Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015) His Bloody Project. Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.

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His Bloody Project was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016. Fiction often dresses up as fact. In the preface Burnet cites Gaelic Ossian poetry as a fake widely lauded for being factual, but the best fiction always does seem factual, or else it’s not worth reading. As a murder there’s no mystery. In the small crofting community of Culuie, with around 55 residents, seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae took a croman and flaughter, a kind of pick and spade used for tending the rocky soil, and killed three of his neighbours. He was covered in blood and made no attempt to escape. Macrare freely admitted to killing Lachlan Mackenzie, his teenage daughter Flora and infant son Donald at the Mackenzie house on the 10th August 1869.

Graham Macrae Burnet claim to have in possession various reports of what happened on that day and afterwards. They include statements from Residents of Cuildrie, Medical Reports and what we now could call mental health, but was then called lunacy, and transcripts of the trial. But the most contentious piece of evidence is a purported hand-written account by Roderick Macrae of why he carried out these killings. The question of being a reliable or unreliable narrator Burnet sidesteps with sleight of pen arguing that it was possible a boy educated in the Kirk school of Camusterrach, taught Latin, Greek and science, incarcerated in Inverness Castle, could produce such remarkable and descriptive prose and all Burnet had done was tidy up his punctuation.

‘I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot,’ we are all phonies as the narrator Holden Cauldfield said in the novel Catcher in the Rye, which of course, Cauldfield and not J.D.Salinger obviously wrote.

Roderick Macrae argued he’d done what he done, because he had to stop the persecution of his father John, ‘a crofter of good standing in the parish’.

A different viewpoint of John’s father is detailed in a section of the book by the supercilious J. Bruce Thomson, Resident Surgeon as the General Prison for Scotland in Perth and acknowledged master in the nascent discipline of Criminal Anthropology. Burnet need not stray far from the truth to find characters like Thomson, buttressed by the belief of the natural order of things, God had created man and the British Empire and at the peak of both was Thomson, standing slightly below Jesus. We see many of the same characteristics in the White House and the same eugenic beliefs that reached their peak in the Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz, but have bounced back in a remarkably short time and now also reside in the White House. Here Thomson visits John Macrae and finds it difficult to differentiate him from the cattle sharing his house and a sheep grazing on his croft. ‘Could you describe your son’s state of mind on that morning?’

‘One man can no more see inside the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.’

Thomson might never be wrong, but he modifies his belief system and admits John might have a sense of animal cunning, shown when he asks the question. But the question remains was Roderick a lunatic, driven to murder? Was he indeed what we would call nowadays a psychopath, having the facilities of thought and reason, but no moral understanding? This is an anti-twee Scottish novels not based on lungfuls of clean air and clean water and living lives of remarkable virtue and little modesty.   What Macrae does so skilfully (and I’ll not say which Macrae) is show when the bully gets the whip and is promoted into a position of power, as Lachlan MacKenzie so obviously is,  survival of the fittest, becomes a great deal harder for those under the whip. In creating an order lauded by Lords, landlords and baillies, Lachlan MacKenzie creates a greater disorder that festers and burns. Despite his crimes such is the skill of the novelist the reader’s sympathy remains (mostly) with Roderick.

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