he

was blunt to the point of rudeness.

He once wrote to a professional colleague (one I may say who was a

pain in the teeth and whose principal concern was trumpeting his own

importance) in the following terms: ''When we first met you'' (to us his

partners the pronoun was regrettably all too often the plural) ''we

formed the view that you were a fool. Nothing has happened in the

intervening 30 years to make us change our mind.''

He had a wonderful sense of humour. On one occasion an old lady (who

incidentally trusted him and his judgment implicitly and used to come to

see him about every little hiccup in her life) had a fire in her home.

She turned as a matter of course to Willie for advice on what to do. The

first thing was obviously to advise her insurers of the fire and

initiate a claim under her insurance policy.

Most of us in these circumstances would have written the rather dull,

formal letter asking them to forward a claim form but the predictable

was seldom what one could expect from Willie McRae who wrote to Sun

Alliance in the following terms:

Dear Sirs,

Mrs E Neustein, Tae the tune o' Duncan Gray

Mrs Neustein's burnt her bum

Ha ha the burnin' o' it

She had her electric blanket on

Ha ha the singein o' it.

The blanket it burst into flame

Noo she wants tae mak a claim

Send us a form an' we'll gie it tae her hame

Ha ha the claimin' o' it.

Not only did the insurers send a claim form but they settled the

lady's claim in double-quick time and with a smile on their face!

He was an orator par excellence -- a real old-fashioned rabble-rouser.

When he was on his feet whether in a court or a tribunal or on a

political platform the atmosphere could be charged up by him as few

before or after him were capable of doing.

In 1980 the Government ordered a planning inquiry which would become

known as the Mulwharcher Inquiry. It was all about an application for

planning permission from the Atomic Energy Authority which had caused

some public controversy. All the interested parties were represented by

learned and costly senior counsel -- all that is except Willie's

clients, the Scottish National Party, who were represented by him.

The Atomic Energy Authority were of course a party to the inquiry and

were among those who had instructed senior counsel. That counsel (now a

senator of the College of Justice and thus a Supreme Court Judge)

irritated Willie over several days. The transcript of the inquiry

records Willie as saying at one point:

''Would learned and courteous senior counsel either bridle his

arrogance or produce a display of ability sufficient to justify it,

neither of which he has done so far.''

That was so typical of the kind of comment that Willie would make when

the occasion required; unfortunately all too few of his comments are a

matter of record.

The unexpected was the norm for him. In the 1950s the Grand Orange

Lodge of Scotland, that pillar of ecumenism and Christian charity, had

as its Grand Master, the Rev Alan G Hasson of Bonhill, a minister who

was subsequently to flee to Canada and was eventually defrocked. On the

occasion to which I refer the Orange Walk had planned to make its way

along Gordon Street in the centre of Glasgow. Willie happened to be

lunching in the Grosvenor Restaurant then situated on the first floor of

the Grosvenor building in that street and at a table which gave him a

grandstand view of the march. He was along with two other solicitors and

a law student.

Willie adhered to no particular religious denomination but he was

utterly intolerant of intolerance, if you follow me. He regarded the

Orange Order as the epitome of intolerance and the Orange Walk as the

manifestation of that evil. And so he welcomed the opportunity of

displaying publicly his detestation of the whole affair.

When the Orange Walk turned into Gordon Street and drew level with the

Grosvenor, Willie's companions were astonished when he picked up a bread

roll from the table, eased up the casement window beside which he was

sitting and without introduction or warning or by-your-leave hurled the

roll through the open window towards the Grand Master as he rode past on

his white horse. The roll missed. Willie grunted in disappointment,

calmly shut the window and carried on with his conversation as though

nothing had ever happened.

Alan G Hasson subsequently became a client of mine but I never did

tell him of how one of my partners had once tried to hit him with a

bread roll!

Posterity will give Willie McRae his place. But before posterity makes

up its mind about him let it be said loud and clear that Willie McRae

was one of the most gifted, one of the most talented, and one of the

most generous of men. May he rest in the peace that only his Creator can

bring him.