05:13 GMT04 June 2020
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    April marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Willie MacRae, a renowned Scottish lawyer, orator, naval officer, politician and anti-nuclear campaigner. The specifics of his lengthy and varied career are worthy of commemoration - and the extremely mysterious circumstances surrounding his untimely passing worthy of investigation.

    Born 18th May 1923, in Carron, Falkirk, Willie MacRae wasn’t yet into his 20s when he was commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders during World War II - he was soon transferred to the Royal Indian Navy, in which he became a lieutenant commander and aide-de-camp to Admiral Lord Mountbatten.

    After the war MacRae studied law at the University of Glasgow, meanwhile offering legal support to the Indian independence movement, even authoring the maritime law of Israel and serving as an emeritus professor of the University of Haifa - in tribute, after his death a forest of 3,000 trees was planted in Israel in his memory.

    ​Going on to became a solicitor and Scottish National Party activist, in both 1974 General Elections and 1979 General Election he stood for Parliament as the SNP candidate for Ross and Cromarty, losing on every occasion.

    His campaigning for Scottish independence wasn’t dimmed however, and he became an ardent critic of the British nuclear lobby, in the early 1980s working to block UK Atomic Energy Authority plans to dispose of nuclear waste in the Mullwharchar area of the Galloway Hills - representing the SNP in a public inquiry, he asked a variety of difficult questions of the body, famously suggesting at one meeting "nuclear waste should be stored where Guy Fawkes put his gunpowder".

    The authority's plans were duly rejected - MacRae was credited with "single-handedly" preventing the area from becoming a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

    Just an Accident?

    As 1985 dawned, MacRae was working on a campaign against another establishment plan to dump nuclear waste - this time from the Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment into the sea. His crusading efforts against atomic energy had won him much attention in Britain’s corridors of power, but few friends there - in 2010, former Strathclyde Police officer Donald Morrison alleged MacRae was being monitored by both Special Branch and MI5 as a result. It’s uncertain whether repeated break-ins at his home during this period were coincidental to this surveillance, but in any event MacRae had taken taken to carrying copies of every document related to his Dounreay work with him at all times.

    ​So it was on the evening of 5th April 1985 he left his Glasgow flat to spend the weekend at his cottage at Ardelve near Dornie, Ross-shire. He wouldn’t be seen again until the next morning at around 10:00, when two Australian tourists found his maroon Volvo saloon car on a moor in Inverness-shire, straddling a burn about 27 metres from the road. The tourists flagged down the next car to pass - it was driven by Dr. Dorothy Messer, who was accompanied her fiance as well as David Coutts, miraculously an SNP councillor in Dundee who knew MacRae personally.

    In the car, MacRae’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. He was also not wearing a seat belt. Dr. Messer examined him and amazingly found that he was still alive and breathing, noting one of his pupils was dilated, indicating the possibility of brain damage - she estimated he’d been in that state 10 hours.

    MacRae was taken to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, where it was ascertained realised the incident was more than a road accident, an X-ray confirming he’d been shot above his right ear, a bullet lodged in his head. On 7th April, after consultation with his next of kin, his life-support machine was switched off.

    No gun was found when the scene was first visited by the police, but was when searched a week later, some distance from where his car was found, and without fingerprints on its body. Further undermining the notion MacRae had committed suicide, his car was packed with clothes and toiletries for his weekend away. However, his Dounreay documents, from which he inseparable, were not found in the vehicle - the sole other backup, which was kept in his office, was stolen when it was burgled not long after his death, with no other items being taken.

    ​A resultant police investigation ruled the cause of MacRae’s death to be undetermined, albeit with strong suggestions he’d committed suicide, due to his history of depression. However, many aspects of the investigation remain disputed - it has since been revealed for instance MacRae's car was moved by authorities 7th April, against protocol (as no weapon had been found), and police had moreover that the police had kept no record of the precise location where the car had been found, and the area of discovery recorded in official files was in fact erroneous by 1.6 kilometres.

    An independent probe into the tragic incident was conducted internally by the SNP, and led by Winnie Ewing, then party president. To say the least, at the investigation’s end she wasn’t satisfied with the official version of events.

    “I do not know what happened, but I think it is important the truth emerges, despite the time that has passed. Why the State refuses to let the truth be known is a pertinent question,” she despaired.

    Yet More Mystery

    Further doubt was cast on the official version of events in 2018 when staff nurse Katharine McGonigal, who was at the hospital where MacRae died, came forward to dispute the bullet wound was in his right temple. She testified that when he was brought into her unit, having been transferred there by ambulance from Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, the wound was at the back of his neck and “directly aimed at the brain stem”. By definition, such a position suggests MacRae couldn’t have committed suicide. 

    McGonigal said the events of that evening remained clear in her mind 33 years later as it was the only time in her 40-year nursing career a patient was admitted to her care apparently a victim of a road traffic accident, only to discover they’d suffered a gunshot wound. She added other aspects of her patient’s case were strikingly odd too.

    “There were no X-rays with him and there was no handover. Normally if a patient is transferred you would have a phone call from the doctor, a phone call from the nurse in charge and X rays would have been with the patient when they arrived. I said to a colleague ‘they haven’t assessed him at all. They have stuck a tube in, and put him back in the ambulance’. Apart from the red rubber tube [in his mouth], he looked normal. There were no signs of injury. He was unconscious, but that is not unusual. His skin was fine. Normally when people are brought in from road traffic accidents there would be grit on the skin,” McGonigal explained.

    The veteran nurse’s claims are difficult to verify given neither MacRae's medical reports nor post-mortem data have been released to the public - there has also never been a fatal accident inquiry into his death.

    In April 2015, on the 30th anniversary of his death, Scotland on Sunday ran a story claiming MacRae's car was moved back to the crash site by Northern Constabulary in an attempt to hide the car having been moved before the bullet had been found – accounting for the discrepancies relating to the gun's distance from the car. In response, a campaign to conduct a Fatal Accident Inquiry into MacRae's death was launched, attracting 6,500 signatures in just five days. It was eventually handed to the Crowd Office in June 2015, but the body rejected the proposal.


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