Version classiqueVersion mobile

Le crime, le châtiment et les écossais

Jean Berton
Bill Findlay

IV – Confessing and Punishing / L’aveu et la punition

His Bloody Deceptive Project: the Unjustified Confessions of Roderick Macrae

Robert Wirth

Texte intégral

1Scottish literature has a long-established tradition of deceptive communication, deceitful editing practices and cunningly devious narration. We need only to think of James Macpherson’s Ossian, of James Hogg’s unreliable narrators in The Confessions of a Justified Sinner or Robert Louis Stevenson’s subtle multiplicity of untrustworthy perspectives in the Master of Ballantrae and in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And there are, of course, George Douglas Brown’s notorious village-bodies of Barbie in The House of the Green Shutters and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s communal voice of the Mearns in Sunset Song to consider. It is into this illustrious list of manipulative narration that I want to place His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae. Published in November 2015, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel is full of nods to his predecessors in Scotland’s literary past. It is set in 1869 and relates the peculiar case of a brutal triple murder committed by a seventeen-year-old boy in the remote crofting community of Culduie, Wester Ross, in the north-western Highlands of Scotland. The fact that Roderick Macrae is guilty of the heinous act is never really called into question. Rather, the novel revolves around the difficulty of ascertaining whether the accused can, in fact, be deemed sane enough to be held legally responsible for his actions. So, instead of a who-dunnit, the reader is presented with a how-exactly-he-dunnit or, more to the point, with various narratives and interpretations of why-he-dunnit, and is faced with the intriguing question as to whether or not Roddy was merely labouring under a mania without delirium, also known as moral insanity, an understanding of insanity peculiar to the criminology of that time, as the court case at the end of the novel tries to ascertain.

2The story of the gruesome killing of Lachlan Broad Mackenzie, his fifteen-year-old daughter Flora and his infant son Donnie is told through a multiplicity of perspectives, of which none, as I hope to show, are to be wholly trusted. In this unremitting contest of conflicting interpretations of motive, crime, and appropriate punishment, the quest for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is beset with insurmountable obstacles. It is the power of the masterful juxtaposition of contradictory and unreliable perspectives that creates the suspense of the novel and keeps the reader intrigued, confused and guessing to the bitter end. As the order in which the various narratives are arranged greatly contributes to the dialectic of argument and counterargument, steering the reader towards respective syntheses and conclusions, my examination of His Bloody Project will follow the organisational sequence of the novel and will so attempt to ascertain in what way the various sections and documents manage to negotiate a path through the maze of constant oscillation between fact and fiction, truth and lies, sanity and insanity – leaving the reader, in the final instance, to judge between Roderick’s guilt or innocence, moral responsibility and legal culpability according to Scots Law of the time.

3Structurally, the novel is divided into nine different sections: an editor’s preface; written witness statements of residents of Culduie; a map of the village and surrounding area; the centerpiece, Roderick Macrae’s personal memoir composed in his prison cell at the behest of his advocate; a glossary of archaic terms for the memoir; the medical post-mortem reports on the victims; the account of criminal anthropologist James Bruce Thomson entitled Travels in the Border-lands of Lunacy; the laborious trial proceedings in Inverness collated from various newspaper reports; finally, an epilogue which tells of the legal and journalistic aftermath of the court case. The various sections offer conflicting and even self-contradictory perspectives on the character and behaviour of the boy-culprit, the events that led up to the murders, and on the monstrous deed itself.

4In the preface, the so-called editor, who signs himself GMB, explains how he has obtained, or in a Hogg-like fashion supposedly found, the documents while researching his family history. The papers relating to the case of Roderick Macrae are already announced as being questionable: it is here that he sows the first seeds of doubt with regard to the reliability of Roderick’s confessional account and sets the tone so that the reader is constantly and somewhat painstakingly, and yet pleasurably, wrong-footed. He writes:

Many, especially among the literati of Edinburgh, doubted its authenticity. Roderick’s account revived memories of the Ossian scandal of the late eighteenth century in which James Macpherson claimed to have discovered and translated the great epic of Gaelic poetry. [… .] For Campbell Balfour, writing in the Edinburgh Review, it was ‘quite inconceivable that a semiliterate peasant could produce such a sustained and eloquent piece of writing… The work is a hoax and those who extol this most pitiless murderer as some kind of noble savage will in time be left red-faced.’ (2)

