For almost half a century, the name of Renee MacRae has occupied near-mythical status as a byword for one of Scotland’s most infamous unsolved crimes. The tortuous hunt to bring her killer to justice began on a wet November night in 1976 when her unoccupied BMW was found ablaze in a Highland lay-by.
Yet, by the time it ended yesterday at the High Court in Inverness, it was clear that the key to cracking this most baffling of cases had lain tantalisingly close at hand from the outset.
Perhaps the greatest surprise in this saga of remarkable twists and turns is that it has taken so long to secure a guilty verdict against the prime suspect in the case.
When Renee’s secret lover, Bill MacDowell, was finally convicted of her murder and that of their three-year-old lovechild, Andrew, his place in Scottish criminal history was assured. He joins the handful of people found guilty of murder in the absence of a body.
In MacDowell’s case, his wickedness extended to killing a defenceless child – his own flesh and blood. Such unfathomable evil has long been compounded by his implacable refusal either to admit his guilt or reveal where his victims are buried in order to allow their relatives and friends a chance to properly grieve their loss.
Now, at least, a jury has ensured the man responsible for their long years of suffering will face a reckoning for his crimes.
Bill MacDowell, was finally convicted of the murder of Renee MacRae and of their three-year-old lovechild, Andrew. He joins the handful of people found guilty of murder in the absence of a body
Renee Macrae and her son Andrew who have been missing since 1976. MacDowell was today convicted of their murders
William MacDowell with wife Rosemary at Inverness court before he was sentenced to serve at least 30 years in jail
William MacDowell (left) and his wife Rosemary (right). He was today convicted of the murders of Renee and Andrew MacRae
Poignant: A photo was previously released showing Renee had packed up possessions, ready to start a new life
A Northern Police appeal poster from late 1976. For decades the case was Scotland’s most baffling unsolved murder mystery
A photo of pushchair identical to that owned by Mrs Macrae was released by police, in a bid to try and find her
On the night of their disappearance, a farmer’s wife told the police she heard a ‘blood-curdling’ scream
William MacDowell was the biological father of Andrew Macrae, who he was found guilty of murdering
At the start of the police investigation, nothing seemed so clear-cut. The first inkling anything was wrong came after a blue BMW 1602 saloon was spotted on fire on Friday, November 12, 1976, in a lay-by on the A9 at Dalmagarry, 14 miles south of Inverness.
The burning vehicle belonged to Hugh MacRae & Co, a local building firm and major employer in Inverness, but it was always driven by Christina Catherine MacRae, 36, known as Renee, the estranged wife of company boss Gordon MacRae.
The couple had married in 1963 but, by 1974, they had split up and petite, blonde mother-of-two Renee was living in a luxury bungalow in Inverness, supported financially by her husband, who had taken up with his receptionist, Vivienne.
Unbeknown to him, though, Renee had also fallen for someone at his offices – company secretary Bill MacDowell.
MacDowell was a well-known figure in Inverness long before his name was linked with Renee MacRae. Trim and athletic, he played tennis, squash and badminton and opponents recall a powerful, quick-tempered player who ‘hated to lose face’. One said: ‘He always gave 100 per cent and often smashed his racquet.’
On that fateful weekend, Renee had told her husband she was heading to Kilmarnock to visit her sister, Morag Govans, and was taking Andrew with her while their son Gordon junior, then aged nine, would stay with his father.
Renee would be back in plenty of time to collect him from school on Monday afternoon.
When Gordon was informed about the BMW by police, he phoned Morag and discovered Renee and Andrew were not in Kilmarnock. At first, he was not concerned, as he suspected Renee’s story was a cover because he knew he was not Andrew’s father and had known for years she had a lover, although he did not know who.
He told the police he thought Renee had parked the car somewhere and gone to her destination in another vehicle, so presumed it had been stolen by joyriders. He imagined she would be home by Monday with Andrew, but when neither turned up, the worry set in and a search was launched.
The two women in Bill MacDowell’s life – Renee MacRae (left) and Rosemary MacDowell at a New Year party in 1973
The hunt to bring Renee MacRae’s killer to justice began in November 1976 when her unoccupied BMW was found ablaze in a Highland lay-by
Debris taken from the emptied Leanach Quarry near Inverness which was searched as part of the investigation into the mother and son’s disappearance
Extensive searches took place decades after the disappearance of Renee MacRae and her son Andrew
As police sifted for clues to her whereabouts, they lifted the lid on a hidden world of middle-class infidelity in the 1970s Highlands, where the MacRaes and the MacDowells crossed paths.
