The third episode of our Glasgow Crime Stories focuses on the death of veteran lawyer Willie McRae. 

IT WAS Good Friday, April 5, 1985, and veteran lawyer Willie McRae was heading to his Highland holiday cottage in the Ross-Shire village of Dornie near Skye. 

The 61-year-old had left his flat in Queens Park on Glasgow's Southside around 6:30pm and expected to complete the 175-mile car journey in around four hours. 

As McRae neared the weekend retreat later that Friday, he would almost certainly have been looking forward to sitting in front of a peat fire and enjoying a glass of his favourite malt whisky. 

However, he never arrived and what happened that night still causes controversy and debate more than 36 years later. 

The following morning two Australian tourists spotted McRae's distinctive maroon Volvo on remote moorland a short distance from the junction of the A887 and A87 roads at Bunloyne near Glenmoriston. 

Glasgow Times:

The car had left the road and come to a halt over a small burn about 30 metres away and both holidaymakers found McRae slumped at the wheel - 30 miles from Dornie. They flagged down a passing car whose driver turned out to be a doctor. 

She examined McRae and discovered him still alive and breathing. She estimated that he had been unconscious for at least 10 hours. 

McRae was rushed by ambulance to Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, and then transferred 100 miles away to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. 

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There what appeared to be a road accident suddenly became something more sinister. 

Six hours after McRae had been found by the Aussie couple, a nurse during a routine examination found what appeared to be a gunshot wound. 

An X-ray confirmed that the critically ill solicitor had been shot above his right ear and a bullet was detected in his head. 

The following day, Sunday, April 7, after consultation with McRae's family, the solicitor's life-support machine was switched off. 

The subsequent investigation was headed by Chief Superintendent Andrew Lister of Northern Constabulary. 

At the time McRae was a major public figure, a former deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, and anti-nuclear campaigner. 

In both the 1974 and 1979 General Elections he stood for Parliament as the SNP candidate for Ross and Cromarty and had been narrowly defeated. 

One of his main clients was the best-selling writer Alistair McLean, author of Where Eagles Dare and Guns of Navarone. 

McRae had also been had been a key figure in a campaign against the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority plans to dispose of nuclear waste in the Mullwharchar area of the Galloway Hills.  

The plans were rejected, and McRae was lauded for preventing the beauty spot becoming a nuclear waste dump. 

He was also a former senior partner in Levy & McRae one of Glasgow's most prestigious law firms, which he had helped found in the early 1950s. 

In the days before his death the lawyer was said to have evidence of government plans to build an underwater burial site offshore at Applecross, Wester Ross, to store all of the United Kingdoms Nuclear Waste. 

He had also told friends that his home and office had been broken into and paperwork relating to the site stolen. 

On the Sunday of his death, police found the gun used in the fatal shooting lying in the burn where the car had rested. 

It was an unlicensed Smith & Wesson revolver belonging to McRae, which he had owned for a number of years and often kept in his office. 

Following the police investigation, McRae was found to have committed suicide and no Fatal Accident Inquiry was held at the request of his family. 

However, in the 36 years since there have been persistent claims that his death was not a suicide and that he was in fact the victim of foul play and a subsequent establishment cover-up. 

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Later in 1985 Winnie Ewing – then President of the SNP – was directed by the party's National Executive Committee to conduct an internal investigation. 

Ewing, who was also a lawyer, later reported that she was not satisfied with the official account of suicide. 

In 1991 Channel 4 broadcast a "Scottish Eye" documentary investigated McRae's death. 

It claimed that McRae had been under surveillance by both the police and intelligence services at the time of his death. 

In 2005 Winnie Ewing's son Fergus, by then an MSP, requested a meeting with Elish Angiolini, then Solicitor General for Scotland, to discuss the allegations that McRae was being watched. 

Angiolini insisted there was no surveillance and a thorough investigation into the death had been carried out at the time. 

However, the case took a fresh twist in 2015 when Willie McRae's younger brother - Dr Fergus McRae - urged people to accept the official version of events about his sibling's tragic death. 

In a Sunday newspaper interview the retired GP, from West Calder, near Edinburgh said he didn't believe there was anything mysterious or suspicious about his brother's apparent suicide. 

Dr McRae added: "There was no murder or anything like that. I am absolutely positive about that. He did not discover anything that would have put his life at risk." 

That same year a campaign to have a Fatal Accident Inquiry into McRae's death attracted more than 13,000 signatures, but the Crown Office rejected the proposal. 

