A MAN has claimed he rescued independence campaigner Willie McRae from a serious fire only hours before his death.

Former forklift truck driver Pat Gallagher has broken his silence for the first time about the blaze 37 years ago and of his confrontation with a male dressed in a boiler suit outside the burning flat.

The following day McRae, a former deputy leader of the SNP, was found unconscious at the wheel of his crashed Volvo having suffered a gunshot wound to the back of his head.

The death of the veteran lawyer was treated as suicide at the time but in recent years there have been claims of an establishment cover up.

McRae had made the 175-mile journey north to his holiday home in Dornie, near Skye, despite suffering the effects of the early-morning fire in the tenement flat where he lived in Queen’s Park, Glasgow.

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He crashed his car that night but he wasn’t discovered until the following morning. McRae, who founded the Glasgow law firm Levy & McRae, was taken to hospital but died the following day. The blaze had broken out in his Balvicar Street flat around 7.30am on April 5, 1985, as Gallagher, then 27, was on his way to work. Gallagher ran into the building after seeing flames shooting through the windows of the top floor tenement.

As Gallagher approached the flat door, he was passed by a man in a boiler suit carrying a briefcase, who he assumed was a neighbour.

When told about the fire the same man said he was in a hurry to get to work and ran past him. On reaching the flat, Gallagher, who lived in nearby Niddrie Square, discovered that the main storm door was open but the front door itself was locked. Gallagher managed to force his way in and lead McRae, 61, to safety.

He said: “When I kicked in the door I couldn’t see a thing because of the smoke and was shouting out for anyone who was inside the flat. I could hear a muffled sound and told the occupant to make his way towards the light on the landing.”

The National:

McRae (above) was just in his underwear.

“I read a lot of stories later that he was a drinker and an alcoholic. But there was not one smell of drink from him.

“His lips were blue and he was shaking with the shock and I put my jacket over his shoulders. I gave him a drink from a can of Coke I had. I had no idea who he was until I read about his death a few days later and it mentioned the fire in his home.”

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DESPITE his ordeal McRae was determined to go back into the flat and Gallagher had to forcibly stop him. He added: “I couldn’t understand why he wanted to go back. Mr McRae said something on the lines of ‘the b******s have been in there’.

“I wondered at one stage if there was someone already in there and I would have to go back in and rescue them but he said no.”

Gallagher has also wondered if the boiler-suited man had been in McRae’s flat, stolen the briefcase, and even started the fire.

He added: “I thought it strange he was more concerned about being late for work rather than the fire in a neighbour’s flat. It also struck me that a man in a blue boiler suit carrying a tan briefcase was unusual.

“I gave my details to the police at the time but I never heard from them again. I wasn’t asked to give a statement or anything so I didn’t get the chance to tell them about the man with the briefcase.

“I assumed they would call on me after Mr McRae had died but it never happened.”

Gallagher claims he saw the same boiler-suited man in nearby Queen’s Drive after leaving the flat in Balvicar Street. He was parked in the middle of the road and speaking with another driver.

Gallagher claims the same car appeared outside his workplace in Polmadie later that morning. Over the next few weeks he again spotted it several times in the Queen’s Park area. Gallagher added: “It was a quite unusual car, sky blue with a dark roof, but I never saw who was in it.

“Because I was running late I had got a taxi into work and wondered if the car had followed me. I would then see the same car in the places that I frequented. I once considered confronting the driver and ask why he was following me but I was worried about looking stupid.”

A couple of weeks after the fire Gallagher and a friend were coming out of a pub in Victoria Road when the same car swerved on to the pavement as if it was trying to knock him down then drove away.

He added: “That certainly sobered me up. After that I always looked over my shoulder when walking home at night or standing in a bar. But I never saw the car again.”

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Gallagher hasn’t worked since 1992 when he was involved in an accident in his local in Torrisdale Street. While upstairs he went over the banister and fell to the ground after a pub customer tripped and bumped into him.

Gallagher was in a coma for nine days and in hospital for six weeks. He has no recollection of the incident and was never able to work again after taking a stroke and suffering paralysis on one side of his body.

The Glaswegian, who still lives on the city’s south side, decided to go public after reading about the McRae case in our sister paper the Glasgow Times. He added: “One thing that has always gone through my head over the years was why the police never spoke to me again about the fire, particularly given the questions that later surrounded his death. It’s as if they just wanted to sweep it under the carpet.

“I have always wondered why Mr McRae wanted to go back into a burning flat after he had just been rescued and why a neighbour, if he was a neighbour, didn’t want to stop and help him.

“I think there is definitely something suspicious about his death and I do not believe he committed suicide as has been suggested. There needs to be some sort of fresh investigation or inquiry and I would be more than happy to give evidence.”