5The preface goes on to mention additional commenting voices, some of which purport that the murder and, interestingly, the memoir itself, attest to the “‘terrible barbarism [that] our dedicated presbytery and the great improvements of the past decades have failed to eradicate’.” (2) Yet other voices from the press at that time lend putative authority to what is claimed by saying that the crofter’s son Roderick Macrae was a “figure driven to the edge of reason – or beyond – by the cruel system which makes slaves of men who wish only to eke an honest living from a borrowed patch of land.” (2) Others again attribute responsibility for the atrocities committed to the “unjust conditions in which Highland crofters continued to toil” (2) rather than to the culprit himself. The so-called editor then goes on to claim with regard to the memoir that “as to the authenticity of the document, it is not possible, a century and a half later, to provide a definitive answer.” (2) He also maintains that the stylistic elegance and command of language displayed in the memoir have even led to a theory that the account must have been written by Roddy’s advocate Andrew Sinclair, rather than by the boy himself. To add to the confusion, the editor quickly undermines such aspersions by saying that, even though they “cannot entirely be dismissed, […] it requires the convoluted thinking of the most outré (e) conspiracy theorist to believe this to be the case;” (3) only for the editor to continue, after having laid out the pros and cons with regard to the account’s authenticity, by stating that, “[f] or these reasons, and having examined the manuscript first-hand, I have no doubts as to its authenticity.” (3) Nonetheless, having gone to such great lengths to establish the authenticity of the found documents, not least by adding a host of footnotes which supposedly provide the reader with sources for the various views held, the editor GMB concludes his preface on a cautionary note:

It is not possible, almost a century and a half later, to know the truth of the events recounted in this volume. The accounts presented here contain various discrepancies, contradictions and omissions, but taken together they form a tapestry of one of the most fascinating cases in Scottish legal history. Naturally I have come to my own view of the case, but I shall leave it to the reader to reach his or her own conclusions. (4)

6The editor’s metanarrative comments in the preface already display some of the properties that Uri Margolin lists as “[r] eliability reducing procedures [which can] include a defensive and apologetic style full of obfuscation, hedges, retractions, restrictions, self-corrections, escape clauses, forestalling of anticipated objections [and] subjective modalities.” (Margolin, 50) So, instead of being in any way effective in shedding light on either the authenticity of the sources or the reliability of perspectives on the events in question, the suspicious comments of the editor together with those of the various other voices with their respective interpretations, vacillating as they do somewhere betwixt and between factualness (in fiction) and fiction (within fiction), disconcertingly set the tone for the mercurial games about to unfold. Already here in the preface, we see how conventional expectations of a logical progression towards a satisfactory solution of events in a crime novel are simultaneously raised and disappointed time and time again.

  • 1 The recurrent doubling of the various names and use of nicknames, of course, adds further confusion (...)

7This dialectical and playful back and forth of divergent views is continued in a selection of character-witness statements made by residents of Culduie. While further enhancing the literary verisimilitude or truthlikeness of the case and the novel as a whole, the statements provided serve to introduce Roderick to the reader and already contribute to an ambiguous picture of the culprit’s peculiar character and frame of mind. The local schoolmaster, Mr William Gillies, for example, calls Roddy “academically superior” (10) to all his classmates and “found [him] to be a gentle lad, not given to the cruel behaviour sometimes found in boys of that age.” (11) Mrs Carmina Smoke1 Murchison, the Macrae family’s neighbour, for instance, says: “I have known Roderick Macrae since he was an infant. I generally found him to be a pleasant child and later to be a courteous and obliging young man [, although] greatly affected by the death of his mother, who was a charming and gregarious woman.” (7) Her husband Kenneth Smoke Murchison is less benign in his judgement when he states that Roddy undoubtedly “was a queer boy” and that “the evidence of his deeds […] does not speak for a sound mind.” (9) Roddy’s proclivity to unusual and seemingly abnormal behaviour, which took the form of solitary nocturnal walks, muttering to himself, is touched upon in Reverend James Galbraith’s statement: “There was always a wickedness, easily discernible, about the boy.” (9) The statement of Peter Mackenzie, the victim’s cousin, is, understandably enough, outright vindictive: he describes Roddy as a mean-spirited, wicked, and feeble-minded creature, prone to the “spiteful mistreatment of animals and birds”, and even accuses Roderick of being an arsonist, even though, as he openly admits, he cannot prove the last claim. (11) These introductory character-judgements of the accused read very much like unreliable village gossip, somewhat reminiscent of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s communal voice or even George Douglas Brown’s Scot malignant (Campbell and Vogel, 96), and as such, ought to be taken with an analytical pinch of salt. And while the formal documentation of the character-witness statements by “Officer William MacLeod of Wester Ross police force, Dingwall, on the 12th and 13th of August 1869” (7) ostensibly substantiates the initial claim of the documents’ authenticity, their erratically contradictory content cannot but strike the reader as being strange and intriguing.

  • 2 Despite the author’s attempts not to dupe his readers into thinking that this was a tale about real (...)

