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Agitated, dizzy and ‘probably’ telling the truth: The point the Renee and Andrew MacRae murder trial turned

Bill MacDowell in his wheelchair being pushed by his wife Rosemary outside court
Rosemary MacDowell arriving at court during the trial

After three weeks of covering the Renee and Andrew MacRae murder trial, one word sticks out more than any other.


When the wife of the accused took the stand, it was always going to be important.

So when the prosecution asked her whether she was telling the truth in a statement, the answer – “probably” – was a surprise.

It was one of the standout moments from the most heated testimony of the trial.

Bill MacDowell has been found guilty of the murders of his former lover Renee and biological son Andrew.

He will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

His loyal wife Rosemary has stood by him for 58 years.

Rosemary MacDowell has been constantly at her husband’s side during the case. Image: Sandy McCook

She stood by MacDowell when his affair with Renee became public.

She stood by him through the years of speculation and questioning of his role in the deaths of Renee and Andrew.

And on each morning he appeared, she drove her 80-year-old husband to the High Court.

She helped him into his wheelchair and rolled him into the dock.

That level of commitment cannot be questioned.

But there can be no doubt that her fiery appearance in the witness box changed the feeling in the courtroom.

Rosemary stuck by Bill MacDowell through 58 years of marriage

Things went up a notch on the fifth day of the trial.

By that stage, we had already seen a lot of witnesses.

That’s to be expected.

After all, in the time since Renee and Andrew went missing in November 1976 police have collected a whopping 1,548 statements.

The disappearance of Renee and Andrew MacRae had been one of Scotland’s longest-running unsolved cases.

Of those that made it to the witness box at the High Court in Inverness, there had been a wide variety.

The jury had heard an emotive testimony from Morag Govans, Renee’s sister, who recounted the moment “she knew something dreadful had happened”.

Renee’s estranged husband Gordon MacRae detailed the moment he sacked Bill MacDowell after discovering he had been having an affair with his wife.

Under questioning from MacDowell’s defence counsel Murray Macara KC, Mr MacRae vehemently denied he had anything to do with the disappearance of Renee and Andrew.

Pace of case ramped up after Rosemary MacDowell evidence

Other witnesses were more matter of fact.

They were focused on specific details, like when they had seen Renee’s car at the lay-by next to the Meallmore Lodge Hotel.

Or what sort of mood Renee had been in when she last spoke to them.

With most of the witnesses in their 80s, there were understandable difficulties trying to recall events from the 1970s clearly.

Those difficulties were generally met with polite apologies.

Bill and Rosemary MacDowell outside their home in Nairnside, near Inverness, in 1976. Image: Ian Jolly

More than one witness racked their brains for a few seconds and then said something like: “I’m really sorry, I can’t exactly remember. It was a long time ago.”

But the atmosphere changed when Mrs MacDowell took the stand.

Prosecution advocate Alex Prentice KC started slow.

He wanted to know about horses that the MacDowells kept, which regularly escaped their yard.

That progressed into reviewing a statement she had made to Detective Sergeant Peter Black in November 1986, 10 years after the disappearance.

There had been questions around what TV programme the MacDowells’ two daughters were watching before their father came home.

‘I never stabbed her or whatever happened to her’

Detective Sergeant Peter Black pushed Mrs MacDowell to breaking point on a similar line of questioning in 1986.

On that occasion, she snapped: “I don’t know what you are getting on to me for. I never stabbed her or whatever happened to her.”

Mr Prentice referred again to her statement from 36 years ago where she said her daughters had been watching a cowboy film with two words in the title before her husband Bill came home on November 12, 1976.

A TV guide from that night – a very different era when only three channels were available to watch – was then produced.

The Crown’s case was led by Advocate Depute Alex Prentice KC. Image: Wullie Marr

There was a programme matching the description provided by Mrs MacDowell.

It was a western starring Kurt Russell called The Quest. But according to the schedule, it didn’t begin until 9.25pm and finished at 10.15pm.

Those timings would create a bit of a hole in Bill MacDowell’s timeline for the night.

Mrs MacDowell now maintains her children were watching The New Avengers, which was on a few hours earlier.

We’ll never know for sure. But one thing we do know is that The New Avengers – a spy series focusing on the work of secret agents – features a lot fewer cowboys than The Quest.

Rosemary ‘probably telling the truth’

Mr Prentice continued probing.

After dissecting her 1986 statement a little more, he asked Mrs MacDowell: “Were you telling the truth?”

“Probably,” came the reply.

The advocate repeated incredulously: “Probably?”

The visibly agitated witness raised her voice in response: “After 48 years, I cannot remember exactly what went on.

“Of course I told the police the truth.

Renee MacRae and her son Andrew

“I need to sit down, I’m getting dizzy.”

Mrs MacDowell remained seated for the rest of her evidence.

When it came time for cross-examination from her husband’s counsel, the fire seemed to have died down considerably.

The damage had been done.

And the jury left that day with a lot to think about.

Of course, we’ll never know what goes through a jury’s collective mind – but the atmosphere in court certainly changed that afternoon.