Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project



The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae.

A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country’s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence.

Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows.

I’m not usually one to read Man Book Prize shortlisters (or longlisters for that matter!). I always find them hard to read with all the literary forms and structures going on that I can’t fathom anything  that is going on. But His Bloody Project intrigued me by the premise of the novel – I didn’t even realise it was Man Booker until I brought the book.

His Bloody Project follows the life of Roderick Macrae and the events leading up to the murder of three members of the Mackenzie family. It is structured as if it were a legal case beginning with the statements of friends and family within his village, moving into Roderick’s own account of events leading up to and including the event, followed by a surgeon’s documentation on his investigation into Macrae, and finishing with the official trial held in court. Though this is the given structure and it is clear that evidence is building up for and against Roderick Macrae, it read like any normal novel. I found it easy to read with brilliant pacing and, though changed little from the original documents, I did not find it hard to understand what was happening regardless of various Scottish terms used. I thoroughly enjoyed the structure of this book as it provided you with varying viewpoints that can be used to figure out what you truly believe to be the case. It isn’t structured to have everything against Roderick all in one chunk, followed by those for, but was evenly laid out to go back and forth.

The themes within this novel are truly evident throughout, and is helped in part by this layout/structure of a legal case. As you begin to read about the official trial, it becomes clear that there are mixed opinions about Roderick Macrae by his fellow villagers and that some are clearly saying anything to get him convicted of his crimes. Having read Macrae’s own account prior to this trial, you begin to see the similarities and differences in perspective and note how the defense and prosecutors within the trial use subtly worded questions to try and give their side more weight. I loved seeing these different opinions and how some actions/events were not evident in Macrae’s account but were brought up in subsequent sections of the novel. It made it hard to understand who was telling the truth. It brought up a lot of questions on whether the justice system at the time was truly effective but also how they went about agreeing on a verdict for this case.

Not only does the issue of justice and law play its part through the trial, but can be found through Roderick Macrae’s account alongside the statements and dialogue of the surrounding villagers before his account and during the trial. It becomes evident that Lachlan Mackenzie (one of the men murdered) takes matters into his own hands and abuses the powers bestowed upon him when he takes up the position of constable. In Macrae’s account, Lachlan has clearly got some sort of vendetta against the Macrae family, and this is agreed upon later in the novel. It goes to show that when personal issues come into play, sometimes people will abuse their power in order to see others suffer.

The other theme that comes into play is the issue of madness and insanity which is highlighted through the surgeon, Macare’s advocate, and the trial. Macrae’s advocate is wholly for Macrae being let off for these murders believing that Macrae should plead moral insanity suggesting that Macrae committed these acts at a time when he was fully aware but had lost all moral sense of what was right and wrong. Over the course of the trial, there are a lot of questions put forward that due to the nature of the Mackenzie/Macrae feudal relationship, Macrae had lost all sense of right and wrong – that he murdered Mackenzie out of a sense of duty to his father so that he would no longer have to suffer.

His Bloody Project is made up entirely of real documents which makes this novel even more interesting in that these are events that really did take place. This was reality during that time. I appreciated the inclusion of accepted documents from men in positions related to science and psychology to help bring a greater understanding to these issues surrounding madness and insanity, making the events easier to understand but also helping to bring depth and understanding to some of the characters within the novel. With the differences in statements and opinions between each section of the novel, it became hard to judge the characters on their opinions and actions which made this novel even more gripping.


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