A crowd-funded "Justice For Willie" group was set up and two experienced former Strathclyde Police detectives were hired to re-interview original witnesses from the time of McRae's death. 

Their investigation which was published in November 2016 was unable to find any new evidence to undermine the official suicide verdict. 

Glasgow Times:

They discovered McRae had been suffering from depression, drinking heavily, and had previously threatened suicide. In one instance a close friend found him holding a gun and stating that life had become "all too much for him". 

The retired detectives also found no evidence that McRae had been under surveillance on the day of his death. 

Earlier that year in May the Crown Office had also taken the unusual step of releasing all publicly available documents regarding the lawyer's death in a bid to quell the growing number of conspiracy theories. 

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To this date questions still remain. 

In mid-2021, two people came forward with witness accounts to back claims that there was more to his death than met the eye. 

Former forklift truck driver Pat Gallagher, 63, claimed he rescued McRae from his burning flat and a confrontation with a boiler suited man. 

The blaze had broken out in McRae's Balvicar Street flat around 7.30am as Pat, then 27, was on his way to work.  

Pat ran into the building after seeing flames shooting through the windows of the top-floor tenement. 

As he approached the flat door, he was passed by a man in a boiler suit carrying a briefcase, who he assumed was a neighbour. 

When told about the fire the same man said he was in a hurry to get to work and ran past him. 

On reaching the flat, Pat, who lived in nearby Niddrie Square, discovered that the main storm door was open but the front door itself was locked.  

Pat managed to force his way in and lead McRae to safety. 

He said: “When I kicked in the door, I couldn’t see a thing because of the smoke and was shouting out for anyone who was inside the flat.  

"I could hear a muffled sound and told the occupant to make his way towards the light on the landing. 

“I read a lot of stories later that he was a drinker and an alcoholic. But there was not one smell of drink from him. 

“His lips were blue and he was shaking with the shock and I put my jacket over his shoulders.  

"I gave him a drink from a can of Coke I had. I had no idea who he was until I read about his death a few days later and it mentioned the fire in his home.” 

Despite his ordeal McRae was determined to go back into the flat and Pat had to forcibly stop him.  

He added: “I couldn’t understand why he wanted to go back.  

“I wondered at one stage if there was someone already in there and I would have to go back in and rescue them but he said no.” 

Pat has also wondered if the boiler-suited man had been in McRae’s flat, stolen the briefcase, and even started the fire. 

He added: “I thought it strange he was more concerned about being late for work rather than the fire in a neighbour’s flat. It also struck me that a man in a blue boiler suit carrying a tan briefcase was unusual. 

“I gave my details to the police at the time but I never heard from them again. I wasn’t asked to give a statement or anything so I didn’t get the chance to tell them about the man with the briefcase. 

“I assumed they would call on me after Mr McRae had died but it never happened.” 

Pat claims he saw the same boiler-suited man in nearby Queen’s Drive after leaving the flat in Balvicar Street. He was parked in the middle of the road and speaking with another driver. 

Pat claims the same car appeared outside his workplace in Polmadie later that morning. Over the next few weeks he again spotted it several times in the Queen’s Park area.  

Pat added: "It was a quite an unusual car, sky blue with a dark roof, but I never saw who was in it. 

“Because I was running late I had got a taxi into work and wondered if the car had followed me. I would then see the same car in the places that I frequented. I once considered confronting the driver and ask why he was following me but I was worried about looking stupid.” 

Several weeks after the fire Pat and a friend were coming out of a pub in Victoria Road when the same car swerved on to the pavement as if it was trying to knock him down then drove away. 

He added: “That certainly sobered me up. After that I always looked over my shoulder when walking home at night or standing in a bar. But I never saw the car again.” 

Pat hasn’t worked since 1992 when he was involved in an accident in his local in Torrisdale Street. While upstairs he went over the banister and fell to the ground after a pub customer tripped and bumped into him. 

The Glaswegian, who still lives on the city’s south side, added: “One thing that has always gone through my head over the years was why the police never spoke to me again about the fire, particularly given the questions that later surrounded his death.  

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“I have always wondered why Mr McRae wanted to go back into a burning flat after he had just been rescued and why a neighbour, if he was a neighbour, didn’t want to stop and help him. 

Glasgow Times:

The man alleged there was “something suspicious” about McRae’s death.  "There needs to be some sort of fresh investigation or inquiry and I would be more than happy to give evidence.” 

A police officer who attended the same flat fire says his report was ignored by colleagues investigating his death. 

PC John Mooney found the lawyer suffering from smoke inhalation. 

