His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, tells the story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. A young man by the name of Roderick Macrae is arrested and stands trial for the crimes. He readily admits that he carried out the attacks but shows no remorse. All that stands between him and the gallows is the question of his sanity.
The unusual structure of the book is inspired. In the preface the author talks of discovering documents from the case while researching his own family history. He then reproduces witness statements from those who had known Roddy throughout his life, taken soon after the killings. There follows an account written by the accused at the behest of his advocate, a sympathetic and forward thinking man who, unlike many at the time, does not appear to regard the Highlanders as a lesser species.
Roddy was born and raised in the township of Culchie, a settlement of nine dwellings in the far north west of Scotland, whose occupants eked out a living working the crofts adjacent to their homes. As a child he attended church and school at neighbouring Camusterrach. Further along the road was Applecross where an Inn and Big House provided for Lord Middleton who owned the land. These and the surrounding hills were as far as Roddy had ever travelled.
The nine dwellings in Culchie varied in style and comfort. Roddy’s was crudely built and housed animals as well as the family. His mother had died in childbirth a year previously and this had badly affected those remaining. Despite his academic ability, Roddy was required to leave school and work on the land as soon as was allowed. His elder sister took their mother’s place at home, including caring for the younger siblings. Their father believed that all transgressions could be dealt with by viciously beating the offender.
Roddy’s account details his upbringing and events that lead to his decision to kill. The family’s life is hard, made moreso by a neighbour who harbours a grudge. When a member of this family is granted a position of authority by those tasked with managing Lord Middleton’s estate, they use it to undermine what little autonomy the Macrae’s have retained.
Following Roddy’s account there are short medical reports written by doctors who examine the young man while he is incarcerated at Inverness Gaol. Although there are scientific truths in many of their observations, they highlight the low opinion held at the time of those who lived in poverty, especially those who turned to crime. The doctors believe themselves not just superior but born that way. They view the harsh living conditions of the Highlanders as all they deserve.
The account of the trial makes up the remainder of the book. As with all good trials, this throws some doubt into the narrative that has thus far been built. Detail is added as to how Roddy was viewed locally. Incidents recounted by witnesses introduce uncertainty as to his motivations.
The epilogue is short but shows how reporting of heinous crimes has always been sensationalised with little regard for the truth. The story is a tragedy, but for more than just the murders.
It is a rare treat to come across a book that is so intriguing and compelling. It explores complex issues yet is entirely accessible. There is much to ponder around how difficult it is to puncture individual and societal preconceptions. A riveting story that I recommend you read.
His Bloody Project is published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband.