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:

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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.