Originally posted 8th May 2015 on Kickstarter. I will be sharing some informal blog posts that I have been writing for backers of my book ‘30 Years of Silence: The Life and Mysterious Death of Willie McRae’. I will post each blog on here one month after they were originally published. In this post, I tackle the subject of Willie’s surname. I (just about) stopped it from developing into a Highlands vs. Lowlands spelling battle. Next blog will be due on 3rd July 2015.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in communication with Robert Green, the nephew of Hilda Murrell.
He was curious to know the correct spelling of Willie’s name: ‘MacRae or McRae?’
In his fascinating book about Hilda’s 1984 murder, A Thorn In Their Side, he briefly discusses Willie’s case – due to the anti-nuclear link – and I noted that he had used the spelling ‘MacRae’ in this particular chapter.
Given that in the past week I have had a twitter discussion about the same subject, I think the topic of Willie McRae’s name, and the origin of the conflicting variants, is a good place to start. Or do I mean Willie MacRae…?
To me, the different spellings of his name have oft served as a wry summation of the case: everything has about five explanations. The gun. His car. Whoever pulled the trigger. Why should his name be any different?
Over the years, the usage of ‘MacRae’ has gained a lot of prominence in press reports. His wikipedia page also clearly states ‘Willie MacRae’.
It’s so very easy, even for those whose daily life involves adherence to academic referencing, to fall for the instant gratification of a Wikipedia ‘fact’.
Okay then, but how do we explain the cairn located by the roadside of the A87 where he was alleged to have crashed his car on that fateful night?
Andy Patterson named his fascinating play ‘3000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae’ and George Gunn’s ‘3000 Trees’, while based on Willie MacRae, used the name ‘Willie MacKay’. Much, if not all, of the press reports leading up to the two respective plays’ Edinburgh Fringe Festival appearances consistently used ‘MacRae’.
So, is it actually ‘MacRae’? Have I got it spectacularly wrong on my Kickstarter? Does it even matter?
‘Follow the facts’
There are a few documents that can put this one to rest pretty fast – two of which are the birth certificate and the death certificate.
Now, that should be clear as day, shouldn’t it? Wikipedia is wrong. Journalists have got it wrong. His ‘friends’ have got it wrong. It’s Willie McRae.
But what if the documents are wrong? Despite the death certificate having been registered by Willie’s younger brother, there’s a possibility that legality required the usage of the legal name on the birth certificate. And what if someone got the birth certificate wrong? British adult literacy rates from the 1920s are unknown to me, but it is a conceivable notion that I’ll entertain.
And then cast into the fire.
Could Willie himself have really got the name of his own legal firm wrong?
You must, having seen the evidence, come to the inevitable conclusion that I have done so: his name, legally, was William McRae. He identified professionally as William McRae.
So what other option does that leave for the possibility of ‘MacRae’ being something other than a mistake based on phonetic similarity of the names?
Well, there is one other possibility. Willie was ‘a fell proud’ of his Highland ancestry. His family came from the ‘MacRaes’ who were (many moons ago) based in the stronghold of Eilean Donan Castle in Dornie, Kintail. Willie bought the family’s ancestral cottage in Ardelve, by Dornie, in 1966.
Somewhere along the line, his family surname was altered into ‘McRae’ – most likely due to illiteracy. For someone who couldn’t spell well, the mixing up of ‘Mc’ and ‘Mac’ as a result of near-identical phonetics wouldn’t be hard.
For that reason, Willie may have culturally saw himself as a ‘MacRae’. Cultural nationalism – which, in the late 70s and 80s – was becoming a nuisance to the SNP. The likes of Siol nan Gaidheal – a cultural, if not ethnic, nationalist group who SNP Chairman Gordon Wilson described as ‘proto-fascists’ – were an inevitable backlash of both this and the ‘stolen vote’ of the 1979 Referendum on the Scottish Assembly. Willie was a member.
Willie, being a cultural nationalist first and a civic nationalist second, shared a great fondness for the retention of anything from the gaidheals (gales). Perhaps, in such circles, Willie called himself Willie MacRae – as this was the name of his Highland ancestors.
It would explain the plaque from Siol nan Gaidheal reading ‘MacRae’…
Except, I’m going to throw that one to the sharks too. The cairn located by the roadside is not the original cairn. The cairn was originally just a pile of stones.
Ignore the naming of the youtube video and note the caption IN the video. Clearly from the time, it states ‘McRae’.
In 1990, a year later, Willie’s cairn was to get a permanent plaque.
That plaque read:
‘William McRae, A Scottish Patriot, died here on April 6, 1985. The Struggle Goes On.’
The cairn, after being removed by the Council, was reinstated a few years back.
As you can see, there’s one key difference to the new plaque by the remnants/new members of Siol nan Gaidheal: ‘McRae’.
So, let’s sum up:
- Willie MacRae, up until the recent petition, had been the widest usage of his name in press reports and so on.
- His legal name was William McRae.
- His legal business was named ‘Levy & McRae’.
- He professionally identified as William McRae
- The cairn originally read William McRae.
Conclusion: his name was William ‘Willie’ McRae. Wikipedia is, surprise, wrong.
Why does this matter? After all, a name’s a name. When you write ‘Willie MacRae’, that person will know, or be able to identify, who you mean.
Well, here’s why:
Note ‘William MacRae’. This document was put together within 48 hours of Willie’s death. It was used by the Procurator Fiscal of the time, Thomas Aitchison, to then put together his report to the Crown Office.
A brief (one would think mandatory) visit to Willie’s legal offices would have revealed the name of his company, at the time of his death, was actually McRae & Co.
Well, that is if they had found his offices – given that McRae & Co were located at number 166 Buchanan Street and not at number 16 as stated by the police report.
So, three factual errors – and not even one paragraph down. What does this mean?
Well, on one hand, it could be someone being sloppy in their typewriting.
Or it could be that Northern Constabulary did not bother to check anything regarding Willie McRae or his background or his movements on that day – past those present at the hospital: Willie’s brother, his brother’s wife and Willie’s legal partner. If they had visited 166 Buchanan Street to talk to Willie’s office staff, then surely they would have got the number, the name of the company and, subsequently, his name correct?
In the context of everything I’ve viewed on this case so far, I’m loath to accept the former explanation.
To this day, the Crown Office – in all of my correspondence with them – continue to label him ‘William MacRae’.
As I’ve said, someone just getting the name wrong on Twitter isn’t that important.
Our investigative bodies continually getting the name wrong of a person whose death has attracted 30 years of public interest? Makes you wonder how seriously they ever took the case. And continue to do so.
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© Paul Delamore
Images used under ‘Fair Dealing’ doctrine of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.