3,000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae

Sometimes, we can miss what’s important. A few audience members in front of me were still sufficiently engrossed in their pre-show conversation to miss the muted sound of two gunshots that signals the start of the play. Perhaps the low volume was a deliberate choice by writer and performer Andy Paterson; to point out the wider Scottish public’s consistent failure to even notice what he clearly believes to have been the state-sanctioned murder of the lawyer, anti-nuclear campaigner and prominent Scottish Nationalist William “Willie” MacRae in April 1985.

This in-your-face, fact-based approach risks undermining its case through speculation

Yet he missed something himself; at least a few audience members left wondering why the play is titled 3,000 Trees; no explanation was given. At best, that suggests an author too close to the subject matter to remember some theatrical basics. At worst, it’s an author just as guilty of making “a bonfire of the Truth,” as those who allegedly killed MacRae. Given the current strife in the Middle East, perhaps the role this particular “Jacobite in the dress of a Glasgow lawyer” played in creating mercantile law for the state of Israel — where those 3,000 trees were planted — isn’t quite as “right on” as it used to be?

Despite some obvious sartorial effort to get MacRae’s scruffy appearance, referenced in the show with “fag-ash on the jacket, lunch on his tie”, Paterson is no lookalike of the late Willie MacRae. But, his doesn’t stop us getting a strong sense of the man and his wry humour, or at least a sense of MacRae the mythic, self-declared “Scottish Patriot” and wily “Enemy of the British State”, whose “first blot on his copy book” was his open support of Indian nationalism whilst serving in the Royal Navy.

As an actor, Paterson is undoubtedly a compelling stage presence full of heart and vigour, particularly when — in some indeterminate purgatory Twilight Zone — MacRae is given an opportunity to have a final drink or three and explain himself. As an author, he’s sufficiently honest to recognise some of his subject’s contradictions: “If there’s one thing I do, I grandstand” he says as MacRae. This was a man who too often fooled himself that he was “the flame, not the moth”.

The other play on this year’s Fringe inspired by MacRae’s death relies on the fictionalisation employed by its writer, George Gun. Meanwhile, this in-your-face, fact-based approach risks undermining its case through speculation — questions are raised about MacRae’s alleged homosexual tendencies and facts which inconveniently don’t fit the idea of a murderous conspiracy are dismissed or rejected. For example, after 25 years the burglar who murdered the anti-nuclear campaigner Hilda Murrell some months before MacRae’s death was eventually sentenced in “cold case” conviction.

Nevertheless, this is certainly a powerful piece of theatre, although the flow is somewhat hampered by Paterson frequently bursting into song. The montage of Oi Polloi’s song “Willie MacRae” is also hindered by the screen being placed where almost none of the audience can see it clearly. Yet the song, and indeed this play, prove one thing: the story of Willie MacRae is worth remembering, whatever you believe actually happened on that Good Friday night back in 1985.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Willie MacRae - anti-nuclear campaigner, SNP politician, and successful lawyer, whose death prompted speculation that he was murdered by the state. MacRae was found dying in his car on a highland road in 1985 with a single gunshot wound to his head, apparently fired from his own gun. Was he under surveillance the day of his death? With songs by Andy Paterson and Edinburgh radical punk band Oi Polloi, it is a moving and thought-provoking play, offering a reminder of darker political times, seen through the eyes of an ageing gay man.