They moved in the same social circles, attending the same parties – one picture from this time shows Renee and MacDowell’s wife, Rosemary, at a New Year party.
By then the secret, extramarital affair was in full swing – in fact Renee may already have been pregnant with MacDowell’s son.
Andrew was born nine months later in 1973. Even when Renee moved out of the family home and into the bungalow, she told her husband nothing about the identity of her lover.
The only person let into this secret – and the truth of Andrew’s parentage – was her best friend and confidante Val Steventon.
Mrs Steventon knew many more of her friend’s secrets. She knew a besotted Renee had been quietly packing everything in her bungalow in the belief that she would be moving to Shetland with MacDowell later that month.
She knew that, on the weekend of her disappearance, her friend had not been on her way to her sister’s in Kilmarnock, as she had told friends, but had plans to meet her lover, who had insisted she take little Andrew along so he could get to know him better.
When Renee had failed to show up three days after her burning car was found, Mrs Steventon told the police everything she knew, fearing she might never see her friend alive again. She hinted at the volatility of the affair, later recalling her last words to her friend were: ‘Have a nice weekend Renee, no fighting.’
MacDowell had to admit to the police that he was Renee’s secret lover, and Andrew’s father. Gordon MacRae, devastated and embarrassed, promptly sacked him.
MacDowell told police that although the couple had a tentative arrangement to spend the weekend together, it was never confirmed and he had decided not to go. He denied any plan to move to Shetland with Renee or that he had secured a job or house there.
What is clear is that by the time Renee disappeared, her long affair with MacDowell had come to a make or break point.
Mrs Steventon recalled: ‘He really took Renee in completely. She even packed up everything. Things were getting a bit hot for MacDowell because little Andrew was starting to point at him and call him Daddy. I think he knew Renee was getting very involved with him, more than he was with her.’
Some believed she had threatened to reveal he was Andrew’s father unless he left his wife and lived with her. He was motivated, detectives now believe, by the fact he had a comfortable lifestyle and stood to lose everything if the affair became public knowledge.
Events became increasingly dramatic after it emerged MacDowell had gone to police the month after Renee and Andrew vanished to give them ‘significant’ information. A police source revealed the accountant had seemed ‘very upset’ but his furious wife spotted his car outside police HQ and removed him from the building before he could complete his statement. Detectives were frustrated, believing it may have been his time to talk about his involvement.
A photofit image that was released by police to try and track down the killer of Renee MacRae and son Andrew
The High Court in Inverness has previously been told by Alex Prentice KC, prosecuting, that the now 80-year-old William MacDowell (pictured) was the only man with the motive to kill because of the risk of his more than four-year affair with Mrs MacRae being exposed and him losing everything
The emptied Leanach Quarry near Inverness was searched as part of the investigation into the disappearance of Renee and Andrew MacRae
An underwater camera captured this picture of what seems to be a human head at Leanach Quarry, divers said it appeared to be the outline of eye sockets and a mouth wrapped in a plastic bag
MacDowell only gave one media interview, days after the police investigation began, in which he admitted he was Andrew’s real father and claimed he had ended the affair, that Renee was still alive and that, bizarrely, he was receiving coded telephone calls from her, although she never spoke.
Asked by a Glasgow Herald journalist if he had mentioned this to police, he said it must have slipped his mind.
Meanwhile, a routine missing persons inquiry hardened into a full-blown murder hunt that was gripping the public imagination, although early blunders and delays hampered the police’s best chance of finding the killer.
In the burnt-out shell of the BMW, since destroyed, the only hard evidence was a bloodstain the size of a half-crown found in the boot which matched Renee’s type. It is thought the fire brigade’s hoses washed away what other evidence there may have been. However inconclusive, the blood spot was the first clue to foul play.
An episode of the BBC Current Account programme, first aired on November 26, 1976, and shown in court, gave a flavour of the ‘mystery of the A9’ and the early confusion in police minds about what they were dealing with.
Donald Henderson, the then chief constable of Northern Constabulary, told the programme: ‘We’ve got no idea if a crime was committed. There was a clandestine association involved. When people are involved in a clandestine association you get deceit.’
Now tell us where they both lie buried, begs sister
By Krissy Storrar
If Renee MacRae’s killer had a ‘shred of decency’ he would reveal where the bodies of his two victims are, her heartbroken sister insisted yesterday.
In a poignant statement outside court, where she had finally seen William MacDowell jailed for the murder of Renee and her son Andrew, Morag Govans spoke of the pain the family has endured since they disappeared in 1976.
