Penrith man in court charged with 1976 murder of mother and son

William MacDowell went on trial at the High Court in Inverness where he's accused of killing his son Andrew MacRae and the child’s 36-year-old mother Renee MacRae in November 1976. Credit: PA Images

A man accused of murdering a woman and their three-year-old son more than 45 years ago claims her estranged husband, along with others, was responsible for the crime, a court has heard.

William MacDowell, of Penrith, went on trial at the High Court in Inverness on Tuesday, where he is accused of killing his son Andrew MacRae and the child’s 36-year-old mother Renee MacRae in November 1976.

Represented by Murray Macara KC, the court was told the 80-year-old denies the charges against him and has lodged a special defence of incrimination and alibi.

The defence claims that Mrs MacRae’s husband Gordon MacRae, whom she was separated from, committed the offences together with persons unknown.

The jury of seven men and eight women were told MacDowell was not at the scene of the alleged murder on 12 November 1976 and that he spent the night at home.

The court was told he was at his work, Hugh MacRae Builders Limited in the city, and when he left that evening he went to the Mercury Motor Inn, where he was with James MacBeath, Hamilton Young and John Davenport.

Then, the jury heard, he travelled back to work, then to a store. Afterwards, he drove home via the A9 trunk road and got back to his house at about 8.15pm.

The court was told Mr MacRae married Renee on 17 May 1963, but they split in 1975. The court heard that in the July of the following year, she moved into Cradlehall Park, near Inverness, in a home provided by her estranged husband.

MacDowell, who appeared in court in a wheelchair, is charged with assaulting Mrs MacRae and their three-year-old son at the Dalmagarry layby on the A9 trunk road, or elsewhere, by means unknown, and as a result murdering them.

He is also charged with disposing of their bodies and belongings by means unknown.

MacDowell is also accused of setting fire to a BMW car, disposing of a pushchair, and of a boot hatch from a Volvo, and that he did so to avoid detection, arrest and prosecution.

Advocate depute Alex Prentice KC is prosecuting and Lord Armstrong told the jury that he expected the trial to last about four weeks.

Catherine Johnstone told the court her mother had heard a "blood-curdling scream" at their home just a few hundred yards from the layby at Dalmagarry Farmhouse, but could not detect where the noise came from.

The woman, who was 24 at the time, was with her friend Fiona McKenzie in her Datsun Cherry and said she saw a saloon car that night.

"There was a car in the layby. It was a dark car parked on the curb of the layby," she said.

As they continued their journey to Ms McKenzie’s home, between 7.30pm and 8pm, the court was told: "There was a 4×4-type vehicle passing at speed travelling south. I was travelling north."

The 68-year-old of Inverness added: "My friend commented and said ‘that’s in a hurry’."

Detective chief inspector Brian Geddes, 45, read a statement taken by officers from Ms Johnstone’s mother Eva McQueen, who died in 2014, which said she and her husband Charles were leaving their farmhouse when she heard a "distinct screech".

Those who passed a car fire also gave evidence to the jury, and then trainee driver Richard Grant was in a freight train travelling from Inverness to Perth on the night of the alleged murder and passed the site of the burning car.

The 65-year-old, who was in the train with driver Rory McDonald, told the court he could see the glow of the blaze and it was visible for some distance.

Giving evidence, Donald Macaskill, 84, told the court he had driven past the car before the fire and said he had seen it parked with its sidelights on in the layby.

But, the court heard, when the then council worker later passed it in a taxi the blue BMW was "well ablaze".

The trial continues.

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