Renee Macrae - are police nearing the truth?

HUDDLING against the cold night air, the passengers disembarked from the Glasgow train and filed out of Inverness station to join the early evening commuters on Union Street.

Standing at the head of the platform, Valerie Steventon scanned the crowd for a familiar face - she was searching for her best friend, Renee Macrae, and her young son Andrew, who had been missing for three days.

Almost 28 years on from that November evening Mrs Steventon still vividly recalls that agonising wait, when she fully expected to see her childhood companion stepping off the train from Perth with her son in tow and an explanation for her sudden disappearance.

A week from today police in Inverness will set out to solve finally one of the most troubling and enduring mysteries in Scottish criminal history - the disappearance and suspected murder of Inverness housewife Renee Macrae and her three-year-old son Andrew. The Highland force have decided to bring forward a cold case review of the crime, which was due to take place in October, and most crucially involves the excavation of an abandoned quarry close to the place where Mrs Macrae’s car was found.

It was shortly after 10pm on Friday, 12 November 1976 when a bus driver, Colm McGregor, stopped at a lay-by opposite Dalmagarry Farm on the A9, the main road from Perth to Inverness. Hidden from motorists on one side by an embankment and exposed on the other to dark and unwelcoming moorland, the bleak stretch of pot-holed roadway, attracted the attention of few passers-by.

With no passengers on board so late in the evening McGregor had pulled over to investigate the flicker of flames rising from behind the embankment, where he found a blue BMW 1602, alight. There was no sign of anybody; the vehicle had apparently been abandoned. When the police and fire-brigade arrived at the scene later that night the only clue to what had happened to the charred vehicle’s occupants was a large bloodstain in the boot.

The following day detectives quickly traced the ownership of the burnt-out saloon to a millionaire Inverness businessman, Gordon Macrae, who told officers it was being used by his estranged wife, Renee, from whom he had been separated for more than a year. Mrs Macrae had told him on the day that she disappeared that she was travelling south to her sister’s in Kilmarnock with Andrew, promising she would be back to collect their elder son Gordon, seven, from school on the Monday afternoon.

The burnt-out car, and her whereabouts, he told officers, was a mystery.

That same morning, at Renee’s home at Cradlehall, near Inverness, police found household goods and toys packed into boxes as if the housewife had intended a midnight flit.

At the same time her oldest friend, Valerie Steventon, came forward. She told detectives Renee was having an affair with a married man, Bill MacDowell, the accountant of her husband’s building firm. Not only that, but the couple had planned to elope to the Shetland Islands and set up a new life.

At the age of 37, mother of two, Renee had come a long way from her upbringing in a council house in Beauly and her shop assistant job at the Boots the chemist in the town.

In her early twenties, Renee had married well. Her husband owned a well established Inverness building company with a turnover of 30 million a year, and the couple appeared to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle with their two sons.

But five years into the marriage the "attractive and fun" housewife had begun an affair with Mr MacDowell and, it would later emerge, that he was the father of Andrew. By November 1976 the Macraes had separated and Mr Macrae was already living with his secretary - who he was later to marry - although according to friends at the time, he continued to think of his wife as a "good friend and wonderful person".

On the morning of her disappearance Renee had coffee with her friend Valerie before dropping her older son off at school. She was last seen alive when she visited her husband’s company at 5pm. She had earlier told Valerie that she was planning to spend the weekend in Perth with Mr MacDowell and was hoping that they would soon be making a new life together in Shetland.

Some who knew them were to remark later that he was not as besotted as she was.

Valerie Steventon says that the fine detail of the last time she saw her best friend will remain ingrained on her memory.

She said: "Nothing seemed to make sense from the start. When Renee’s car was found I genuinely believed it had been set on fire by vandals after she had abandoned it outside Inverness following an argument with Bill MacDowell. I genuinely believed that she had gone on to Perth with Andrew regardless, travelling south by train.

"On the Monday and Tuesday after she disappeared I even stood on the platform at Inverness expecting her to show up, but as the days went by it was clear to me that something was terribly wrong.

"I remember the final moments we spent together on the Friday she disappeared. She seemed excited about the new life she had planned with Bill and was so full of life. I was happy for her - who wouldn’t be? That last meeting still haunts me to this day."

With police no closer to solving Renee’s disappearance, the focus of their investigation fell on Bill MacDowell, who when confronted by detectives at home, admitted the affair, but denied he had planned to leave his wife Rosemary for Mrs Macrae. To the surprise of detectives Mr MacDowell voluntarily agreed to speak to officers involved in the inquiry but during the interview at an Inverness police station officers were startled when his wife, Rosemary, stormed into the interview room and dragged her husband out, demanding that he be left alone. Significantly, Mr MacDowell had already told police officers that he and his mistress had a system of passing messages by letting the phone ring a certain number of times. He said his phone had rung in such a way twice since her disappearance and that she must, therefore, still be alive.

With Mr MacDowell apparently in possession of a water-tight alibi - provided by his wife - as to his whereabouts on the evening of Renee’s disappearance, detectives, who by this point still believed it was a missing persons case, called in re-enforcements to comb the moorland around the lay-by, which had been transformed into a bog by heavy rain.

