''In an open society such as ours, it is all too easy to use tactics

which are not themselves unlawful for subversive ends, and those who are

entrusted with safeguarding our democratic institutions from subversive

attack must not be prevented from looking into the activities of those

whose real aim is to harm our democracy, but who, for tactical or other

reasons, choose to keep either in the long or the short term within the

letter of the law in what they do.''

Leon Brittan, Home Secretary, on the security services' powers,

January 1985.

''HERE'S one hint,'' said the retired police officer who had just

stated baldly that he knew how the fiery Scottish nationalist Willie

McRae met his death five years ago today. ''One of the policies of MI5

in all these matters is to muddy the waters as much as possible so that

no-one can see the bottom of the pond.''

John Conway's hint was heavily laden with the implication that McRae

did not take his own life on a lonely Highland road that day, as the

authorities have indicated, but that he was murdered by agents of the

State, as his friends have always claimed. Many of these friends,

including members of the recently-reconstituted Siol Nan Gaidheal

nationalist movement, will gather tomorrow at a small cairn on the shore

of Loch Loyne marking the spot where McRae received the mortal gunshot

wound to his head.

What inspires such loyalty to the memory of a charismatic, somewhat

dangerous man? To find the answer to that, you cross the Connel bridge,

turn off Benderloch's main street and inquire at the second croft on the

right. From there, Michael Strathern sends out his rallying calls and

letters of protest on notepaper bearing the legend ''The Willie McRae


''He had truth, integrity and compassion,'' he explains. ''Far from

diminishing with time, that influence has become enhanced, so it is

hardly surprising that Willie has been adopted as patron of the new Siol

Nan Gaidheal movement.

''We may be shocked, but we should not be surprised by political

assassination. If Willie McRae did take his own life, as the

London-appointed Solicitor General for Scotland implies, why are they

going to such lengths to cover it up?''

It is worth looking at the versions of events that can be conjured out

of the known facts of that Easter holiday weekend five years ago. The

official version is as follows.

McRae, aged 61, a lawyer and leading figure in the SNP, set off from

Glasgow on Friday, April 5, to spend the weekend at his cottage in

Kintail. Some aspects of his lifestyle are cited to indicated he was

potentially suicidal. He gave more than just legal advice to the

terrorist wing of Scottish nationalism; he was a homosexual and a heavy

drinker; illness may have been recurring; he was under some business

pressure; he had a drink-driving charge hanging over him.

Therefore, some time after midnight, three-quarters of the way to his

destination, he pulled off the Invergarry-Kyle of Lochalsh road, took

out his revolver, fired it once to test it, and then shot himself in the

head. At 10.45am a tourist flagged down a passing motorist. By

coincidence it was a party colleague of McRae, Dundee councillor David

Coutts, accompanied by his wife and a friend, Dr Dorothy Messer. The

scene was in disarray, possessions strewn around, including the gun

which was later found some distance away in a ditch.

The unconscious McRae was taken by ambulance to Raigmore Hospital in

Inverness, still presumed to be the victim of a car crash, and then

transferred to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. Only there did an X-ray reveal

a bullet as the cause of the head wound, and he died without regaining


The official conclusion is that although someone must have interfered

with the scene of the incident, throwing away the gun, rifling papers

and credit cards and even stealing items of value, the death itself was

not suspicious. Case closed.

But why was the callous theft, from an unconscious man left to die,

not a crime worthy of investigation? Whisky and a carton of Gold Flake

cigarettes specially imported from Dublin had vanished, as had his

briefcase and contents, and a #100 Scottish banknote -- his first

earnings as a lawyer, kept as a nationalist momento. Strathern said: ''I

sent a letter to the fiscal stating that, quite apart from the question

of supposed suicide, 'I can report that Willie was not only shot but

robbed -- what are you going to do about that?' I did not receive a


The theft also fails to square with a statement by the then Solicitor

General, Peter Fraser, the present Lord Advocate, three months after the

death: ''I personally took the decision that there should be no Fatal

Accident Inquiry. This is not unusual where the circumstances, so far as

ascertained, reveal no criminality on the part of another person, known

or unknown . . . I am not in a position to elaborate upon my


That has been the official position ever since. Political soundings

were taken within the SNP, but the party did not press for an inquiry,

even when an internal investigation by Winnie Ewing concluded: ''I

regret, therefore, that I cannot, as I hoped, say to the national

executive committee that I am satisfied that Willie did commit

suicide.'' The final word was left to McRae's brother, Dr Ferguson

McRae, who lives in West Lothian; when the next-of-kin turned down an

FAI, the book was closed. Dr McRae has turned down requests to discuss

the issue since then.

But the scenario drawn from the known facts by McRae's friends is very

different. A fitting and colourful subject for a work of fiction, McRae

was a dangerous man in so many ways; reckless concerning his personal

health, lifestyle and political leanings -- his first brush with MI5

came as a young officer in the intelligence section of the Royal Indian

Navy, when he campaigned for Indian independence and befriended Ghandi.

And he was dangerous to the present-day establishment, whether as the

clever lawyer spinning out the Mullwharcher nuclear dumping inquiry to

several weeks (with Dounreay to come), or as the paymaster and brains

behind the Scottish National Liberation Army, who were engaged in letter


If, as many believe, the security services were involved in the

bungled murder of the elderly rose-grower Hilda Murrell, a nuclear

protester and aunt of the signals officer who held the key to the

controversy over the sinking of the General Belgrano, then it becomes

less far-fetched that McRae might be assassinated.

Debris and glass found at the scene later by friends, but not

seemingly checked by the police, indicated that his car may have been

run off the road. He had changed a tyre earlier in the journey -- hardly

the actions of a man contemplating suicide. There are doubts about

whether the entry wound was on the side or back of the head -- the

latter would seem to rule out suicide -- while the absence of powder

burns would also indicate the shot came from a distance.

The investigation by John Conway, a member of the legal group Justice,

also raises fresh questions. As a former member of the Northern

Constabulary, now retired to his native Warwickshire, he has uncovered a

sinister bureaucratic chain of command, and some decidedly odd facts.

How could it be, for example, that news of the ''shooting'' was the talk

of pubs and clubs in Inverness and Nairn as McRae lay in Raigmore, but

the bullet was not supposed to have been discovered until his transfer

to Aberdeen?

This undermines the official position that a prompt police

investigation was not instigated because they thought it was simply a

car crash. ''Because of who and what he was, William McRae for years had

been a 'known person' not only to the security service MI5, but also to

Special Branch officers of Strathclyde Police and the Northern

Constabulary, within whose area the car incident occurred,'' wrote


''The Government policy in these matters is to 'sweep it under the

carpet', and so it was that within a few hours of its commencement the

police investigation came to an abrupt halt. The police having little or

nothing to report to him, the procurator-fiscal was not in a position to

hold a Fatal Accident Inquiry.''

Conway acknowledges that McRae, in his will, asked for a quiet burial,

which may have influenced his brother's stance on an FAI. However, he

adds: ''What is equally certain is that it was Home Office intervention

at an early stage which restrained the police from making a full-scale

investigation in the first place.''

If Conway's assessment is correct, that can only mean the authorities

felt they had something to hide. Whether that something was a botched

surveillance operation or a deliberate assassination we may never know,

but John Conway believes MI5 were involved -- a belief that will bring

added determination to tomorrow's ceremony at the cairn.