The name Renee MacRae has served as a byword for one of Scotland’s most iconic unsolved murders for nearly fifty years, earning it almost mythological status. When her abandoned BMW was discovered burning in a Highland lay-by on a damp November night in 1976, the arduous search to find her murderer and bring him to justice started.
However, it was evident by the time it was through yesterday in the High Court in Inverness that the solution to this most puzzling of cases had been tantalizingly near from the start.
The fact that it has taken this long to get a guilty judgement against the main suspect in the case may be the biggest surprise in this story of amazing twists and turns.
Bill MacDowell, Renee’s longtime boyfriend, was eventually found guilty of killing both Renee and their three-year-old lovechild, Andrew, solidifying his position in Scottish criminal history. He joins the exclusive group of those convicted of murder without a corpse.
In MacDowell’s instance, his evil went as far as murdering his own flesh and blood, an innocent kid. His obstinate unwillingness to acknowledge his guilt or identify the locations of his victims’ graves so that their loved ones and friends might properly mourn their loss has long served to compound such incomprehensible cruelty.
At least now a jury has assured that the guy responsible for their prolonged suffering will be held accountable for his crimes.
Nothing seemed to be so clear-cut at the beginning of the police inquiry. The blue BMW 1602 sedan that caught fire on Friday, November 12, 1976, in a lay-by on the A9 near Dalmagarry, 14 miles south of Inverness, was the first indication that anything was amiss.
The flaming car belonged to Hugh MacRae & Co, a significant employer in Inverness and a local builder, but it was usually driven by Christina Catherine MacRae, 36, also known as Renee, Gordon MacRae’s divorced wife.
After being divorced in 1974 after getting married in 1963, the small, blonde mother of two Renee was living in a lavish home in Inverness with financial assistance from her ex-husband, who had started dating his receptionist, Vivienne.
He was unaware that Renee had developed feelings for Bill MacDowell, the corporate secretary, who worked at his offices.
Long before his name was connected to Renee MacRae, MacDowell was a well-known person in Inverness. He was fit and athletic, and he played tennis, squash, and badminton. Opponents remember him as a formidable opponent who “hated to lose face.” One person said, “He constantly gave 100% and often broke his racquet.”
Renee had informed her husband that fateful weekend that she was leaving their son Gordon junior, who was nine years old at the time, with his father and traveling to Kilmarnock to see her sister Morag Govans. Renee was bringing Andrew with her.
On Monday afternoon, Renee would return in plenty of time to pick him up from school.
Gordon called Morag after the police told him about the BMW and learned Renee and Andrew weren’t in Kilmarnock. He was initially unconcerned since he believed Renee’s narrative was a cover as he was aware he was not Andrew’s father and knew she had a boyfriend, albeit he was unsure of who.
He said to the police that he believed Renee had parked the car someplace and gotten into another vehicle to go to her destination, leading him to believe that joyriders had taken it. He thought she and Andrew would return home on Monday, but when neither appeared, panic crept aroused and a search was started.
Police opened a secret world of middle-class adultery in the Highlands in the 1970s as they searched for clues to her location. This is where the MacRaes and the MacDowells met.
Renee and MacDowell’s wife, Rosemary, may be seen together in a photo taken around this time period attending a New Year’s celebration. They traveled in the same social circles and went to the same events.
The covert extramarital romance was well underway by that point; in fact, Renee could have already been carrying MacDowell’s child.
Andrew was born in 1973 nine months later. Renee kept her lover’s identity a secret from her husband even after she moved into the bungalow and out of the family house.
Val Steventon, her closest friend and confidante, was the only one who was informed of this secret and the truth about Andrew’s origins.
The secrets of Mrs. Steventon’s friends were far more numerous. She was aware that Renee, who was madly in love with MacDowell, had been covertly packing everything in her bungalow in anticipation of relocating to Shetland with him later that month.
She understood that, contrary to what she had told others, her friend had arrangements to see her boyfriend, who demanded she bring young Andrew along so he could get to know him better, on the weekend of her absence.
