His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae

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Read 26/04/2020-03/05/2020

Rating 3 stars

I’ve had Graeme Macrae Burnet’s book hanging around on my Kindle for three or so years. A friend’s recent review of Burnet’s debut novel reminded me that I hadn’t got round to reading His Bloody Project.

I was in the mood for some historical fiction after the last book I read, so I charged up my neglected Kindle and opened His Bloody Project up.

The premise is that Burnet was researching the life of his grandfather in an archive in Inverness when he was directed towards a manuscript written in 1869 by a boy charged with murder. Roderick Macrae was 17 when he killed another man in his Highland village. The manuscript was his memoir, written in prison as he awaited trial.

Presented as a series of transcripts of historical documents relating to the trial, Burnet relates this entirely fictional event with all the trappings of fact. He even invents, for his preface, an archivist who helps him in his research. When I began reading, though, I didn’t know that the book was a total fiction. I thought it was the fictionalisation of an historic event.

The story begins with a series of sworn statements after the fact that paint a picture of Macrae as misunderstood, maligned and mistrusted. He is variously too big for his boots, damaged by his father’s treatment of him, a creature of the devil, and other worldly.

As an archivist myself, and one who has worked with court records, including depositions and recognizances, there was something too neat about the records in Burnet’s opening section. Something about the language used and about the selection of people whose statements are presented. It was this that sent me off to check for the archivist and the case itself, whereupon I discovered the truth. Neither exists.

As a piece of historical fiction, it is something different to the more typical works in the genre that weave scenarios from actual historical documents. It’s more akin to epistolary fictions like Dangerous Liaisons and Clarissa, where there is no exposition between documents, no narrator, only reportage, and the fictional accounts are presented as fact. It lacks the variety of something like Dracula, with its use of diaries, telegrams, newspaper cuttings and letters, however. It relies heavily on Macrae’s memoir for the bulk of the narrative. Burnet adds medical records, an extract from a prison surgeon’s memoirs of his study of criminal psychology and reports of Macrae’s trial, it’s true, but these are presented in blocks connected to rather than interpolated in the narrative of the memoir. I guess that Burnet’s aim is to place the reader in the position of researcher, rather than form a literary narrative from his ‘source’ material.

Macrae is a conflicted character. His memoir is gossipy, full of funny details about the village and its inhabitants. If the court statements give a flavour of Macrae’s character through the eyes of his neighbours, Macrae himself unwittingly strengthens their brew. He made me think of Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers or, more prosaically, Daniel Osbourne in Coronation Street. Macrae is an academically clever boy who possibly thinks himself better than those around him. As he recounts the events that lead to his arrest for murder, a disturbance in his character is revealed. He is detached from the world around him, including his own actions and thoughts, to the extent that he might be considered to be a psychopath.

Through Macrae’s memoir, we learn about life in a Highland village that sits alongside a laird’s estate. I know nothing about the history of the Highland clearances that transformed the rural landscape in Highland Scotland. I do know about the near equivalent in England and Wales wrought by the Enclosure Acts and the poverty it caused by throwing labourers off their strip farmed and common land, consolidating that same land into the hands of a wealthy few who then rented it back to those who used to work it freely. From this book, I got a flavour of just how similar it was in 18th century Scotland. There are vignettes in Macrae’s memoir where his father, accustomed to working his land in a particular way, is reminded that the land isn’t his and he should ask permission before acting. He also has land taken from him and redistributed to a neighbour, after the death of his wife, because his neighbour has greater need for it. All of this is done at a remove from the actual landowner, although he hovers over the actions of the factor and his deputy as a threat.

There are moments of levity among the grind. The petty bureaucracy of living under a factor’s regulations is circumvented by a scheme to levy ‘fines’ equally among the villagers, with randomly amusing misdemeanours allocated by the sitting constable. Macrae is droll, perhaps unintentionally, in some of his self portrayal, such as his first experience of alcohol.

Of the other characters, the murder victim Lachlan Mackenzie, known as Broad, is shown to be a belligerent muck stirrer in life, pecking away at anyone who meets with his disapproval, and happy to bear a grudge. Macrae’s sister Jetta supposedly has second sight and is something of a fatalist, believing more in determinism than free will. The local minister is a study of grim Presbyterianism, preaching that the woes that befall his congregation are entirely due to the sin they live their lives in. After the death of Macrae’s mother, which the minister puts down to her sin and her husband’s, Macrae’s father falls under his influence. Always a miserable man, his increasing dourness is taken as evidence of his acceptance of his sinfulness and the minister elects him as an elder of the kirk. At home, he wallows in misery and physically and emotionally abuses his children.

An incident with a sheep puts the Macrae family in Broad’s bad books. It’s a costly incident that forces Macrae to leave school and take on work. His unfitness for work had already been demonstrated in the neglect of his duties that caused the sheep incident, but his first job as an assistant to the ghillie’s team during a hunt on the laird’s estate confirms that his mind follows its own rules and he doesn’t understand the requirement of working life that says you must buckle down to authority.

As time goes on and Broad manoeuvres to be elected as constable, his bullying nature becomes ever more apparent, along with the grudge he holds against Macrae’s father. It’s grudge older than Macrae. The way Burnet writes Broad’s character made me think of Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard. He’s more viciously malevolent, though, less vainglorious and more outright thug. He takes what he wants and thinks nothing of ruining the lives of others. Because we only see Broad from Macrae’s perspective, Burnet builds a sense that his removal from the world would be of benefit to the rest of the community. It becomes possible to sympathise with Macrae’s actions, ruined as his family is, apparently at the hand of Broad.

Macrae describes his crime dispassionately. Although not planned in the sense that he attends Broad’s croft knowing exactly what he will do, the way he goes about things is cold. There is no heat of passion here. Broad is a problem that must be eradicated. It reminded me of the way Raskolnikov goes about ridding the world of the louse-like pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment.

The extract from the memoir of the prison surgeon is an attempt to capture a particular type of Victorian man. It’s largely caricature. Thomson is aloof, prejudiced, full of certitude, and wedded to the idea of “facts and instances”, despite holding a set opinion about the criminal classes that his facts and instances are used to bolster. His appearance in the newspaper reports of the trial proceedings fix him as arrogant and didactic. Bizarrely, this surgeon is one of two real characters – the other is the laird of the local estate. It’s bizarre because he seems the least real person in the book.

The trial scenes are an attempt to show that it’s impossible to know all the facts. There is a great deal of conjecture. Macrae’s version of events is rightly portrayed as not to be relied on, but so, too, are the opinions of the witnesses who appear. Things are brought to light that throw doubt on Macrae’s stated motive. What remain are the incontrovertible facts that Macrae went armed to the croft of Lachlan Broad and committed murder.

Burnet also depicts the reaction to the trial among the journalists who cover it, from the world weary hacks from Scotland’s southern cities to the idealistic correspondents from the local press. In the epilogue, Burnet constructs a post-trial response in the popular press to Macrae’s memoir, depicting an economy with the truth consistent with what still appears in today’s tabloids. Whatever the truth is, you can bet that the popular press will distort and sensationalise it to increase sales.

I’m not going to give away the ending. The trial genuinely could go either way for Macrae, the evidence or lack of it leaving things open for the jury to interpret in reaching their verdict, and it’s a good read in the process of discovering their conclusion.

In trying to work out what was real and what made up, I discovered that you can rent one of the cottages that appears in the book – it’s neither the croft occupied by the Macraes nor the scene of the murder, and the owners are keen to make clear that Burnet’s book is fiction. I wonder how many readers of the novel have stayed there. I wonder how happy the residents of the village are about Burnet’s choice of their home as the location of his fiction.

5 thoughts on “His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae

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