The truth about activist Willie McRae’s tragic death

Willie MacRae's volvo at the scene. Picture: Contributed
Willie MacRae's volvo at the scene. Picture: Contributed
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THE mystery surrounding the death of SNP activist Willie McRae 30 years ago has been solved after an investigation by Scotland on Sunday.

New evidence has emerged that answers key questions about what happened to McRae, a lawyer and former SNP vice-chairman, who was found unconscious in his crashed car off the A87 near Invergarry on 6 April, 1985.

Willie MacRae in full flow. Picture: Contributed

Willie MacRae in full flow. Picture: Contributed

It was initially believed McRae, 61, had been involved in an accident, but when he was admitted to hospital medical staff found a gunshot wound to his head.

McRae’s death was officially recorded as suicide, but a number of bizarre aspects of the case led many to claim that he was murdered. The unsolved mystery has been the subject of two books, three television documentaries and two plays performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, including one by the writer Mark MacNicol, who is campaigning for the Lord Advocate to hold an inquiry into the case.

Now fresh evidence from two witnesses and a retired police officer has been uncovered which explains why McRae’s gun was found some distance from his car and not next to it after the shot was fired.

Scotland on Sunday can reveal that previously unseen police reports show McRae’s Volvo was removed from the crash scene before the gunshot wound was found, then returned to the site after police realised they were not dealing with a straightforward traffic incident.

The Lord Advocate has got his head buried in the sand

When the car was returned it was placed close to the original site, but not in the precise spot. For 30 years, the distance between the car and the gun has allowed conspiracy theorists to insist that McRae could not have killed himself.

The fact that the car was returned to a different spot calls into question the preservation of the crash site by police, but it also offers a feasible explanation for the location of the gun in relation to the car.

The Scotland on Sunday investigation, run by students at the University of Strathclyde’s investigative journalism course, has revealed that the removal of the car, and its return to the scene, at a crucial stage of the investigation was not recorded by police, nor does it appear in Crown Office documents relating to the case.

According to police and Crown Office documents, McRae’s car was moved from its resting place, straddling a burn 29 yards from the road, and taken to the West End Garage in Fort Augustus by 3.30pm on Saturday, 6 April. Official reports state that the car was later moved directly from the garage to Northern Constabulary headquarters in Inverness.

Smith and Wesson 7 shot revolver with 2 spent catridges and five rounds of ammunition found near McRae's body. Picture: Contributed

Smith and Wesson 7 shot revolver with 2 spent catridges and five rounds of ammunition found near McRae's body. Picture: Contributed

However, two witnesses, the couple Allan and Barbara Crowe, who were the first to find McRae confirm that they saw the car back at the crash site on Sunday morning when they returned to retrieve a glove Allan dropped the day before.

The retired air force pilot, said: “We found the vehicle one day, left the scene and returned the morning of the next day. The vehicle was in the same location on the second day.”

His wife, Barbara, corroborates his recollection, which contradicts the official record.

Their accounts about the car are supported by claims made privately in 2010 to Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie, then a councillor, that the Volvo was removed and then put back to be photographed after it became apparent that McRae has been shot.

It is now understood that Finnie’s source was a former high-ranking officer in the Northern Constabulary – the force responsible for investigating McRae’s death.

Furthermore, the Crowes claim that, despite leaving contact details, they were not asked to give any official witness statement.

The Crown Office claims that they were handed two witness statements, reportedly from the Crowes to Northern Constabulary in 1985. But Allan Crowe says the statements were not from him or his wife. “I think the police must have been talking to someone else. I did not make any formal statement at the time and I have never been contacted by the police or any other officials since that date.”

The new evidence addresses two varying accounts of the crash scene. The authorities stated that the gun “was found in the burn beneath the small waterfall directly below where the driver’s door of the Volvo car had been” on Sunday, 7 April.

But ten years later, Kenny Crawford, the first constable at the crash scene, revealed that the gun was found “some yards” from the vehicle. The discrepancy could be because when the car was returned it was placed as close to the original site as possible from memory, but not in exactly the same spot.

The evidence also explains other long-standing mysteries in the case such as why two breakdown companies both independently claimed that they removed McRae’s maroon Volvo from beside Loch Loyne.

Yesterday Finnie, who has previously shared concern with the Crown Office over the handling of the McRae in­vestigation, said that the new evidence raised “major uncertainty” over the case.

“Unlike those responsible for investigating this fatal shooting, Scotland on Sunday has thoroughly examined the information available and this prompts very basic questions. Who was first on the scene of this incident and have they been interviewed and why are there still discrepancies in the number, availability and content of statements?” he said. “The Lord Advocate is responsible for the oversight of inquiries into deaths and he must act on these latest findings.”

IT WAS Easter weekend and the roads were quiet as Allan and Barbara Crowe made their way through the Highlands on a trip to trace their family roots. The couple, from Australia but based at the RAF Staff College in Bracknell, where Allan worked, were headed north on the A87 heading for Kyle of Lochalsh.