By the Tuesday more than 100 police officers, supported by several hundred local volunteers and army reserves, were involved in the search for clues. Ten days after his wife’s disappearance and with no explanation in sight, Gordon Macrae offered 1,000 reward for information.

By week two of the search, under increasing pressure to produce results, the police called in the RAF who, in Canberra bombers with heat-seeking devices, flew over a wide area of the Highlands hoping to pick up a reading that could indicate a body. Divers and specialist underwater camera equipment were also used to search lochs and flooded quarries.

By January 1977, with the mystery still unsolved, Donald Henderson, the Chief Constable of Northern Constabulary told the local police committee there were several possible explanations - that Renee had deliberately gone missing; that she and her son had had an accident; that she had committed suicide; or that they had been murdered.

For the first time he admitted there were "good reasons" to believe it was murder. However, he added: "As to what happened, where it happened, and how it happened, we have not a clue."

By May of that same year, Henderson announced a "big leap forward". Yet in a police investigation that even senior officers admitted was "mired in a sea of deceit and untruthfulness from its start," the hoped-for breakthrough did not happen.

For the next two and a half decades police continued to receive new information, much of which has never been revealed to the public - to many it seems that all the police have done is acknowledge they may be dealing with the perfect murder - until now.

Dalmagarry Quarry sits in a lonely clearing - a landscape punctuated by rotting tree stumps and swathes of coarse bracken.

This abandoned quarry in a weather-beaten corner of the Inverness countryside might finally give up the answer to the Macrae mystery.

The Northern Constabulary plans to excavate the quarry which is close to where Mrs Macrae’s BMW was found burning.

Excavators have cleared the 900sq metre area of the quarry in preparation for the arrival of a team of forensic anthropologists, archaeologists and forensic scientists who are expected next weekend.

The team will include Sue Black, of Dundee University, a forensic scientist who is internationally renowned for her work in identifying victims of war crimes in Kosovo. Ms Black, who identified a number of mass grave sites in the Balkans, will focus on the north bank of the quarry, where eye-witnesses reported seeing a man dragging what looked to be a sheep from the nearby lay-by to the quarry. The team will also use the latest thermal-imaging equipment to pick up temperature differences in the ground.

One of the key figures responsible for the renewed dig is John Cathcart, 70, who was a police sergeant at the time of Mrs Macrae’s disappearance.

It was he who conducted a search for bodies in Dalmagarry quarry but was later, inexplicably, ordered to stop by his superiors.

Morag Govans, who is now in her sixties, clings to the new-found belief that her sister’s killer will be brought to justice. She said: "I am heartbroken that no-one has been caught and brought to justice for this terrible act. I am sure their bodies have been buried near where the car was found.

"Time can never heal the pain, and I can’t believe that time will ease the conscience so much that someone out there can believe they will get away with murder. It always gives me some hope when I read of an old crime being solved. Maybe one day."

For Valerie Steventon the discovery of Renee’s body would bring both immense sadness, and relief.

She said: "I have no doubt my friend is dead. All I want for her and Andrew now is a Christian burial. One of the most heartbreaking things about Renee’s disappearance was there has never been a funeral or even a memorial in her honour. I recently planted two sapling trees at the spot where her car was abandoned, but they were stolen. I think her friends and family all need some sort of closure on this painful saga. Twenty-eight years is a long time to have such uncertainty on your mind."

PLAYERS IN ONE OF SCOTLANDS MOST FASCINATING COLD CASES

CHRISTINA CATHERINE MACDONALD, or MACRAE, was born in Inverness in February 1940, and was known as Renee. She separated from her husband, Gordon, in 1976 at the height of her affair with Bill MacDowell and lived with her two sons: Gordon, born in 1968, and Andrew, born in 1973. On the afternoon of 12 November, 1976, she was seen driving, with Andrew, out of Inverness. That night the vehicle was found burnt out in a lay-by on the A9, and neither mother nor son has been seen since.

BILL MACDOWELL: Renee’s lover of five years, who was due to meet her on the night she disappeared. Mr MacDowell, now 60 and living in London, remains a prime suspect in the police inquiry. He has refused to comment on the latest twist in the murder investigation.

GORDON MACRAE: Renee’s estranged husband, who had split from her a year before her disappearance. Mr Macrae still runs his building company in Inverness. In the past has spoken of his desire for the killer to be brought to justice. Now married to his former secretary, Vivian. Renee’s surviving son, Gordon, works in the family business.

MORAG GOVANS: Renee Macrae’s sister, now 58 and living in Inverness, recently spoke of the torment, anger and sadness she has endured since 12 November, 1976. Mrs Govans and her husband, Bill, were living in Kilmarnock at the time of Renee’s disappearance, but she kept in regular contact with her younger sister. They phoned each other every Sunday.

VALERIE STEVENTON: Renee Macrae’s best friend, who revealed to detectives investigating the disappearance that her friend was having an affair with Bill MacDowell. Lives in Cawdor, near Inverness.

IAN LATIMER: The chief constable of Northern Constabulary claimed he had a "specific reason" to reinvestigate the "vile and wicked crime" as a result of new evidence and improvements in forensics.

SUE BLACK: Professor Black, of Dundee University, who headed the British forensic team in Kosovo for the International War Crimes Tribunal, has been asked by Northern Constabulary to excavate a remote quarry for clues to the disappearance.