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
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
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
* 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
* The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Willie McRae
did not conduct elementary tests that could have proved either suicide
* Senior sources who insist he was never under ''secret state''
surveillance admit that the possibility of homicide cannot be
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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.