However John says that when he later notified colleagues in Northern Constabulary about the fire after his death, they never got back to him.  

More than 36 years later he still can’t understand why they blanked his report. 

John, now 71, said: “When I got into work on the Sunday I discovered Willie was dead. I told my boss about the fire and he gave me permission to contact Northern Constabulary. 

“I spoke to a sergeant at their office in Fort William and explained that I was a police officer with Strathclyde Police in Glasgow. I told him there were two fire occurrence reports, mine and one by Strathclyde Fire Brigade. I said if you need anything get in touch at any time. But they never did.” 

John added: “I thought it would be useful for Northern Constabulary to know Willie’s state of mind at the time of the accident. 

“For example, I wondered if he had been affected by the smoke inhalation when the car went off the road.  

"If he had taken his own life as was being suggested then it was possible the fire could have affected his mental state.” 

John was ordered to the flat that morning and found a clearly distressed McRae sitting on a seat on the landing dressed in his clothes. 

McRae told the officer he had fallen asleep in his bed while smoking. The cigarette had set his quilt on fire which in turn had woken him up. 

McRae then rushed through to his bathroom where he put out the blaze with water. The smoke and smell alerted a young couple who lived across the landing. 

John added: “The fire brigade also tried to get him to go to the Victoria Infirmary because he was suffering from smoke inhalation. He also had a scorch mark on one of his hands. 

“I could see that he was coughing and spluttering quite badly. He kept on saying, ‘I am alright, I am alright’ when he clearly wasn’t.” 

John went back to the police office at nearby Craigie Street where he filed his report.  

He added: “I’ve always found it strange that no-one asked for my report. Surely it would have been relevant to any police inquiry to find out more about the fire earlier that day? 

“This was a man who had not only died from a gunshot wound but had also suffered smoke inhalation and a burn to his hand. I am surprised no-one questioned that.” 

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John doesn’t believe that McRae killed himself. 

He added: “It seems a strange place to take your own life and I have never heard of anyone shooting themselves in the back of the head. There are too many unanswered questions. 

“They should have held a fatal accident inquiry at the time and I would have been more than happy to give evidence. I certainly think there should be one now.” 

John, who is married and lives in Rutherglen, left the police three years after the fire on ill-health grounds. 

He added: "I recognised Mr McRae when I saw him outside his flat as I had been an SNP supporter since I was a teenager. 

“I was surprised as were my colleagues that no one ever got back to me from Northern Constabulary. It was as if the fire had never happened. 

“One of my old bosses said he couldn’t understand why those investigating Willie’s death did not want to see my report. 

“He then told me, ‘If they don’t want to know, they don’t want to know’. What he meant by that is anyone’s guess.” 

Glasgow Times:

Former criminal lawyer Len Murray was Willie McRae's colleague at Levy and McRae for almost 30 years. 

Mr Murray was also a close personal friend and is convinced that the patriotic Scot took his own life. 

They had first met in 1954 when Murray was his apprentice for three years at Levy & McRae. 

The two men became partners before McRae left the firm in 1981 and to set up on his own in Buchanan Street the following year. 

Len Murray, who retired in 2003 and lives in Milngavie, has rarely spoken about his friend's death. 

Now, 87, he said: "Willie McRae was a very charitable man. 

"He never charged a penny for his work at the Galloway Hills inquiry for example. 

"Willie was also a very caring individual and an impressive public speaker. 

"Intellectually he was quite brilliant but had no interests outside politics and the law. 

"It was tragic in many ways what happened to him." 

Mr Murray finds it difficult to believe the state orchestrated the murder of his former colleague as has been suggested. He says the ardent nationalist was drinking heavily and had a lot of professional and personal worry. 

His one-man law firm in Buchanan Street was not doing well and he had a drink driving prosecution pending. 

On the day of the crash shortly before 8 am there had been a fire in his flat to which the emergency services were called by neighbours. However, McRae refused medical treatment despite suffering from smoke inhalation. 

A nurse at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary who treated McRae later said his feet and lower legs were black from either a fire or smoke. 

Mr Murray added: "Willie was a terrible smoker and I was told by one of his friends that he had fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette. 

"At the time he didn't have any business of note and that was a major source of depression for him. 

"I would treat any stories that he was being followed by the police or security services with a pinch of salt. 

"Why should Willie McRae be singled out when there were far more dangerous people out there at the time.? 

"What was so unique about his political views that he alone of all politicians in recent years has met such a fate? 

"Personally and sadly I tend to believe that Willie died at his own hands."