"20 years ago Mr Jack McLean of the then Glasgow Herald wrote of the Willie MacRae case that it was "more mysterious than the murder of Roger Ackroyd". He went onto opine "that there is not a chance in hell of an official inquiry and that is the biggest mystery of all." Hopefully we can do something towards the solution of that "biggest mystery" while at the same time demanding an inquiry into the death of Willie MacRae.
On Easter Sunday 7 April 1985 BBC Radio Scotland broadcast (in good faith) a news item supplied (in bad faith) by public servants anxious - in the Public Interest - to deceive the public. It went as follows: - "a leading figure in the Scottish National Party has died following a car crash in the Highlands. William MacRae, a former Vice-Chairman, died in hospital at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary early today, without regaining consciousness after the accident, which happened on the A87 on Friday night. No other vehicle was involved." It will be the very first task of the Inquiry we propose into Mr MacRae's death to examine the provenance and timing of that misleading statement.
On Tuesday 9 April a professional acquaintance of Mr MacRae, Mr Thomas Aitchison, who was Her Majesties Procurator Fiscal at Inverness, tried to reassure angry pressmen, who had been alerted by local people to the possibility that Mr MacRae had died in another way than that suggested, that; "This death has been fully investigated. There are (sic) no suspicious circumstances." Neither statement seems to have been true. Fiscal Aitchison is said to have retracted both statements but if he did so his correction did not appear in print.
Bang to Rights
Nearly 3 weeks later (just before the legal limit for registering deaths) Mr MacRae's Death Certificate was published by the Scotsman (and next day the Herald) Cause of Death, it barked, gunshot wound to head. This had the effect of terminating Mr MacRae's brief posthumous career as a road traffic accident victim and entailed promotion to the higher status of certain suicide.
The author Dave Leadbetter (centre) at the Willie MacRae Cairn with other leading Scottish Nationalists and Republicans
Scottish Independence Day 1985
Since that "promotion" is very much open to question we had better perhaps look at what is known of the circumstances in which Mr Willie MacRae was found after the "car crash". Mr MacRae was discovered "profoundly unconscious" in his off the road maroon Volvo at about 10am on the morning of Sat April 6, 1985. April 6th was an important day for Willie MacRae being the anniversary of the sealing in 1320 of the celebrated Declaration of Arbroath, that mother document of revolutions penned by Bernard de Linton and signed by the "leaders of the communityof the Realm of Scotland". Its passionate plea for Scottish independence greatly appealed to MacRae and he felt that April 6 should be annually celebrated as Scottish Independence Day. When it was pointed out to him that Scotland was not yet independent he replied somewhat to the effect that such a gesture would have great propaganda factoring support for independence.
The couple who initially found Mr MacRae were the Crowes. Mr and Mrs Crowe, an Australian couple holidaying in the UK, were going down the A87 when Mrs Crowe spotted Mr MacRae's car. After driving on for some miles Mr Crowe was persuaded by his wife to return to the scene. He says that it was difficult to make out the driver in the car without using his field glasses, which he eventually did. The Crowes flagged down another car to give assistance with the obviously injured man. In the second car were Mr Courts, leader of the SNP group in Dundee City Council, and his wife and Dr Messer, a young lady who worked at Aberdeen Royal infirmary with her future husband. Some of the party then drove to Kintail Lodge Hotel in order to seek professional help. Shortly they returned together with an ambulance driver and a patrolling policeman, Mr Crawford.
Though all eight of these people could see a rather ghastly head wound, to none was it at all obvious that Mr MacRae had been shot, and no gun was visible. At one stage during the rescue operation the policeman's hat blew under the Volvo. Mr Courts retrieved it for him and again saw no gun. With great difficulty Mr MacRae was got into the ambulance. This took off for Raigmore Hospital Inverness with Dr Messer accompanying the patient. The remainder of the Coutts party followed in their car and at the policeman's request called at the police station in Inverness whilst awaiting Dr Messers return from the hospital. From there Mr MacRae was taken (though whether over bumpy roads by ambulance or under leaden skies by helicopter is by no means clear to us even yet) to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
"City of Scheming Liars"
When journalists inquired after the Crowes, the police told them that Mr Crowe was an airline pilot. Two addresses were given for him in England the first turned out to be a non-existent house in Real Street and the second was apparently in Aldgrove. Next time you go to Aldgrove, to sample the cold food and warm beer at the Druid's Rest or observe the celebrated Aldgrove girls all furnished and burnished by Aldgrove sun you will probably wake up by the great double cross of St Judas Church and realise that Aldgrove is but a figment of a police imagination. No such settlement exists, or existed then, in the UK. There is to be sure Aldergrove which is the Airport for Belfast but inquiries there yielded no result. A TV company spent much time and effort trying to find out which airline Mr Crowe worked for, without result.
Several years later another TV company researching the MacRae case discovered Mr Crowe in Australia where it turned out that he had been not an airline but an Air Force pilot. Mr and Mrs Crowe could be of the greatest assistance if ever there were to be a public inquiry. They could probably pronounce on the exact area by Loch Loyne-side where Mr MacRae was found. Since Mr Coutts and the authorities disagree about this it would be helpful to have another umpire. (The present author having first opted for the "cairn" site has come to the conclusion that Mr Coutts is right.) One important difference between the two is that the Coutts site would have been in another fiscal's jurisdiction and he might have been more insistent than Mr Aitchison on the need for an Inquiry. If an airforce pilot could not see Mr MacRae from the A87 at the cairn site with the naked eye one must tremble for the defences of Australia. But what is of more interest yet is not what the Crowes told the police but what the police told the Crowes. It is an item of police "folk wisdom" is it not, repeated on the TV as recently as this morning, that "90% of murderers turn out to be either someone well known to the deceased, or the person who reports the finding of the body."
