Published: 17/04/2015 09:55 - Updated: 17/04/2015 14:22

3000 Trees probes SNP man's mysterious Highland death

Andy Paterson as Willie MacRae.
Andy Paterson as Willie MacRae.

A PLAY about an SNP politician found dying in his car back in 1985 comes to the Highlands for two dates this week.

A sell-out at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, playwright and actor Andy Paterson’s 3000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae comes to Farr Hall today (Friday, April 17).

His one-man play was timed to run around the 30th anniversary of the death of SNP politician and anti-nuclear campaigner Willie MacRae who was found dying in his car on the A87 north of Fort William between Cluanie and Invergarry with a single gunshot wound to the head.

It was believed by many at the time that MacRae’s death, far from being a suicide, was murder.

And if MacRae’s death was a suicide, the circumstances are bizarre to say the least, says Andy, who first wrote a shorter version of the play for his drama master’s degree back in 2011.

But in the run-up to staging his play in Edinburgh last summer, Andy discovered a coincidence that was equally bizarre.

There was another play at the festival also about William MacRae’s story – also called 3000 Trees, referring to trees planted as a memorial to MacRae in Israel.

Andy recalls: "An actor friend rang and was talking about the person he thought was the director of my play – and sorting that out, we realised there were two plays with the same title.

"I asked around and discovered that the Caithness writer and poet George Gunn had written the other play.

"Once we worked out it was pure coincidence, we both went to see each other’s play and had hoped to possibly tour as a double bill some time in the future!

"And the publicity about it probably helped both of us – the play was a sellout!"

Andy Paterson in his play.
Andy Paterson in his play.

The facts behind the case that inspired both writers are intriguing.

MacRae’s car was found some distance from the road in what initially looked like a road traffic accident as he drove to his cottage, Camusty by Dornie. Inside the car, MacRae was unconscious, his hands folded in his lap and the gun he had been shot with was later found some 60ft away and later it was discovered that documents and other items were missing from the car.

Andy says: "Theories abound. If MacRae shot himself – why pack a bag for a weekend at his holiday cottage? Those who saw him leave Glasgow on the weekend of his death describe his mood as upbeat – happy.

"And friends and colleagues find it difficult to believe that MacRae died by his own hand."

Andy’s one-man show sees MacRae himself reflect on the events leading up to his death. Was he under surveillance on the day he died? What happened to the dossier he was compiling on the Dounreay nuclear plant?

MacRae had successfully led a legal challenge to stop nuclear waste being buried in the Ayrshire hills. A colourful and larger-than-life character, he had served in the Royal Indian Navy, was a gifted lawyer and stood for leadership of the SNP in 1979.

Andy says: "Dark rumours surround MacRae – whispers about alcoholism, depression and his private life. Allegations of involvement in terrorism. Much of this is the stuff of whispers."

The play takes an audience on a journey from MacRae’s service as an officer in the Royal Indian Navy – where he was marked out as ‘subversive’ for supporting Indian independence – through his anti-nuclear campaigning, his involvement with radical groups and on to his death. Throughout, the complex and sometimes troubled MacRae tells his own story.

"I’ve been interested in the Willie MacRae case since I worked as a journalist in the 1990s," says Andy, who these days runs theatre company Teatro Magnetico.

‘Nothing about the way Willie died adds up to his death being a suicide. There are many theories around as to who may have killed Willie – he was investigating the nuclear industry and NATO in Scotland, as well as the illegal drugs trade.

"More recently it has come to light that Willie had compiled a dossier on senior paedophiles in the legal establishment and at Westminster. So far no copy of this has been found, but it was known to exist at the time of his death."

Over the years there have been repeated calls for a formal inquiry into his death and a petition was launched on April 6 to ask for a Fatal Accident Inquiry into the lawyer’s death.

After the play at Farr, there will be a Q&A session with Andy. Tickets are available on the door priced £20/£10 or online at www.3000treesfarr.brownpapertickets.com

3000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae follows a performance in Farr Hall tonight (Friday, April 17).

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