Scottish Daily Mail
Face from the deep that has haunted me for 40 years
Millionaire’s wife Renee MacRae vanished four decades ago in one of Scotland’s most baffling murder cases. Now, a leading journalist believes this chilling image could solve the mystery
The police did things differently in those days
IT is a harrowing image which has haunted me for almost 40 years. A human head wrapped in a plastic bag, submerged in a flooded quarry. Captured on an underwater camera, it was close-up footage of what I believed then, and still firmly believe today, to be the face of murdered millionaire’s wife Renee MacRae – or her three-year-old son Andrew.
It was a cold day in 1977 when press and police gathered by Leanach Quarry, near the dark and forbidding Culloden Moor in Inverness-shire, for what we thought might be the culmination of a months-long missing persons inquiry into the disappearance of the mother and son.
I was standing only a few yards away with other journalists – and we were all shocked by what we saw on the small monitor.
We could make out what appeared to be eye sockets and a mouth sucking in the plastic, Everyone, including the detectives leading the investigation, were of the same opinion.
The search for Andrew and his 36-year-old mother Renee had started months before.
On the night of Friday, November 12, 1976, the glamorous mother of two vanished after leaving her home in Cradlehall, near Inverness. She dropped off her older son Gordon, nine, with her husband, also named Gordon, then drove down the A9 towards Perth with her toddler son. They were heading for Kilmarnock, to visit her sister. Neither she nor Andrew were ever seen again.
Later that night, Mrs MacRae’s burnt out BMW estate car was found in a lay-by on the A9, 11 miles outside Inverness. When she did not return home with Andrew on the Monday, as planned, a search was launched.
But things were not quite as they seemed in Mrs MacRae’s life. She was not planning on visiting her sister at all, but instead having a last weekend away with her secret lover, Bill MacDowell.
She was planning on leaving her building company owner husband Gordon to make a new life with Mr MacDowell in Shetland.
That information only came to light when Val Steventon – the only person who knew of her friend Mrs MacRae’s infidelity and secret trysts – became worried and decided to confess all she knew to police.
The case lifted the lid on a middle-class promiscuity in the 1970s Highlands that few believed or were prepared to admit existed. It was an investigation I covered from the start – and one I believe can still be solved.
Events became increasingly dramatic after it emerged that Mr MacDowell had gone to police shortly after November 12 to give them ‘significant’ information, according to a senior officer, who told me the accountant was ‘very upset’.
But his wife Rosemary spotted his car outside police HQ and removed him from the building before he could complete his statement.
Mr MacDowell only gave one interview, a few weeks after the police investigation began. But he dropped a bombshell – admitting he was Andrew’s real father. He claimed he had ended the affair, that Mrs MacRae was still alive and that he was receiving coded telephone calls from her, although without conversation.
The police did things differently in those days. Reporters were allowed a lot closer to potential crime scenes.
In those early months of the investigation, the focus fell on two quarries: Dalmagarry, yards away from the lay-by where the BMW was found; and Leanach, six miles further north. I covered the searches at both of them.
A small amount of blood had been found in the boot of Mrs MacRae’s car – an initial clue to foul play, although not conclusive.
A witness saw an estate car on a single track road close to the Dalmagarry lay-by. A man was seen on the same road, dragging what appeared to be a sheep across it.
Mrs MacRae had a sheepskin coat with her that night. The motorist was able to give police a partial registration number. Another witness saw a man with a pushchair on the A9.
Andrew’s pushchair has never been found. Nor has their luggage.
A similar estate car was seen on another back road near the A9 only a couple of miles from where Mrs MacRae and Mr MacDowell lived in luxury homes. The number plate information largely matched, I was told.
Mr MacDowell drove a similar vehicle, another factor which made him a suspect in the mother and son disappearance – and turned the spotlight on the two quarries.
I was working as a staff journalist at the time and am now a freelance, writing for national newspapers and approaching retirement. Never once did I think that, 40 years on, the case would remain unsolved.
Not even when I took part in roadside searches in those early days, assisting the police and the military in their bid to discover what happened to the estranged wife of well-known Inverness businessman Mr MacRae and her youngest child.
Although I wasn’t privy to all the evidence gathered by Inverness Police and the Northern Constabulary over the years, I was privileged to enjoy the confidence of many of the senior police officers who investigated the case and who shared some of that information with me.
Two of the highest ranking officers told me in on the record interviews that they were sure Leanach Quarry harboured a dreadful secret. They were former Chief Constable, the late Donald Henderson, and the late Detective Superintendent Donald MacArthur.
Although neither would admit it publicly, both confided to me that early blunders, delays and deceit had hampered their best chance of finding the killer.
They both publicly said that Mr MacDowell, now 76 and last known to be living in London, was a suspect.
Nothing was dismissed by an increasingly desperate inquiry team. Detectives listened to mediums and even called in a hypnotist to explore the inner minds of key figures such as Mr MacRae and Miss Steventon for forgotten information.
Only Mr MacDowell refused to take part.
Several months on, searches were ordered of both quarries. As the search for the bodies widened, a detective, the late John Cathcart, reported smelling a strong stench similar to that of rotting flesh from a section of the Dalmagarry quarry. A digger was called in to excavate a small section. But when nothing of significance was found, the search was called off without being fully investigated. It left Mr Cathcart annoyed and unswayed in his belief that both were buried there.