Mr Coutts, as it happens, knew Mr MacRae well. So far from pestering him with questions they did their utmost to prevent him from asking any. The Crowes were the official "finders" of Mr MacRae's unconscious body and yet the police let them return to their native Australia without ever telling them that Mr MacRae had been shot. It's hard to resist the conclusion that no serious and impartial Inquiry into Mr MacRae's death was ever contemplated.
Whilst Mr MacRae was trundling towards Inverness the "mad sniper of Loch Eilt" made his celebrated appearance in the Highlands. A group of Dounreay apprentices were an "outward bounds" weekend with an instructor from a school at Fort William. The party were climbing the hills above Loch Eilt when a man appeared below in a red Escort, got out of the car and removed a, possibly semiautomatic, rifle from his boot, he then fired at, or dangerously near, the climbing party until he had emptied the magazine when he replaced the gun in the boot and calmly took off for the wild blue yonder. In 1985, at least, shooting incidents in the Highlands were extremely rare although the Northern Constabulary had a higher incidence of fire-armed trained officers than any other force. Shaken, if not stirred, the party returned to Fort William and reported the matter to the police. Some time later the police rolled up again with great excitement saying that there had been another shooting incident and they wanted to see if the two were connected. Then, apparently on orders from Inverness, the inquiry seems to have shut down and nothing more was ever heard of the sniper. It was for a long time pretended that the staff at Raigmore gave only a cursory inspection to the wounded man before sending him off to Aberdeen. This is of course not so. Any examination of Mr MacRae would have included the taking and scrutiny of x-rays. These would have revealed, without a doubt, the presence of at least one bullet in his head.
At Aberdeen one nurse became convinced that there were in fact two bullets in Mr MacRae's head. She says that all the staff were sworn to secrecy about his condition. So it was not until two years later that she revealed her belief in the '2 bullet theory' to her MP, who for the nurse's protection, kept quiet about the story until she had left the area and the profession. When he did reveal it a goodly number of the theatre staff came forward to "rubbish" her; she was inexperienced they said; she could not have told; the one bullet did enormous damage etc etc. The question remains, bearing in mind the photographs of paramilitary kneecappings in northern Ireland which used to regularly appear in the press, could it really have been so difficult for "nurse 2 bullets" to have seen the truth. The answer to Mr McLean's "biggest mystery of all" is that the lawyer-politician William MacRae (nationalist and internationalist) was denied an inquiry by Peter Fraser (conservative and unionist).
Lord Peter's Whimsy
When Mr MacRae died Mr Peter Fraser was MP for East Angus and Mearns and served in Mrs Thatcher's government as Solicitor General for Scotland, the number two at the Crown Office. We know that he approached SNP leaders, asking them not to insist upon an inquiry. One of these was Mr Billy Wolfe who was possibly the one Nationalist who got on well with Willie's family. In due season he returned from talking with them and brought back the desired answer that they too wanted no inquiry. At the next election Mr Fraser lost his seat but propelled by a handbag of renown landed instead on the red plush benches of the House of Lords as Lord Fraser of Carmyllie and Her Majesties Advocate (otherwise known as the Lord Advocate). You may have heard of him recently in connection with the expense of the Scottish parliament building. Among the grounds for his appointment to chair that inquiry was that "he was always very good with public inquiries".
Under Scots Law no Sheriffs Inquiry into a mysterious death like Willie MacRaes can be held without the say-so of the Lord Advocate. And the Lord Advocate for many years said no, contenting himself with ex-cathedra announcements about the certainty of MacRae's suicide whenever new evidence seemed to emerge. Meanwhile the cry of "no suspicious circumstances" bequeathed to us by the late Mr Aitchison would ring through the hallowed halls of the Crown Office on all occasions. In 1990 Lord Peter declared that there was an "irresistible inference" from all the facts and circumstances that Mr MacRae took his own life. A couple of years further on the policeman who had attended Willies finding and who more than 24 hours later found Willie MacRae's gun spoke up in the / / press. Mr Crawford is no longer a policeman but his words are of considerable interest. The present state of the game is that Lord Fraser declares Willie MacRae's gun to have been found "below the car door" at the "cairn site".
The Old Bill by the Stream
Mr Crawford appeared some time later to say in effect "oh no it wasn't". Whereupon 16 MPs of nearly all denominations signed an "Early Day Motion" requesting a Public Inquiry into the death of Willie MacRae. For the gun it seems, though Mr MacRaes, was found as Mr Crawford alleges, too far from the car for him to have thrown it after shooting himself. This chimes with Mr Coutts seeing in 1985 a police photograph with one cross at a considerable distance from all others - and this he was told was the gun. As for the SNP, the executive changed its mind in favour of an inquiry.' Madame Eccose' conducted an 'unofficial' one but could not find "as she had hoped" that Willie killed himself.
At the Willie MacRae commemoration before the 1997 general election a neighbour, friend and one time election agent of Willie MacRae said that he supposed that we would have to wait until there was a Scottish parliament until we got a public inquiry into W death. I recall that many of us thought he was being unduly pessimistic. We do ask the public petitions committee to consider our request for this long overdue inquiry. As for whoever else may have killed Willie MacRae we will be happy to voice our suspicions at a proper inquiry.
(This article orginally appeared in the SWR in 2005. Dave Leadbetter was also involved with the Willie MacRae Society)