Mrs. Steventon informed the police all she knew when Renee didn’t show up three days after her burning automobile was discovered, out of worry that she may never see her friend alive again. When she subsequently recalled that her final words to her friend were, “Have a lovely weekend Renee, no fighting,” she alluded to the volatile nature of the relationship.
MacDowell was forced to tell the authorities that he was both Andrew’s and Renee’s father. Devastated and ashamed, Gordon MacRae swiftly fired him.
Although the pair had a preliminary plan to spend the weekend together, MacDowell informed police that it was never finalized and he had made the decision not to attend. He disclaimed having any plans to go to Shetland with Renee or having found a job or home there.
What is certain is that Renee’s lengthy relationship with MacDowell had reached a make-or-break moment at the time she vanished.
According to Mrs. Steventon, “He really took Renee in totally.” Even the packing was done by her. Little Andrew was beginning to point at MacDowell and call him Daddy, which was making things a little uncomfortable for him. I believe he was aware that Renee was becoming far more connected with him than he was with her.
In order for him to leave his wife and move in with her, several people thought she had threatened to expose he was Andrew’s father. Detectives now think that his motivation stemmed from the fact that he enjoyed a luxurious life and stood to lose everything if the affair was discovered by others.
After it was revealed that MacDowell had gone to the police a month after Renee and Andrew disappeared to give them “significant” information, the situation grew more dramatic. According to a police source, the accountant seemed to be “quite agitated,” but before he could finish speaking, his enraged wife saw his vehicle outside police headquarters and escorted him out. Detectives were frustrated because they thought he could have been ready to confess to his role.
Days after the police investigation started, MacDowell only gave one media interview in which he acknowledged that he was the real father of Andrew, that the affair had ended, that Renee was still alive, and that he had been strangely receiving coded phone calls from her even though she remained silent.
When asked by a Glasgow Herald reporter whether he had told the police about this, he said that he must have forgotten.
A regular search for a missing individual turned into a murder investigation that captivated the public’s attention, but the police’s best efforts to catch the murderer were impeded by early mistakes and delays.
The only tangible evidence in the burned-out, now-destruction BMW was a bloodstain that matched Renee’s type that was discovered in the boot and was about the size of a half-crown. It is believed that any more evidence washed away by the fire department’s hoses. The blood spot was the first indication of wrongdoing, even if it was inconclusive.
An edition of the BBC Current Account program, which debuted on November 26, 1976, and was played in court, offered an overview of the “mystery of the A9” and the first uncertainty in the minds of police officers over the nature of the situation.
We don’t know whether a crime was committed, Northern Constabulary Chief Constable Donald Henderson said during the broadcast. There was a secret alliance engaged. Deception results from individuals joining a hidden organization.
Police divers, search dogs, helicopters, and door-to-door enquiries were all used in the hunt, which at this point was costing £10,000 per day. A Swiss clairvoyant was consulted, and a hypnotist was summoned in to dig into the thoughts of important persons like Mr. MacRae and Mrs. Steventon for forgotten knowledge, while RAF bombers with heat-seeking gear hovered over the Highlands trying to pick up a reading that may suggest a corpse. Only MacDowell steadfastly refused.
He attempted to lie about his relationship with Renee, which quickly led to suspicion being cast upon him. However, the authorities encountered a significant obstacle due to an alibi offered by his devoted wife.
MacDowell said that he had beverages with coworkers at the Mercury Motor Inn in Inverness until shortly after 7 p.m., following which he went back to the office and left for home around 8:15 p.m. Mrs. MacDowell stated that he had returned between 8 and 8.30 p.m., after her daughters’ viewing of a cowboy-themed television show before they went to bed.
The Quest, the show in question, did not begin until 9.25pm, but when investigators re-interviewed her under caution ten years later, she furiously retorted: “I don’t know what you’re getting on at me for, I never stabbed her or whatever happened to her.”
Police were already gradually forming a different, more ominous image of what happened that damp, foggy Friday night.
