His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Subtitled ‘Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae’,¬†His Bloody Project contains the memoir of a 17-year-old crofter, written while awaiting trial in Inverness in 1869 for three brutal murders, and ‘discovered’ by the author while researching his own Highland roots. This manuscript, we are informed, divided the Edinburgh literati of the time, who feared a rerun of James Macpherson‚Äôs 18th-century literary hoax Ossian. They¬†considered it ‘quite inconceivable that a semi-literate peasant could produce such a sustained and eloquent piece of writing’. The apparently guileless account of how Roderick entered the house of his overbearing neighbour is complicated by witness statements, medical reports and a¬†journalistic account of the trial. It also includes a¬†psychological report on Roderick by the real-life prison doctor James Bruce Thomson, who has firm opinions on the characteristics and proclivities of the ‘criminal class’.

Roderick confesses from the start his¬†desire to rid the world of Lachlan Mackenzie, the constable who controls the local community and makes Roddy’s life a misery. But is he insane to lash out, or only to admit to it? Was he always ‘wrong in the head’, or has grinding poverty and harsh treatment pushed a bright boy over the edge?

The descriptions of the crofting community, scratching a living from poor soil, at the mercy of the laird, the church and the weather, are convincing. The strongest driver is the book’s stoicism, assigning every mishap to providence. When¬†people seek clarification of the rules that govern their lives, they are told ‘that a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in¬†order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit’. Stoicism and occasional outbursts of¬†violence begin to look like the only possible response to subjugation. From his jail cell, Roderick repeatedly comments on the absurdity of the fact that it is only murder that has made people treat him like a gentleman.

This is a skilful portrait of a¬†remote Scottish crofting community in the 19th century.¬†It showcases contemporary theories about class and criminology. It is¬†also a blackly funny investigation into¬†madness and motivation, which perhaps leads no further than one¬†character‚Äôs grim conclusion: ‚ÄúOne man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.‚ÄĚ

To see if you agree enquire at your local library or consult https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bloody-Project-Graeme-Macrae-Burnet/dp/1910192147/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1481898180&sr=8-1  for further bibliographic detail.


282 pages in Contraband

First published 2015

ISBN 978-1910192719


Graeme Macrae Burnet

Scroll to Top