FRESH doubt has been cast on the official version of events surrounding one of the most disturbing episodes in Scottish political history after claims by a potential new witness.

The official explanation for the death of the leading lawyer and senior SNP member Willie McRae, found critically injured in his crashed car in the Highlands more than 30 years ago has long been controversial.

BACKGROUND: The bizarre mystery surrounding death of Willie McRae

Police discovered a gun lying near his maroon Volvo saloon. A post-mortem report stated McRae, who was 61, was shot in the head – on the right temple – and that the injuries were “suggestive of suicide”. But now a staff nurse from the hospital where McRae died has come forward to dispute that crucial evidence.

Katharine McGonigal was working at the time in the intensive care department at Forrester Hill Hospital in Aberdeen.

The 56-year-old told the Sunday National she was on duty on Saturday April 6, 1985, when McRae was brought into her unit, having been transferred there by ambulance from Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.

He was unconscious and lying on a stretcher when she was assigned to look after him.

She disputed the finding that the bullet wound was in his right temple, and insisted it was at the back of his neck. Such a position would suggest he could not have committed suicide and had been shot by someone else, she has maintained.

“The entry wound was right at the back of the neck. There was no exit wound,” she said.

“It was smaller than a one penny piece and it was directly aimed at the brain stem.”

Personnel records obtained by McGonigal and given to the Sunday National confirm she was employed by NHS Grampian from February 12, 1984 to September 27, 1986.

She also published an article in the scholarly journal Intensive Care Nursing, which describes her as an ICU staff nurse at Forrester Hill Court, Westburn Road, Aberdeen. Her article, a copy of which has been obtained by the Sunday National, on the importance of sleep for critically ill patients was accepted for publication on July 18, 1986.

McGonigal said the reason the events of that evening remain clear in her mind was because it was the only time in her 40-year nursing career a patient was admitted to her care apparently a victim of a road traffic accident, only to discover he had suffered a gunshot to the head.

She said the case also stood out as it was the last weekend she worked in the Aberdeen hospital before going on secondment to do a course in Edinburgh the following Monday.

It is the first time she has come forward to give her account. As a young nurse she did not realise the significance of the case or that she was treating the senior political activist.

After leaving Forrester Hill Hospital in 1986, she found a new job in Edinburgh, got married and and moved to England where she spent most of her career.

She suffered a period of ill health and moved back to Scotland in 2013 where she became interested in politics and supported the Yes campaign. She later joined the SNP.

It was when she was reading about McRae’s death and learnt he died in intensive care in Aberdeen, that she realised she was the nurse attending him.

“I had always assumed McRae had died in Raigmore. But when I read he had died in Aberdeen I checked the dates when I was working there, and when I left for my course in Edinburgh. I realised the nurse who was mentioned in reports was me,” she said.

McGonigal spoke to SNP politicians about the case during hustings at the party’s depute leadership campaign this year and one suggested she speak to The National. She came forward to the paper this summer and we have since been working on the story for publication.

She gave the following account of McRae’s condition when she first saw him and suggested some aspects of the case appeared strange from the start.

“It was probably between 5pm and 6pm. I was on a late shift. We were told there was an RTA coming in. McRae was brought in and I was his nurse. It was one to one care,” she said.

“There were no X-rays with him and there was no handover. Normally if a patient is transferred you would have a phone call from the doctor, a phone call from the nurse in charge and X rays would have been with the patient when they arrived.

“I said to a colleague ‘they haven’t assessed him at all. They have stuck a tube in, and put him back in the ambulance’.”

She said she thought it odd that someone who had apparently been seriously injured in a road traffic accident had no obvious injuries to the front of his head or to his face.

“Apart from the red rubber tube [in his mouth], he looked normal,” she said. “There were no signs of injury. He was unconscious, but that is not unusual. His skin was fine. Normally when people are brought in from road traffic accidents there would be grit on the skin.”

She said an anaesthetic registrar and a neuro surgeon consultant were both on duty.

Shortly after the patient was admitted she said she was asked to wash him but refused to do so until after he had an X ray for fear that had he suffered neck or back injuries washing him would cause further harm.

She said: “A radiographer came up and the mobile unit was taken to the patient’s bed. A colleague supported his head just to get the plate in. There is a big X ray plate and you can’t put it under a pillow. He was still on the stretcher which was on the bed and the X ray was done of his head and neck.”

She said the radiographer left the ward and later a porter brought the X ray back and handed it to her.

“The doctor wasn’t around. I think he had gone for a cup of coffee and I took the X ray out of the packet. I saw a domestic washing the floor further down the corridor and I called to her,” she stated.

“I want you to diagnose this X ray? She said ‘I can’t do that’. I said yes you can. She came over looked at the X ray, and said that’s ‘a bullet’. The bullet was sitting at the base of the brain stem. It was pointed downwards into the brain stem.”

She said she thought it odd an X ray had not been carried out at Raigmore Hospital and had it been they would have identified the gunshot as the cause of his injuries and not a road traffic accident.

A few minutes later the doctor came back and she told him the X ray showed a bullet in the brain stem.

She rolled the patient over onto his side to wash him and it was then she said she saw a bullet wound at the back of his neck.

“I did not know there was a wound until I rolled him on his side after the X ray,” she said.

“I didn’t see anything on the temple. I would have known right away when he came in that he had been shot if there was a gunshot wound on his temple.”

Asked exactly where the entry wound was and to describe it, she said: “The entry wound was right at the back of the neck. There was no exit wound. It was smaller than a one penny piece and it was directly aimed at the brain stem.”

McGonigal said she and the doctor believed there was little chance of the patient surviving and they carried out assessments on his brain function.

“We did the first set of brain death tests. There are six or seven tests. You put carbon dioxide down the tube and the patient doesn’t breath. You put cotton wool over the corneas and the patient doesn’t blick. You put ice on the ear and he doesn’t move,” she said.

“The doctor and I did the tests together and we confirmed that the patient was brain dead, that was between 7pm to 8pm.”

She said she wondered where the patient’s relatives were and found out later they arrived after she had gone off duty.

When she returned to work the following morning she was not shocked to discover he had died earlier that day. A Crown Office report previously released under freedom of information said McRae’s life support machine was turned off at 3.30am on Sunday 7 April after consent had been given by his next of kin.

McGonigal said she was surprised not to be interviewed by the police or members of the procurator fiscal service and she did not see any officers at the hospital.

“The gunshot couldn’t have been on his temple as if it had been we wouldn’t have had to do an X ray to recover the bullet. I had to roll him over to see the wound,” she said.

“I would like to know how a man his size would be able in a Volvo to get his arm right round the back of his head to shoot himself in the back of the neck and then for the gun not to be in the car.”

She said she would be willing to be interviewed in connection with any future investigation into the case.

“I would be happy to co operate with any inquiry,” she said. “But I don’t believe we will ever find the person who killed Willie McRae.”

Detective Chief Inspector David Pinkney said: “Police Scotland can confirm following a thorough investigation into the death of Willie McRae on April 6, 1985, there were no suspicious circumstances and, as with all sudden deaths, a report was sent to the Procurator Fiscal.

“Reviews by Northern Constabulary and the Crown Office into the matter in 2010/11 did not bring raise any new matters.

“Police Scotland remains satisfied that the investigation was conducted thoroughly and the case was concluded once the report was sent to the Procurator Fiscal.

“Any further information or evidence reported to Police Scotland on any case will be always be considered.”

A Crown Office spokesman: “Crown Counsel are satisfied with the extensive investigations into the death of William McRae and the case is now closed.”