8Further conspicuous authenticity is added to the collection of documents by the inclusion of an 1875 Ordnance Survey map of the little Highland community of Culduie, (12) in which the exact location of the various crofters’ houses is established. This sets up the spatial opposition of perpetrator’s home and victims’ dwelling at either end of the village. The map offers the reader of this collection of documents a much-needed anchor of factualness – an apparent factualness that is further achieved by a recurrent use of footnotes and newspaper references lending credibility to the authenticity of the accounts. In a sense, this artificial authenticity constantly tries to compete with and repudiate His Bloody Project’s overt give-away subtitle “A NOVEL”, which is, interestingly, and it would seem deceivingly, only edited and introduced by the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet.2 What is happening here, in the presentation of seemingly factual background information in the shape of the preface, the witness statements and the map, could be deemed, what Bo Pettersson calls, “expositional manipulation.” (Pettersson, 116) All the expository sections discussed so far have the purpose of introducing the reader into the fictive world that is presented as historical reality, where the frame story, the characters and the setting all contrive to lead the reader up the garden path; in a prescribed order, a willing suspension of disbelief is instrumentalised to facilitate the ease with which the reader– although constantly forced to evaluate and reevaluate the information given and the inconsistencies and contradictions perceived – allows himself to be tugged along both by the suspense created and by his irresistible desire to find out what really happened and why.

9With Roderick Macrae’s memoir we are led into the main part of this non-linear epistolary metafiction. Despite the initial defamation of Roderick’s character in the first sections, his memoir still manages to lure the reader into a sense of empathy with and sympathy for its auto-diegetic narrator Roddy. This effect is achieved both by a dialectical cascade of arguments and by the sequence of presentation that guide the reader towards an implied reading. (Significantly, the document which constitutes the longest part of the novel, and which is presented to the reader at such an early stage, is later not admitted as evidence in the trial.)

10In contrast to James Hogg’s fanatical murderer Robert Wringhim in the Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Roddy Macrae comes over as an immensely likable killer. So much so, that at the end of his written confessions, when the actual murder is described by him with chilling indifference, one paradoxically feels pity for the perpetrator more than for the victims, or even instead of for the victims. So accomplished is this confidence trick that – despite the findings of the post mortems, despite James Bruce Thomson’s assessment of the boy’s mental health, and despite the gradual elucidation of Roddy’s presumed ulterior motives brought about by the trial, in which various inconsistencies in Roddy’s account eventually come to light – the reader still wants him to get away with murder on the grounds of insanity. The content of the memoir serves both as explanation and as justification for his shocking deeds, while allowing for enough interpretative leeway for the reader to continue to entertain the possibility of his being neither entirely culpable in the legal nor in the moral sense. Roderick’s account achieves this unrelenting ambiguity with a blend of, what James Phelan calls, estranging and bonding unreliability: estranging unreliability being “unreliable narration that underlines or increases the distance between the narrator and the authorial audience [and] bonding unreliability [being] unreliable narration that reduces the distance between narrator and authorial audience.” (Phelan, 223-24) It is never quite certain whether Roderick’s confessions are made naïvely in good faith, whether they arise from a premeditated, sinister and devious motive, or whether they, in fact, represent the ravings of a remorseless madman. Thus, it is extremely difficult to classify Roddy either as a merely fallible, an outright deceptive or completely delusional narrator. (Phelan 223-24; 114) Throughout the memoir, various possibilities can be entertained simultaneously, namely that he may be considered fallible, as he does “not reliably report on narrative events because [he is] mistaken about [his] judgments or perceptions or [is] biased” (Olson, 101); that he may be deemed delusional, suffering either from a persecution complex or from a conviction of his own particular epistemic truth; and, that he may simply be labelled a merciless psychopath incapable of showing any remorse. Another interpretation might be that he is an entirely sane, calculating deceiver who is deliberately misreporting, under-reporting and over-reporting in order to escape the gallows. Taken in isolation, the memoir appears to meet the main conditions of what Margolin considers an alethically reliable account, insofar as: “all claims contained in it are true; no inconsistencies exist between any propositions contained in it; the full account is maximally coherent, [and] the information is complete, at least as far as the major events/actions are concerned.” (Margolin, 44) And upon first reading, Roderick’s account provides hardly any tangible cause for suspicion. Roderick, for instance, starts out by self-effacingly explaining why he composed the account in the first place and by fully admitting to his guilt:

I AM WRITING THIS AT THE BEHEST OF MYADVOCATE, Mr Andrew Sinclair, who since my incarceration here in Inverness has treated me with a degree of civility I in no way deserve. My life has been short and of little consequence, and I have no wish to absolve myself of responsibility for the deeds which I have lately committed. It is thus for no other reason than to repay my advocate’s kindness towards me that I commit these words to paper. (15, italics mine)