As Loch Loyne came into view, Barbara peered through the early morning mist. Her eye was drawn to something off the road and down an embankment which looked like a car.

The couple drove on for a few miles, then decided to head back to check it out. They stopped at a lay-by, just under 300 yards from where the object had been. Allan looked through his binoculars. Sure enough, it was a car – straddling a burn and facing towards him. It looked like someone was inside.

Barbara stayed at the lay-by as Allan ran down to investigate. He found a man in the car, with dried blood on his temple. Allan tried to revive him, grabbing his hand in the hope for a response – there was a pulse, but no grip back. He had urinated and defecated. It looked as if rain had been seeping through the driver’s door window for some time.

Allan ran back to the car, noting the position of the crash site on his 1984 AA Map. In a time before mobile phones were widely available, alerting the authorities would have been difficult.

Fortunately, another car came round the bend. Allan waved it down. Inside were four people heading to Skye for the weekend, including David Coutts, an SNP councillor in Dundee, and Dorothy Messer, a doctor. Coutts and Messer ran with Crowe to the car. Messer checked McRae’s vital signs. He had a pulse but not responsive.

Coutts spotted an SNP sticker on the upper left corner of the windscreen and realised, to his shock, that the man slumped behind the wheel was not only a fellow nationalist, but one of the party’s most renowned and passionate speakers – William McRae.

IN THE 30 years since his death, various conflicting descriptions of Willie McRae have emerged. In nationalist folklore he is a quasi-mythical firebrand, unrelenting in his belief in self-determination for Scotland.

Others have portrayed McRae as mentally unstable, an alcoholic. The more nuanced reality is that McRae was a person of simple comforts, towering intelligence and great compassion.

He went out of his way to help others – whether it be a crofter in Ross-shire who had problems with an absentee landowner or someone on the streets of Falkirk, his hometown, with no cash to their name. McRae was always there to provide legal advice to those with nowhere else to turn.

Despite possessing an adroit, at times masterful understanding of the law, his charitable nature did not always endear him to his peers. He was one half of the Glasgow law firm Levy & McRae, which he set-up with Abraham Levy in 1949 after graduating from Glasgow with an LLB in Law. It continues to run today.

Born in 1923, in Carron near Falkirk, McRae excelled at school and went on to get a first class degree in history from Glasgow University.

His nationalism was always apparent, yet a career in politics did not occur to him until the late 1960s following Winnie Ewing’s landmark victory at the Hamilton by-election in 1967. Before that he served in the Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Indian Navy. He was an outspoken supporter of Indian independence from colonial rule.

At home, after becoming increasingly involved in the Scottish National Party, McRae was eventually put forward as the candidate for Ross and Cromarty in the 1974 General Election.

His interest in land issues struck a chord with the large crofting community of the county and he even became the leading figure against Nato plans in the area. Despite this, he missed out on a seat in parliament by only 663 votes.

In 1979 he fared less well, as the failure of the devolution referendum hit the nationalist vote hard.

Later that year McRae stood against Gordon Wilson for the leadership of the SNP, but came a distant third.

Nevertheless as the party’s lawyer, McRae still commanded respect. He was regarded as the perfect candidate to represent the nationalists at the 1980 Mullwarchar inquiry into plans by the Atomic Energy Authority to dump nuclear waste in the Ayrshire hills. McRae, an intimidating intellect with acerbic wit, was a key figure in the inquiry, asking difficult questions of the authority. The protesters won, providing a major setback in plans for having nuclear waste buried, not only in Scotland, but in the rest of the UK.

Professional success, however, masked inner turmoil. To acquaintances McRae was warm, friendly and happy, but to those closest to him, he had been displaying worrying signs. His reliance on alcohol to fuel his tireless work exacerbated his increasingly wild and unruly behaviour, making him a liability to his law partners. In 1981, with a heavy heart, McRae was removed from the practice he helped found.

Despite setting up another law firm a few years before his death, McRae was in freefall. To some, his death was inevitable – either through his own hand or through the drink; others, however, believed that he would meet death by another’s hand.

McRae’s anti-establishment views, some suggested, had made him a target. He is alleged to have expressed fears to friends that he had been under surveillance for his campaigning work for the public inquiry into plans at the Dounreay nuclear facility, which was due to start on 7 April, 1986. His concern led to him carrying his small, antique and unlicensed .22 Smith & Wesson revolver with him at all times.

On the evening of Friday, 5 April, 1985, McRae was driving north from his flat in Glasgow to his holiday cottage in Ardelve by Dornie. The next confirmed sighting of his car was by the Crowes on Saturday morning, with McRae fatally injured inside.

McRae was removed from the car and taken by ambulance to Raigmore hospital in Inverness. He was later transferred to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, where a bullet was discovered and he was declared brain dead. With the support of his family, McRae’s life support machine was shut off at 3.30am on Sunday, 7 April.

Just over 48 hours later, Thomas Aitchison, the Inverness Procurator Fiscal and person responsible for the overall investigation into sudden and unexpected deaths in the area, announced that the case had been “fully investigated” and that there had been “no suspicious circumstances”.

