Willie Macrae mystery is now doubly dramatic

YOU can see why theatre producers Andy Paterson and Mark MacNicol both declared themselves to be 'gutted'.

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Mark MacNicol, left, and Andy Paterson are both staging plays called 3000 Trees at the Edinburgh Festival this year.Picture: Kirsty Anderson
Mark MacNicol, left, and Andy Paterson are both staging plays called 3000 Trees at the Edinburgh Festival this year.Picture: Kirsty Anderson

Andy, from Kilmacolm, and Mark from Glasgow, are both putting on a play at this year's Edinburgh Festival called 3000 Trees. And both tell the story of the death of Scots solicitor and political activist Willie MacRae in 1985.

"I was shocked to hear of the other 3000 Trees play," says Andy. "It's just an amazing coincidence.

Mark agrees; "It's incredible that after all these years two plays are going on with the same title and the same subject matter."

The title emerges from the claim 3000 trees were planted in memory of anti-nuclear campaigner Mr MacRae, who was found dying in his car on a remote highland road with a single gunshot wound to his head, apparently fired from his own gun ... yet the gun had been fired twice.

And since that time many questions have been asked, particularly by former policeman Donald Morrison who claimed he saw Mr MacRae's car drive off from Glasgow on the fateful day, followed by Special Branch officers.

But why would two plays appear based on Mr MacRae's story, 19 years after his death?

Actor/writer/musician, and ex-journalist Andy explains the background to his own version.

"I was aware of Willie's death from my own family who had been steeped in SNP activism since I was young, and then a magazine story highlighted the story about ten years ago," he recalls.

"But it wasn't until I decided to follow my dream and become and actor and study at the Royal Conservatoire in 2011 that the Willie MacRae story came back into my head. My research project was on biographical theatre and I came up with a piece about Willie, to be produced at the Arches Theatre."

The half-hour performance piece was such a success, Paterson was prompted to develop the play to fifty minutes via his own Teatro Magnetico company and featuring music by Edinburgh band, Oi Polloi.

Andy's play is a monologue in which he appears as Willie MacRae, from the grave, speculating on the events leading up to his death.

Meantime, by pure chance, writer George Gunn came up with his own 3000 Trees play.

He then approached River City actor Adam Robertson with a view to staging the play, who in turn involved writer/producer Mark MacNicol, who believed the play could be an Edinburgh Festival success.

"I had been approached by Adam with a view to me producing the play using crowd funding," says Mark of the strategy to attract investors.

"I read the play and was blown away by it, and of course came on board."

George Gunn's 3000 Trees takes a very different approach to the Willie MacRae story. Gunn's script sees Willie MacRae transformed into the fictional character Willie MacKay, ("to allow for dramatic license, and a degree of protection?") telling of the last hour in the central character's life.

This play also features a cast of three, including Billy Riddoch in the lead role, Helen Mackay as the daughter of MacKay's best friend and Adam Robertson as the Special Branch officer.

What both plays certainly have in common is a passionate involvement in the subject.

Andy points out there was no inquiry into the death of Willie MacRae.

"It was suggested Willie was involved in the Scottish National Liberation Army in the Seventies but it's hard to unpick the truth of all this.

"But, there was an interest in discrediting Willie who was an anti-nuclear campaigner.

"The death was bizarre, to say the least. It was claimed to be suicide, but why would a lawyer carry a handgun around with him? Was he fearful for his own life? Why was the gun found some distance from the car? Why was the car found in an off-beaten track?"

Mark believes nefarious forces have been at work in the death of Willie MacRae.

"After I read the play I researched McRae, studied film and reports. The more I did the more astonished I was discovering. For example, the speed the investigation (into his death) was closed down after his body was found.

"And as Donald Morrison spoke to him, Willie tapped his briefcase to indicate the contents and said 'I've finally got them now,' talking of the Ayrshire nuclear dumping, which led to the inquiry"

Both Andy and Mark were initially 'gutted' to hear of the rival production.

"I was amazed the story had never been dramatised," says Andy, "and then two buses come along at the one time."

Mark agrees; "There is no doubt some will be confused as to what show they are buying tickets for, but hopefully it will all balance out.

"But I think the fact we're both taking MacRae to the Festival should convince audiences it's a story worth telling."

3000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae starring Andy Paterson runs at the Sweet Grassmarket, July 31-August 24.

3000 Trees: starring Adam Robertson, Helen Mackay and Billy Riddoch, the Venue 109, the Gryphon (gryphon@westend) August 1-24.

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