Mrs Govans, who was accompanied by Renee’s older son Gordon, said: ‘Almost 46 years on, the pain of losing Renee and Andrew in such a cruel and brutal fashion never fades.
‘Today there is finally justice for them. It’s a day we feared would never come. They were both so precious to us and a day never passes without them both in our thoughts.
‘Renee was a compassionate and caring mother. Both Andrew and his elder brother Gordon were her life.
‘She adored them and was so proud of her boys. Andrew would have been 48 today but he was never given the chance to build his own life. The passage of time has not eased the anguish we feel. We have never been able to lay Renee and Andrew to rest or properly mourn their loss.
‘Not knowing where the remains lie only compounds the pain.’
The 84-year-old added: ‘Thinking of the terror they both must have felt before they died continues to haunt us. We will never comprehend why their lives had to be taken in such a calculated and callous manner by William MacDowell.
‘If he has a shred of decency in his body, he will now reveal where they both lie.’
Detectives will seek to question MacDowell behind bars in the hope he will reveal the location of the bodies before he dies.
Intensive searches in the Inverness area over the years have failed to find any trace of them, and the case will remain open until the bodies are found.
Detective Chief Inspector Brian Geddes, who led Operation Abermule, said: ‘Renee and Andrew’s family and friends have waited decades for justice and I hope that the outcome in court can provide some form of closure for them.
‘They have carried themselves with absolute dignity throughout and they are very much in my thoughts.
‘Although justice has now been done, Renee and Andrew’s bodies have not been found and I would urge anyone who may have information about where they are to come forward so they can be provided with the dignity they deserve.
‘In particular, I would appeal directly to William MacDowell to speak to us and allow us to bring closure to the family.
‘You’ve got to be optimistic. You’ve got to hope that he is going to somehow be willing to engage with me or somebody or whoever, and reveal the whereabouts of Renee and Andrew.
‘There’s no point in being pessimistic about it and thinking, “What’s the point?” We’ve got to keep going with it and now that we’re at this stage and the conviction has been passed, our next step is to attempt some kind of re-engagement with him and see if he’s willing to speak.’
Mr Geddes added that officers had struggled to comprehend MacDowell’s crime and the full truth about what happened.
He said: ‘Anybody who has done what he has been convicted of, it takes a fair bit of understanding, to be honest. As a team, we probably wrestled with that a wee bit as well, particularly the killing of Andrew.
‘That provoked a lot of discussion within the investigation team. We’d love more answers for the sake of the family.’
By now, the search was costing £10,000 a day and involved police divers, search dogs, helicopters and door-to-door inquiries. RAF bombers with heat-seeking devices flew over the Highlands hoping to pick up a reading which could indicate a body, while a Swiss clairvoyant was consulted and a hypnotist called in to tap the inner minds of key figures such as Mr MacRae and Mrs Steventon for forgotten information. Only MacDowell refused to take part.
Suspicion soon fell upon him after he tried to lie about his involvement with Renee. However, an alibi provided by his loyal wife placed a major roadblock in the police’s way.
MacDowell claimed he had drinks with colleagues at the Mercury Motor Inn in Inverness until just after 7pm before returning home via a visit to the office by 8.15pm. Mrs MacDowell insisted that he had arrived back between 8 and 8.30pm, after her daughters watched a television programme about cowboys, then gone to bed.
But when detectives re-interviewed her under caution a decade later and pointed out that the programme in question, The Quest, did not start until 9.25pm, she angrily retorted: ‘I don’t know what you’re getting on at me for, I never stabbed her or whatever happened to her.’
Officers were already slowly building up a different, more disturbing picture of events that wet and foggy Friday night.
Farmer’s wife Eva MacQueen heard a ‘blood-curdling’ scream between 7.30pm and 8pm as she stood outside at Dalmagarry Farm close to where Renee’s car was found, while another witness told officers he saw a Volvo and a BMW parked nose to tail in the lay-by. MacDowell drove a dark-coloured Volvo 145 estate. A man was also seen ducking down out of sight beside a Volvo estate on a single-track lane near Dalmagarry by two workmen as they drove to meet their girlfriends in a pub. They assumed his attempts to hide from them were because he was a poacher.
Another witness, teacher Jean Wallace, saw a man with ‘wide and staring’ eyes wheeling a pushchair on the A9. Andrew’s pushchair has never been found. Nor has their luggage.