It was not long before rumours began to surface. It was claimed that McRae’s gun was found some 20 yards from the car. How could McRae have shot himself in the head, then thrown the weapon? There were reports that an unidentified man had been spotted on the morning McRae was found, shooting at hillwalkers with a rifle.

Friends said that McRae was a positive character who wasn’t suicidal. Stories emerged that McRae had been privy to secret papers relating to Dounreay and that he was being followed by Special Branch officers.

It was also claimed he had uncovered information about a high-profile paedophile ring, dubbed the Untouchables.

The speculation all led in one direction – McRae did not kill himself, he was murdered by the state.

The fact that, despite repeated calls, a Fatal Accident Inquiry has never taken place has played right into the hands of the conspiracy theorists.

When Aitchison revealed there were no suspicious circumstances in the case, it was considered a rushed decision. Death by gunshot had not occurred in the Highlands for a couple of decades. Despite the official account, locals grew frightened by the notion of a lone gunman stalking the roads at night.

They weren’t alone in their concern. Crown counsel rebuked Aitchison’s original findings, suggesting they were not satisfied about something.

It was later revealed that Northern Constabulary and the Procurator Fiscal continued to investigate the case until the end of June, 1985 – all the while seemingly maintaining the integrity of their original findings.

But police documentation, only available since 2005 under to Freedom of Information laws, reveals a number of anomalies that appear to have been overlooked.

The ballistics report into McRae’s gun, the test to determine whether the bullet recovered from McRae’s brain had been fired from his revolver, was not completed until 10 April, three days following his death and a full day after Aitchison announced to the press that the death had been “fully investigated”.

The map of the accident site, drawn up by police officers, raises more questions. It indicates that the gun was recovered from under the driver’s door. The officer who prepared the map, police constable Kenny Crawford, the first constable to arrive at the crash site, revealed in 1995 that the gun had been found “some yards” from the car, in apparent contradiction to his own map.

There also appears to have been confusion among the health services. McRae was originally taken to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, before being taken on to ARI – where the small bullet wound was discovered at 7.40pm on the Saturday.

While it has been assumed that he was x-rayed in Aberdeen, the authorities now claim that McRae was x-rayed at Raigmore and that the resultant photographs were sent on to ARI without being checked. Reports in the press have also suggested that McRae’s blood was not subject to toxicology tests and that there were no fingerprints found on the gun.

While it is possible that there are logical explanations for these anomalies, they have not been officially explained.

Now with further revelations that the car may have been returned to the scene and fresh concern over witness statements, more questions over police handling of the case will be raised.

LAST night John Finnie said he would now write to the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal asking for “clarification” about the new evidence. “I know the authorities wish this issue dropped, indeed it’s what they have repeatedly requested I do. However, the passage of time has simply highlighted an ever increasing number of frailties in the initial and indeed latest inquiries.

“The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal service, like elected politicians, are charged with acting in the public interest and I hope this ‘new’ information will prompt them to do just that and cause an objective and rigorous examination of how a Scottish citizen died of a gunshot.”

Mark MacNicol, who wrote the play, 3,000 Trees, about the McRae case, and is running a 7,000-signature petition calling for an inquiry into McRae’s death, said the new evidence points strongly towards the involvement of the security forces. “You can’t mistakenly move the car back. You can’t mistakenly hide witness statements. You’d need to have high levels of access to make these things happen,” said MacNicol. “The Lord Advocate has got his head buried in the sand and just doesn’t want to know about it,”

Presented with the new evidence, the Crown Office issued a statement, sticking to the official version of events: “The evidence gathered at the time is consistent that the car was removed from the scene of the incident on the afternoon of Saturday, 6 April, 1985 to a garage in Fort Augustus.

“The car was examined by police at the scene and more fully at the garage on 6 April, 1985. Following the discovery of the bullet wound on the evening of 6 April 1985 the car was moved from that garage to Police Headquarters.”

In a statement on the overall case, the Crown Office said: “Crown Counsel remains satisfied with the investigation into the death of William McRae but as with any other case we will consider any new evidence that comes to light.”

Police Scotland also said that they remained “satisfied” with the investigation. “Police Scotland can confirm following a thorough investigation into the death of Willie McRae on 6 April, 1985, there were no suspicious circumstances and, as with all sudden deaths, a report was sent to the Procurator Fiscal. Reviews by Northern Constabulary and the Crown Office into the matter in 2010/11 did not raise any new matters.”

Those closest to McRae, including his brother Fergus, have never wavered in their belief that McRae killed himself.

Fergus McRae, a retired doctor, dismisses the conspiracy theories and urges acceptance of the official story. He does not want a FAI held into his brother’s death.

Yesterday Fergus McRae, now 86, remained firm in his view. “They let me see the report,” he said. “I can’t see how the Crown Office could have done anything more. I can’t see any good coming of this.”

30 Years of Silence: The Mysterious Death of Willie McRae

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