The sighting of the estate car near the Leanach Quarry signalled a search there. The quarry was in two sections, giving the appearance of two quarries – and it was hoped it might be possible to drain one into the other. But both were linked underwater.
So the submersible camera was brought in – and the ‘head in the bag’ was filmed. A buoy was placed above where it was located and police divers summoned.
Although we weren’t permitted to use the photograph, an artist drew his interpretation of what we saw and it was published on our newspaper’s front page.
But the quarry proved too dangerous for the divers to investigate further, as dumped vehicles and other hazardous material was piled up against the steep sides and there was a danger of collapse of the debris.
Two Inverness police divers had been killed in a tragedy a few years earlier and that bitter memory was still raw in the minds of their colleagues. However, a team of Navy divers was called in.
They recovered a bag and brought it to the surface – but it was found to contain garden rubbish. The search ended then; in my view, prematurely. Hundreds of bags of garden rubbish had been dumped there and only one was recovered.
Like Dalmagarry, both searches were never done properly back then. Yet Dalmagarry was scoured almost 30 years later and questions over Leanach remain today.
Those in charge at the time should have been more thorough and definitively ruled both quarries in or out of the inquiry.
After two fruitless years, the MacRae case was effectively closed, apart from the occasional cold case review, which prompted the frequent bland police comment: ‘The file remains open.’
I continued to write anniversary stories, interviewing Mr MacRae, Mrs MacRae’s sister Morag and others, including Mr Henderson and Mr MacArthur, in the hope that publicity would maintain the pressure on the killer and lead to new information.
It wasn’t until Mr Cathcart was featured in a TV documentary about the case in 2004 and expressed his disappointment that Dalmagarry had not been properly checked that it took on a fresh impetus.
The then Northern Constabulary Chief Constable Ian Latimer, who is now retired, instructed a cold case review of the MacRae file and ordered that Dalmagarry be excavated and witnesses reinterviewed.
More than 30,000 tons of earth were removed under the scrutiny of forensic anthropologist Dr Sue Black, only for the huge disappointment of finding nothing.
Despite the failure, Mr Latimer presented a new file to the Crown Office; but once more, counsel refused to take anyone to court.
Yet the question mark still remains over Leanach Quarry – and that image captured by the underwater camera is still vivid. It remains, in my mind, a compelling clue.
There were other circumstantial and uncorroborated pieces of evidence which afforded it special attention in my view. Both Mr Henderson and Mr MacArthur told me they were convinced that Leanach Quarry held the key.
Mr Henderson visited Leanach with me before he retired and admitted cost was the obstacle and that strong evidence linking Leanach to the disappearance wasn’t there to justify more expense.
The task would be even more difficult now as, over the years, hundreds of tons of earth and rubbish have been tipped into Leanach Quarry.
But the estate vehicle which was seen parked on the road to Shennachie, a short distance from Dalmagarry Quarry, was also seen near Leanach Quarry.
It was not clear if the man was dragging something into the woods that fringed the quarry – or out of them.
Mr Latimer is convinced the bodies were later removed from Dalmagarry.
Could the killer have been disturbed at Dalmagarry and continued on to Leanach Quarry
to dispose of the bodies? It ties in with the psychological profiling that child murderers dispose of their victim close to the scene of the crime. It also ties in with Mr Latimer’s thoughts.
A prominent figure in the case was believed to have access to the gated Leanach Quarry. Mr MacArthur told me that the telephone activity between that figure, who was working outside Inverness, and his home increased during the search of Leanach Quarry, with the question frequently being asked: ‘Have they found anything yet?’
He refused to elaborate on how he knew this and I have no way of knowing if it was true.
Leanach was also close to the homes of a number of people linked to Mrs MacRae and never properly searched.
Like Dalmagarry, it should have been ruled in or out. Even when the last cold case review was presented to the Crown Office, Mr Latimer believed there was a sufficiency of evidence to bring a suspect to trial. The Crown Office disagreed, despite the successful prosecution of Nat Fraser, convicted of murdering his wife Arlene although her body has never been found.
Police Scotland looked again at the MacRae murder case this year – but won’t reveal what it has or intends to do – other than a hint that it may mark the anniversary with a repeated appeal for information.
In reality, it is unlikely anyone will ever be brought to justice – something which angers Andrew’s older brother, the now 49-year-old Gordon – robbed of his mother and sibling at only nine.
In a rare interview ten years ago, he said: ‘I am extremely disappointed there has been no result or conclusion in the matter after 30 years of police investigation.’
Mrs MacRae’s sister Morag Govans is also worried that no one will ever be convicted of the murders.
‘After all this time, I doubt if it will ever happen,’ she said. ‘When nothing was found at Dalmagarry Quarry, it was a real disappointment for me. John Cathcart seemed so convinced and my hopes were raised.’
Mr Henderson, Mr MacArthur and other prominent policemen have now also gone to their graves. They retained a firm belief of the identity of the man who murdered the mother and son – and where their bodies might lie.
Yet today, 40 years on, the killer continues to evade justice.