Days later, the court heard, MacDowell’s strange behaviour continued. He visited a Volvo dealership urgently demanding a replacement floor for the rear cargo area, saying he had burned the original after damaging it by throwing building material from a house-building project in the back.
He left furious that a new one could not be fitted that day. He had been ordered to return the company car after he was sacked but stalled, claiming he needed to clean the car first. A colleague sent to collect it found him scrubbing out the boot.
Meanwhile, the police focused their attention on two quarries near the A9 lay-by where a killer could have dumped the bodies. In 1977, press and police were gathered by Leanach quarry near Culloden Moor when they recoiled in collective horror at what they saw on a diver’s monitor – what appeared to be the outline of eye sockets and a mouth wrapped in a plastic bag.
All who saw it were convinced of what they saw, yet divers failed to recover anything more sinister than a bag filled with garden waste.
Several months on, a digger was called in to excavate part of Dalmagarry quarry, but the search was called off as funds ran out and nothing of significance was found. When the quarry was set to be reopened in 2004 to provide material for A9 works, a comprehensive new search took place.
More than 30,000 tons of earth and 1,800 trees were removed under the scrutiny of forensic anthropologist Professor Dame Sue Black, only for the huge disappointment of finding nothing. Again.
A year later, another lead emerged when a convicted housebreaker called Dennis Tyronney wrote to Northern Constabulary saying that a man he identified as MacDowell had offered him cash in 1976 to kill a ‘wife and bairn’ by dousing them in acid. Tyronney, who has since died, gave a statement but it did not provide the breakthrough detectives had been hoping for.
Anniversaries came and went, stirring up painful memories for Renee’s loved ones. Despite their anguish, they agreed to interviews, hoping to maintain the pressure on the killer and spark new leads.
In one, her sister Mrs Govans summed up her feelings: ‘Time can never heal the pain and I can’t believe time will ease the conscience so much that someone out there can believe they will get away with murder. It always gives me some hope when I read of an old crime being solved. Maybe one day.’
Worn down by the gossip in his native Inverness, MacDowell became increasingly nomadic, moving to Aberdeen, then Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s.
On his return, he became beset by financial problems which led him into crime. In May 1990, MacDowell was jailed for 30 months at Knightsbridge Crown Court in London for ten offences involving the theft of £238,000 as part of a substantial fraud from his ex-employer, Stancroft Securities.
Out on parole a year later, he found himself in court again. This time he was fined £750 at Inverness Sheriff Court for defrauding the Abbey National of £144,000.
In 2006, police passed a report to the procurator fiscal naming MacDowell in relation to Renee, but prosecutors decided not to act upon it. No other name has ever been in the frame.
It would be another 13 years before MacDowell was arrested and charged with the murder of Renee MacRae and his son Andrew. By then, he was living in a cottage up a lonely farm track near Penrith, Cumbria, his wife steadfastly by his side. She told the court that her husband, who sat in the dock in a wheelchair, was in such poor health that he was a ‘walking dead man’.
No longer able to outrun justice, MacDowell will undoubtedly spend what little time is left to him behind bars, haunted by his crimes.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that he will now reveal where his victims are buried, so the restless spirits of Renee MacRae and her son Andrew can finally be laid to rest.
Justice …after 45 years: OAP is convicted of brutal ‘execution’ of his lover and their toddler son in case that horrified a nation for decades
By Krissy Storrar
An 80-year-old man By Krissy Storrar will die in jail after being convicted of the ‘premeditated executions’ of his lover and their three-year-old son in the Highlands 45 years ago.
William MacDowell lured Renee MacRae and their boy Andrew to a lay-by on the A9 south of Inverness in November 1976 with the promise of a weekend away. He then murdered them both.
It was claimed in court the married father of two had planned the horrific crimes, fearing his four-year affair with Mrs MacRae was about to be exposed and he would lose everything.
Yesterday, he was jailed for 30 years after being found guilty of the two murders and attempting to defeat the ends of justice. The bodies have never been found and the ‘mystery of the A9’ has haunted her family, friends and the community for nearly half a century.
Mrs MacRae’s older son Gordon was in the packed public gallery at the High Court in Inverness along with her sister Morag Govans, who let out a cry as the jury foreman returned the first of three guilty verdicts.
Judge Lord Armstrong told MacDowell: ‘On the evidence at your trial, these murders appear to have been premeditated, planned and carried out by you in the most calculated way – not a spontaneous event or on the spur of the moment. These appear, in effect, to have been executions.’
After the murders, MacDowell set fire to Mrs MacRae’s car and dumped the bodies and Andrew’s pushchair. He burned the cargo floor of the company Volvo estate he had used to move the bodies.
