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
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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
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
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:
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
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