11By claiming that he did not write the account of his own volition, but only as a favour towards his advocate, he subtly forestalls any implied readers’ criticism that he may have written his memoir out of a self-serving motive. As to the reason for committing the triple killing, he confesses with the same outright conviction that he

carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations which he has lately suffered. The cause of these tribulations was our neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, and it was for the betterment of my family’s lot that I have removed him from this world. I should further state that since my own entry into the world, I have been nothing but a blight to my father and my departure from his household can only be a blessing to him. (15, italics mine)

12Upon close reading, however, the rhetorical distancing devices applied throughout his account and especially the uncompromising nature of and conviction displayed within these opening lines (e.g. when he speaks in absolutes such as “no wish”, “for no other reason”, “the sole purpose” and “nothing but”) point towards ulterior motives on Roddy’s part and, if detected as such, can estrange the reader. In spite of Roderick “apologising in advance for the poverty of [his] vocabulary and rudeness of style” (15), the account is, ironically, as the preface already hints at, perhaps too artistically beautiful and bewilderingly eloquent to be written by a boy of his age and social status. But then again, as Vladimir Nabokov reminds us in Lolita, “you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” (Nabokov, 9) Any initial doubts, however, with regard to possible ulterior motives, which may estrange the reader, are quickly laid aside when the particularly vivid and enthralling narrative unfolds and Roderick increasingly gains the reader’s affection, empathy and compassion. In other words, Roderick’s bonding unreliability increasingly trumps his estranging unreliability. James Phelan, for example, says that:

In bonding unreliability, the discrepancies between the narrator’s reports, interpretations, or evaluations and the inferences of the authorial audience have the paradoxical result of reducing the interpretive, affective, or ethical distance between narrator and authorial audience. In other words, although the authorial audience recognizes the narrator’s unreliability, that unreliability includes some communication that the implied author – and thus the authorial audience – endorses.
Phelan, 225

13 This represents a further manipulative layer to the suspension of disbelief already in play. In a sense, the empathy evoked by the narrative is posited against the reader’s (better) judgment. The suspension of implied judgement leads to an acceptance of a reversal of victimhood. Thus, Roderick, the actual perpetrator, can plausibly be perceived as being the victim. The lawyer Sinclair states as much in his closing remarks of the trial when he avers that “there are not three victims in this case, but four; the fourth being the wretched individual who has sat before you these three days.” (261) Roderick’s memoir uses sympathy as a “mechanism of engagement” (Giovannelli, 83) where the reader is enticed into identifying with the protagonist and at the same time into pitying him. In what way this bonding effect is achieved is perhaps best illustrated by taking a close look at the features of the memoir that are evocative of other Anti-Kailyardian narratives.

  • 3 In the novel Roderick’s mother Una and sister Jetta are said to possess the second sight, which is (...)

14To appropriate Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s oft-quoted lines, Roderick’s version of events is situated in the “Scots countryside itself, fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters” (Gibbon, 31) i.e. somewhere between Ian Maclaren’s overly sentimental and highly nostalgic lad-of-pairts narrative of the Kailyard school of literature (Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush) and George Douglas Brown’s ferocious reaction to it (The House with the Green Shutters). Roderick’s account clearly leans towards the latter. Set in the small highland crofting community of Culduie, his first-person narrative reads much like Anti-Kailyard literature, as it is a far from sentimental, idyllic or romanticised picture that is proffered of this self-contained, tight-knit community: with a Laird, a factor and a village constable determining the lives of the crofters, there is a strong focus on class-boundaries and social hierarchies, a fixed pecking order of the powers that be. Hearsay and gossip abound and there are strong Calvinistic beliefs at play with an emphasis on the inescapable power of providence alongside more primitive forms of superstition, such as the second sight,3 which all augment the reader’s sense of confusion. Unsurprisingly, the various traditional professions represented in Kailyard literature, namely the Dominie, the schoolmaster, and the doctor are all present – but here they feature in a subverted form, all adding to the unpleasant claustrophobic environment. The notion that Roddy is to be pitied is reinforced by the oppressiveness of the depicted community. The quaint and secluded village of Culduie is shown as a rural backwater or anachronistic time-capsule, from which there is seemingly no escape, rather than as a functioning, progressive community nurturing prospective lads-o’- pairts. It is this evoked sense of inescapability that amplifies the sympathy felt for Roderick.

15With Lachlan Broad Mackenzie, the newly-elected village constable who abuses his power, we have a type of bully and brute, evocative of the great tragic tyrant John Gourlay of the House with the Green Shutters. Personifying the theme of inevitable change and innovation, Lachlan Broad is said to wage his personal vendetta against the Macraes. Posited against this antagonist and his alleged devious scheming, the adolescent Roderick appears almost saint-like. Roddy’s hard-working father John Macrae, on the other hand, tries to cling to traditional and outmoded ways of life and crofting. He is irascible, zealously pious and portrayed as being somewhat simple-minded, and as such, he is reminiscent of Sunset Song’s John Guthrie, though without any of that character’s appealing pathos. The parallel to the overly pious, quick-tempered father of Chris Guthrie could be further continued when it comes to John Macrae’s disciplinary violence and incestuous desires. Sunset Song’s Will Guthrie memorably is physically admonished by his father John Guthrie simply for daring to call their horse Jehovah (Gibbon, 40); likewise, Roderick, frequently recounts receiving severe beatings for the slightest acts of wrongdoing from his father the Black Macrae, who doesn’t even shy away from violently punishing his two infants:

My father had no tolerance for the infants’ lamentations and sought to silence them through blows which served only to renew their bawling. I well remember them clinging to one another on their mattress, a look of terror on their faces as my father made his way across the chamber to administer a beating. I left it to Jetta to intervene and had she not been there to do so, I could quite imagine my father doing the poor wretches to death. (28)

16Although not explicitly mentioned by the young and naïve Roddy, there is a strong suggestion of improper goings-on when he recounts that after his mother Una had died, his older sister “Jetta was obliged to assume the role of mother and wife. [He further writes:] It was at this time that father decreed that Jetta should sleep in the back chamber with him as she was now a woman and merited a degree of privacy from her siblings.” (29) Moreover, Roderick himself perhaps displays an over-fondness for his sister; he is, for instance, “envious of [his] sister’s bed and often dreamt of lying with her there.” (16) The recurrent undertones of incest and inbreeding add to the self-contained and narrow-minded outlook of a self-destructing community.

17Most Anti-Kailyardian of all though, is the subversion of the theme of getting on, with Roddy as the lad o’pairts that never was. The benevolent schoolmaster Mr Gillies spots Roddy’s talent, or “uncommon gifts”, as he puts it, and tries to encourage him to continue his education to “become a teacher or a minister or anything he chooses”, to which Roddy’s brusque reply is, “But I’m required on the croft.” (25) Mr Gillies even pays Roddy’s father a visit and tries to convince him of Roddy’s grand prospects, should he choose to continue at school, only to be told by Mr Macrae, “We have no use for opportunities here, […] the boy is required to work on the croft and earn money for his family through his labour.” (45) Roddy’s potential thus remains untapped, and all other prospective alleyways of escape, such as his unexecuted plan of escaping to either Glasgow or Canada, eventually come to nothing. So, although he is bright and has plenty of opportunities to escape, he does not do so, and the fact that he appears to have what it takes to escape makes the reader pity him even more.

18Interestingly, it is mostly of his own volition that young Roddy doesn’t leave. In fact, instead of leaving, Roddy attempts to destroy everything that has created the claustrophobic environment, including himself. Besides adding to the profoundly stifling and claustrophobic atmosphere of his account that evokes pity, these Anti-Kailyard elements also underline the account’s estranging unreliability, as, in contrast to Kailyard literature proper where the reader is hardly ever invited to debate with the story told, they demand a higher degree of intellectual investment and interpretative engagement from the reader. (Campbell, 1981) In addition to these reasons for sympathising with young Roddy, two others stand out: the tribulations caused by Constable Mackenzie’s schemes and Roddy’s ill-fated choice of love interest, both of which add to the narrator’s bonding unreliability. Mackenzie’s schemes entail taking away one third of the Macraes’ land, preventing Roddy doing his necessary work on the croft, and constantly threatening fines for supposed breaches of regulations which the Macraes can’t pay and don’t understand. And, of course, this leads to the dramatic climax of the issue of the eviction-notice, which seemingly triggered the murder. This personal vendetta against the Macraes, in a Kafkaesque manner, makes life on the croft unendurable for Roddy and is exacerbated by his shocking discovery of Lachlan Mackenzie having sexual intercourse with Roddy’s sister Jetta. Whether Lachlan is here merely exploiting his powers or whether it is a consensual arrangement remains unclear. On the other hand, there is Roddy’s unrequited love for Lachlan’s daughter Flora, Roddy’s very own Shakespearean Juliet from the enemy-clan. But, Roddy’s interest in Flora, the ensuing disappointment at being rejected by her, as well as his own incestuous tendencies and repressed sexuality are perhaps self-servingly downplayed or disguised by the simulated naïvety of his account. Conversely, the oppressive and claustrophobic sense of being utterly and completely at the mercy of the village constable and the powers that be is over-emphasised and over-reported. So, are these hardships, so vividly described by Roddy, the real reason he committed the killings then? That is what the reader has to continue to ask himself. We must remember that at the start of his memoirs he says: “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations which he has lately suffered.” (15) This explanation and open admission of guilt is convincing in the context, as traditionally in Highland culture, a secret killing or murder was perceived to be a contemptible act, while openly dishing out vengeance was actually considered praiseworthy. In his examination of the boy, James Bruce Thomson reports that “he showed no remorse for his acts; indeed, I would venture to say that he displayed a perverse pride in admitting them.” (255) There is no question of Roddy covering up his crime. Roddy speaks of “some ancient grudge”, “bad blood” and a “feud” (19) between the families and to him, the perceived wrongs and injustices inflicted upon the Macraes seemingly justify his taking action to deliver his father from the torments perpetrated by another clan. The blood feud, so to speak, is advanced as a much more credible reason for slaughtering Mackenzie’s daughter Flora and the toddler Donnie, than slaying them solely for the purpose of not being discovered before killing his main target, their father Lachlan. However, Roddy repeats this statement of “delivering his father” etc. verbatim each time he is questioned: when approached by his advocate Sinclair; when examined by James Bruce Thomson; and in his short written confession that is read out in court. This overemphasis implies that this is not the true motive for the murder. When first approached by Mr Sinclair, Roddy states that he doesn’t “require the services of an advocate, as [he] has no intention of denying the charges against him.” In direct speech, emphasising this point, his memoir continues, ‘ “I have no interest in what the law requires, ’ […] ‘ [t] he law is nothing to me.’” (87) Much like in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona, the clash between a particular Highland set of primordial moral rules and Lowland Scots law is explored in this case and adds another layer of possible interpretation and speculation. So, Roderick’s highly subjective and one-sided account fails to present the reader with easy answers and only further increases the scope for possible interpretation by adding layer upon layer of unreliable information, either bonding or estranging. The truth thus remains elusive, and while the memoir offers sufficient hints that Roderick’s behaviour is, at the least, unusual, the reasons and causes for his unreliability continue to be contentious. What is happening here, according to Margolin, is that:

false beliefs about the narrated domain are engendered in the reader, at least temporarily. One could obviously just register deficiencies of one or more of these kinds in a narrative, judge the account (narrative) as consequentially unreliable in some respect and to some degree and let the matter rest there. But this runs counter to our basic desire to figure out what ‘really’ happened, and to do so, the reader needs to become not just a processor but a producer of information as well.
Margolin, 44-45

19The editor’s glossary to Roderick’s account contributes little in the way of elucidation either. (152) It merely explains some of the archaic terms particular to that time and place and can be considered superfluous as most of the important words it contains can be easily inferred from context, including the tools used as the murder weapons: the flaughter and croman. It has nonetheless the function of providing more ostensible authenticity to the manuscript.

20Various inconsistencies and discrepancies in Roddy’s memoir, however, soon come to light in the detailed medical reports on the post mortems “carried out by Charles MacLennan, M.D., resident of Jeantown, and J.D. Gilchrist, surgeon, of Kyle of Lochalsh,” (153) more of the named participants whose inclusion gives additional weight to the seeming authenticity of the documents found. Their findings show detailed and horrific evidence of the brutality of the injuries inflicted. The reports on Lachlan, Flora and the three-year-old Donnie make for chilling reading. From the medical report on Flora, it quickly becomes clear that Roddy has completely failed to mention any sexual intercourse before or after the murder. This omission would seem to be quite significant: while Roddy merely states in his memoir that “Flora’s skirts were disarrayed around her legs,” (147) and that he “laid her on her back with her legs hanging from the end of the table” (148), the medical reports give detailed evidence of sexual violence inflicted upon her person: “We observed a number of lacerations and bruising to the pubic region. The soft outer parts had been quite pulverised and the pubic bone was broken on the left side.” (155) Uri Margolin claims: “If a product is a report for example, we are fairly confident that it is at least plausible or credible, that is, well supported relative to the available evidence, and that the beliefs it gives rise to in us are hence also true and justified.” (Margolin, 32) Strangely enough, Roddy’s sister’s body is not listed among the post-mortem reports, even though she was found hanged around the same time. Whether it was she who killed herself because she was pregnant, or in fact, Roddy who-dunnit, before setting out to murder the others, remains a mystery, as does the identity of the unborn child’s father. Thus, even the post mortems leave many questions unanswered and the reader is still left wondering how to correlate Roddy’s version of events with the evidence of the medical experts: how could such a gifted, likeable young fellow have done such terrible things?

21The reader’s hopes and expectations of clarification from the psychological experts called in to attest to the boy’s sanity or otherwise, are once again shattered by the interpretation of events presented by James Bruce Thomson, the pioneer in the at that time emerging field of criminal anthropology. As a real-life, historical figure, his contribution to the preparation for the trial is one of the most powerful elements leading the reader to believe in the genuine nature of the events reported. His credentials are seemingly impeccable and the novel includes long excerpts from his later-to-be published treatise entitled Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy:

James Bruce Thomson (1810–1873) was Resident Surgeon at the General Prison for Scotland in Perth. In this capacity he examined around 6000 prisoners and was an acknowledged authority in the then nascent discipline of Criminal Anthropology. In 1870, he published two influential articles, ‘The Psychology of Criminals: A Study’ and ‘The Hereditary Nature of Crime’, in The Journal of Mental Science. His memoir Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy was published posthumously in 1874. (157)