Now a dying man and using a wheelchair, MacDowell was the prime suspect for decades.
But he came close to escaping justice before police launched a reinvestigation codenamed Operation Abermule in August 2018.
William MacDowell alongside his wife Rosemary MacDowell at the High Court at the Inverness Justice Centre. He has been sentenced to life in prison with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of 30 years for killing Renee and Andrew MacRae in November 1976
The team, led by Chief Inspector Brian Geddes, succeeded in building the evidence needed to secure guilty verdicts through ‘determination’ and ‘good old-fashioned hard work and attention to detail’ after three previous investigations in 1976, 1987 and 2004 had fallen short of the threshold needed to charge MacDowell.
The prosecution’s star witness, Mrs MacRae’s confidante Valerie Steventon, was able to give a vital last statement to detectives in 2019 before ill health robbed her of the chance to give evidence in court and face the man who had murdered her best friend.
Police have never been able to establish how Mrs MacRae and Andrew were killed.
The 36-year-old housewife had married her teenage sweetheart Gordon MacRae in 1963 and they had a son, Gordon junior. But in 1972 she embarked on an affair with MacDowell, the company secretary at her husband’s construction firm Hugh MacRae & Company.
MacDowell fathered her son Andrew, who was born in October 1973, and in 1975 her husband moved out of the marital home.
In heart-to-heart chats with her friend Mrs Steventon, Mrs MacRae said her lover had told her he would never leave his wife. Her hopes of a future with him were raised when, in late 1976, he told her he had secured a job in Shetland which came with a house where they could build a new life.
William MacDowell, 80, has been found guilty murdering 36-year-old Renee MacRae (left) and their son Andrew (right) at a layby south of Inverness on November 12, 1976
Mrs Steventon told police: ‘Renee was deeply in love with MacDowell and although she knew he frequently lied to her, it didn’t alter her affection for him.’
By then MacDowell had already begun planning to murder her and Andrew, motivated by the fear of losing the comfortable lifestyle he and wife Rosemary enjoyed in the house they had built. Advocate depute Alex Prentice, KC, told the jury: ‘It’s obvious that once the affair was out in the open, life for William MacDowell would change dramatically. He would lose his well-paid employment and lifestyle. He would run the risk of losing his family. He had a fine house and a fine lifestyle.’ He added: ‘The accused was about to lose everything over this affair.’
Mrs MacRae had her suspicions the move to Shetland would never go ahead but started shopping for items to make their new house a home. She had been sworn to secrecy by MacDowell. But in a stroke of good fortune for detectives, she continued to share the details with Mrs Steventon.
The last conversations Mrs Steventon had with her friend were about her plans to spend the weekend of November 12 with MacDowell at a hotel. She offered to babysit Andrew but chillingly MacDowell had insisted the youngster be brought along so that he could get to know him.
Witnesses created a vivid picture of her driving down the A9 in her BMW with Andrew in the back seat for the rendezvous with their killer. She stopped first beside the Meallmore hotel at Daviot before driving on to the lay-by where MacDowell’s Volvo estate was seen parked nose to tail with her car.
A blood-curdling scream rang out and ‘the last utterance of Renee MacRae while alive’ was heard by a farmer’s wife nearby.
Emergency services were alerted when the BMW was found ablaze that evening, but there was no sign of the mother and son.
Police at first thought they were with her sister Mrs Govans in Ayrshire but when Mrs Steventon revealed her friend’s true plans, attention turned to MacDowell.
He was questioned by police and, despite at first denying any association with Mrs MacRae, he was forced to change his story as detectives gleaned more details. A window of opportunity before his Volvo was seized by Northern Constabulary gave him time to scrub out the boot and replace a cargo floor he had burned.
He bolstered the alibi he had manufactured by stopping in unexpectedly at the Mercury Motor Inn in Inverness with colleagues, who were surprised to see him.
His wife also maintained he had arrived home before 8.30pm, saying it was after her daughters had watched a TV programme about cowboys then gone to bed.
But she was interviewed under caution in 1987 on suspicion of attempting to pervert the course of justice after a TV listings page from a local newspaper was uncovered which showed the programme called The Quest had started at 9.25pm and finished at 10.15pm.
Yesterday, she bowed her head and had tears in her eyes as her husband of 58 years was jailed. They exchanged a lingering look as a court security guard wheeled him out of the dock.
MacDowell had sat impassively in the dock as the jury returned majority verdicts around three hours and 45 minutes after being sent out to deliberate.