Eva MacQueen, the farmer’s wife, reported hearing a “blood-curdling” scream between 7:30 and 8:00 pm while standing outside Dalmagarry Farm, not far from where Renee’s vehicle was discovered. Another witness reported seeing a Volvo and a BMW parked side by side in the lay-by. MacDowell operated a Volvo 145 estate in a dark color. Two workers were traveling to meet their girlfriends at a bar when they saw a guy dropping down out of view alongside a Volvo estate on a single-track route close to Dalmagarry. They felt that his efforts to elude them were motivated by his status as a poacher.
Teacher Jean Wallace, another eyewitness, saw a guy pushing a stroller on the A9 with “wide and glaring” eyes. Never has Andrew’s stroller been located. Their baggage hasn’t either.
The court was informed that MacDowell’s peculiar behavior persisted days afterwards. He went to a Volvo store and demanded an immediate replacement floor for the back cargo space, claiming he had torched the original after ruining it by tossing construction debris from a house-building job in the back.
He stormed out in rage at the failure to install a new one that day. After being fired, he was told to return the work automobile, but he refused, saying he wanted to clean the vehicle first. He was spotted cleaning the boot when a coworker was sent to get it.
The police, meantime, concentrated their efforts on two quarries close to the A9 lay-by where a murderer may have discarded the victims. When they saw what looked to be the shape of eye sockets and a mouth wrapped in a plastic bag on a diver’s monitor in 1977, the journalists and police who had gathered beside Leanach quarry near Culloden Moor recoiled in unison in terror.
All who saw it were certain of what they had seen, but divers were unable to find anything more frightening than a bag of yard rubbish.
A few months later, a digger was hired to excavate a portion of the Dalmagarry quarry, but the search was abandoned since money had run out and nothing of note had been discovered. A thorough fresh search was conducted before the quarry was reopened in 2004 to supply stone for A9 improvements.
Under the investigation of forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black, more than 30,000 tons of dirt and 1,800 trees were taken out, but nothing was discovered. Again.
Another link was discovered a year later when Dennis Tyronney, a convicted housebreaker, wrote to Northern Constabulary and said that a man he described as MacDowell had paid him money in 1976 to murder a “wife and bairn” by dousing them with acid. Tyronney, who has since passed away, made a statement, but it was not the game-changing admission that the police were looking for.
The passing of anniversaries brought up terrible memories for Renee’s loved ones. Despite their suffering, they consented to interviews in the hopes of keeping the heat on the murderer and generating fresh leads.
She expressed her thoughts in many letters, one of which was written by her sister Mrs. Govans, who said: “Time will never cure the grief and I can’t imagine time can soothe the conscience so much that someone out there may believe they will get away with murder.” When I read of an old crime being solved, it always gives me some hope. Possibly someday.
Because of the rumors around his hometown of Inverness, MacDowell became more and more mobile, first relocating to Aberdeen and subsequently Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s.
He had financial difficulties after his return, which propelled him towards criminality. At Knightsbridge Crown Court in London in May 1990, MacDowell was sentenced to 30 months in prison for 10 offenses that included the theft of £238,000 as part of a significant fraud against his former company, Stancroft Securities.
A year later, after being released on parole, he was back in court. He received a £750 punishment this time for cheating the Abbey National of $144,000 at Inverness Sheriff Court.
Police sent a report identifying MacDowell in connection to Renee to the procurator fiscal in 2006, but prosecutors opted not to pursue it. There has never been another name considered.
Before MacDowell was detained and accused of killing Renee MacRae and his son Andrew, it would be another 13 years. He was already living with his wife in a cottage along a solitary country road close to Penrith, Cumbria, at that time. She said before the court that her wheelchair-bound husband, who was seated in the dock, was in such bad condition that he was a “walking dead man.”
MacDowell will likely spend his remaining time in prison, plagued by his misdeeds, since he is no longer able to escape punishment.
Perhaps it is too much to anticipate that he will now divulge the locations of his victims’ graves, allowing Renee MacRae and her son Andrew’s wandering souls to be finally placed to rest.