22This renowned alienist of long experience with prisoners and with the theories of criminal psychology is full of confidence in his own academic capabilities, medical qualifications and objectivity. He is nothing if not thorough in his investigation: he visits Roderick in his cell several times and treats him in a polite, professional manner, even offering him wine and delicacies to put him at his ease. Thomson questions Roderick’s gaoler and the lawyer Mr Sinclair to gain insight into the prisoner’s character and every-day behaviour. He subjects Roderick to an exhaustive physical examination, finding him healthy, “certainly of low physical stock, but […] not as repellent in his features as the majority of the criminal class.” (159) He carries out a detailed inspection of the boy’s cranium and physiognomy, finding that Roderick “shared a certain number of traits with the inmates of the General Prison (these being chiefly, the misshapen cranium, unappealing facial features, pigeon chest, elongated arms and ears),” but categorising him as a “well-developed specimen of the human race [and not obviously] a member of the criminal class.” (160) He explains to Mr Sinclair that “as a man of science [he] could not be guided by speculation and conjecture. What matters […] are facts – facts and instances.” (161) As part of his investigation of the sanity or not of the accused, he even takes it upon himself to visit Roderick’s home village of Culduie and to question the neighbours and Roderick’s father John Macrae about the boy’s behaviour and attitudes. He announces the need for this course of action to the lawyer thus:

‘Your client exhibits a number of the physiological characteristics of the criminal class with which my work has acquainted me. However, while he might share some of their features, without acquainting myself with the stock from which he has issued, I cannot venture an opinion as to whether he has acquired these traits through heredity. If one’s cup of water is foul, one must first ascertain if the well is poisoned. If we find that the well is indeed polluted, it may have some bearing on whether or not he is responsible for his deeds.’ (161)

23He stresses this necessity to the unwilling Sinclair, “we must check the well” (161). He explains, “We must […] pay a visit to whatever Godforsaken shanty the wretch has sprung from.” (161) Thomson’s narrative definitely meets the criteria of Uri Margolin’s list of,

stylistic and rhetorical features likely to foster the impression of reliability [which] include authoratitive language, impersonal, objective manner of presentation (voice of truth), apodictic style, impersonal, nominal and passive constructions, professional and technical terms and modalising particles such as: ‘it is clear’, ‘it is evident’, ‘obviously’, ‘doubtlessly’, ‘as is well known’, and so on.
Margolin, 50-51

24Not unlike that of the editor in the Justified Sinner, (Ehland, 2012) James Bruce Thomson’s account equally turns out to be of little use, complicating matters even further. Thomson is asked by Roddy’s advocate to assess whether the culprit was suffering from moral insanity. Thomson observes that Roderick is “not a raving maniac, the madman of popular imagination” but claims that it “has been well-established by Mr Prichard and others, [that] there exists another category of lunacy: that of moral insanity, whereby the grossest perversions of the natural impulses, affecttions and habits can exist with no concomitant disorder of the intellect or reasoning faculties.” (167) He admits that Roddy “exhibited some degree of intelligence, [yet] an intelligence which in all probability could only be harnessed to deception or evil ends, but which nevertheless set him apart from the degenerate prototype.” (167)

25He meticulously interrogates Roddy and humiliatingly examines his physique in a beautifully arrogant and unashamedly condescending manner, which only a Victorian scholar-gentleman could display, and thus only undermines the power of his own line of argument with the result that the reader is antagonised rather than led to believe his findings. Thomson makes grandiose assertions about the criminal type in general and barbaric, inbreeding Highlanders and primitive savages in particular. He is a Dickensian Thomas Gradgrind who has turned Criminologist, insisting solely on, as he puts it, “facts and instances” (166) yet, constantly forgetting to heed the advice he dishes out by quoting Virchow that, “We must take things as they really are, and not as we wish them to be.” While his account does shed some further light on Roddy’s sexual deviance (Thomson’s interview with Mrs Murchison, for example, uncovers that Roddy was regularly engaged in “onanistic activity” (178) outside the bedroom window of her girls), by exclusively applying the “then prevalent theory of ‘degenerationism’, a kind of reverse evolution”, (250) Thomson merely arrives at foregone conclusions and thus becomes equally unreliable as a source of clarity. Thomson applies his theories of contemporary physiognomy and phrenology, and tries to gauge whether the murder was premeditated – with a debatable degree of success. When he questions Roderick on the motives for the killings, he comes up against Roderick’s insistence on literal truth in a subtle contest of intellects. To give an example, one part of the interrogation deserves a longer quote:

