By Doug Kennedy
BBC News Online Scotland
There may only be one person who knows for sure whether the bodies of Renee
and Andrew MacRae have been lying buried in a Highland quarry for nearly three decades.
The disappearance of the mother and her three-year-old son in 1976 entered the psyche of the people in and around Inverness and the mere mention of their names prompts a mixture of memories, speculation and sadness.
Renee's burnt-out car was discovered in a lay-by 12 miles south of the Highland capital on the night of 12 November and the pair have not been seen since.
After 10 years Northern Constabulary upgraded the case to a murder inquiry and now police and forensic experts have vowed to determine whether or not the suspicions that Renee and Andrew's bodies may have been dumped in the nearby quarry at Dalmagarry are correct.
The MacRaes' disappearance is an enduring mystery
In doing so, they hope to bring themselves a significant step closer to finding out what exactly happened nearly 28 years ago and who is responsible.
Technological, forensic and procedural advances have seen a rise in the ability of modern detectives to revisit so-called cold cases with increasing success.
With this in mind, Northern Constabulary turned to leading specialists in the field after the decision to bring forward a review of the Renee MacRae mystery and to reactivate the inquiry.
Double murder inquiry
At the time of the original investigation one officer reported smelling decomposing flesh in the area of the quarry, which was never properly searched.
Police have stressed that the new search is part of a live double murder inquiry and that they have reasonable confidence they will retrieve remains or other evidence from the site.
What can or cannot be found lies in the expertise of forensic archaeologist
Professor John Hunter, from Birmingham University, and forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, from Dundee University.
The pair are undaunted by the prospect of what Professor Hunter described as a job that was "unprecedented" in scale.
Professor Sue Black thought her job might lead her to the case
Professor Black was a schoolgirl in Inverness when Renee MacRae disappeared and she said she often wondered if her chosen profession might one day bring her
to the case.
She is an expert in her field, having worked on war crimes investigations in Kosovo and Iraq as part of Cifa, the Centre for International Forensic Assistance.
The professor said: "We've got some very, very good detailed records of Renee MacRae and her son.
"If we do find remains then we will be certain of who they are, what we might not be able to tell you is of course how they died.
"There would still be bones present, any man-made fibres would survive, so nylon, zips, poppers, buttons, those kind of things, but there should still be enough that will alert us first of all what's here and hopefully allow us to identify what it is that we're dealing with.
'This is important to me'
"In many ways I never believed it would happen and it has come around so
professionally and personally this is terribly important to me.
"It is important if we don't find anything, but obviously it's more important if we do."
Her expertise will be brought into play on the discovery of any remains which could be under up to 10 metres of infill across a 900 sq metre patch of cleared forestry in the now disused quarry.
Professor Hunter helped the police search for the Moors murders victims in 2001 and has had a close working relationship with the police on a number of murder cases.
Professor John Hunter: "If there's a victim, we'll find them"
He faces a massive job to clear the site down to the original quarry, working with two archaeologists and two anthropologists to check for bones on site at all times, but he has a strong belief in the team's methods.
He said: "I'm confident that if there is a victim there we'll find them and if there isn't a victim there we'll be able to eliminate the quarry from the inquiry, so either way we have to succeed."
Professor Hunter said the prospect of getting results was more likely a matter of
weeks rather than days, but that they had to find the bottom of the quarry and demonstrate what is or is not there.
Driving out of Inverness, you immediately begin climbing up towards the Cairngorms and are soon out into a mixture of moorland, farmsteads and forestry plantations.
It is here that the next phase in the hunt for Renee and Andrew's killer will unfold.
About 2,000 trees have been cleared, 20,000 tons of earth will have to be moved, examination of the original quarry floor undertaken and if remains are found they will have to be identified and the progress of the criminal investigation assessed.
For now it is a sand and gravel scar in the landscape, a clearing close to the busy A9.
It may soon take on a significance of much more poignancy.