‘Did you discuss your plan with any other person?’ / ‘I would not say that I had a plan’ he responded. / ‘But you proceeded to Mr Mackenzie’s house armed with weapons. You must have had it in your mind to do some harm to him.’ / ‘I did.’ / ‘Then that surely constitutes a plan, does it not?’ […] / ‘I went to Mr Mackenzie’s house with the intention of killing him, but I would not say that I had a plan.’ / I feigned some bemusement at the minute distinction he was making, and asked if he could explain what he meant. / ‘I simply mean that while I had the intention’ – he gave this last word a special emphasis, as if it was he, rather than I, who was conversing with his inferior – ‘to do him harm, I had not formulated a plan as such. I went to Mr Mackenzie’s house thus armed only to discover what would happen if I did so. / ‘So, you believe then that you are not wholly responsible for Mr Mackenzie’s death – that it was, to some degree, a matter of chance.’ / ‘You might as well say that everything that happens is a matter of chance,’ said the prisoner.’ / ‘But was it happenstance that put a croman in your hand and led you to enter Mr Mackenzie’s house? / ‘It was a matter of chance that I happened to have a croman in my hand before I set off.’ (168-69)

26In the end, James Bruce Thomson is left in his own Borderlands of Lunacy unable to pin Roderick down to a self-incriminating motive that will allow him to be categorised as sane or insane.

27The reader has looked to Thomson for elucidation, but his account exhibits so much fallible unreliability that his scientific assessments, contrary to his repeated insistence on avoiding supposition, remain merely conjectural. It is made to appear so that his is an extremely blinkered perspective, obviously determined by his class-bias and self-proclaimed professional superiority. Intent as he is on his arrogant application of the criminology of his time, James Bruce Thomson’s unreliability is also an “estranging unreliability, [in which] the discrepancies between the narrator’s reports, interpretations, or evaluations and the inferences about those things made by the authorial audience leave these two participants in the communicative exchange distant from one another – in a word, estranged.” (Phelan, 225) The question of whether Roddy’s actions on that fateful day were pre-meditated and why exactly he committed the killings thus remains inconclusive.

28In the painfully laborious trial that runs over three days, “compiled from contemporary newspaper coverage and A Complete Report of the Trial of Roderick John Macrae published by William Kay of Edinburgh in October 1869”, (187) the reader’s desirous expectations of reliable evidence, proper conclusions and eventual closure are once again raised ad nauseam, only to be thoroughly disappointed. It becomes increasingly evident that the reader himself – by now sensitised and perhaps wise to the confidence tricks at play – is going to have to pronounce his own verdict, for the prospective judgement passed by the jury may be equally unfavourable, untrustworthy or flawed. To open proceedings, the Lord Justice-Clerk states that while being aware of “the existence of the ‘so-called memoir’ written by the prisoner [he will admit] ‘neither the document nor any part thereof’ [as] evidence.” (188) The reader’s previous investment in the memoir and this intriguing guessing game thus seems to have been all for nothing. But, ironically, this is not the case. Even though the reader has been subjected to such an intricate ploy of narrative and counter-narrative, the thesis, for instance Roderick’s memoir, is only sublated (aufgehoben), i.e. not utterly done away with – both preserved and changed – and persistently lingers within the antithesis of conflicting versions.

29As there is no doubt about Roddy having committed the killings, the climactic showdown conducted between defence and prosecution turns on the question of his sanity, insanity or temporary insanity sans delirium, for all of which the various un-obliging witnesses from Culduie are called to the stand, and their evidence examined as to its truth or fallibility. The painstaking questioning of his father John Macrae, for instance, is minutely documented, showing the frustration of the questioners at his laconic and sardonic (non-) answers. Over the three days, press commentaries keep the reader informed as to Roddy’s demeanour, the testimony and physical appearance of the assorted witnesses and the corresponding responses of the legal representatives who meet what they hear with suspicion and incredulity. In this cauldron of perspectives reliable reporting is hard to find. While the proceedings of the court are fully in step with Scots law and judicial procedure of the time, the implied reader could be tempted to wish that the verdict of not-proven might be suitable in this case; but what is at issue is not the culpability for the killings but the defendant’s ability to recognise his wrongdoing as morally wrong. The result of the trial hinges upon the evidence given by the two medical experts: for the prosecution, Dr Munro, the medical officer to Inverness gaol, claims that judging from his vast experience in the field, Roddy is not insane, “fully in possession of his reason” (238) as he is “among the most articulate and intelligent prisoners [he] has encountered,” (238) and when examined spoke “in a rational manner” (240). Dr Munro’s expertise is, however, called into question by the defence: when asked if he was familiar with the works of Philippe Pinel, or James Cowles Prichard, he simply “cannot recall” (242), much to the amusement of the on-looking audience. For the defence, James Bruce Thomson asserts that the defendant could indeed be deemed morally insane according to his arbitrary interpretation if Roderick’s account were to be deemed truthful. But he goes on to surmise that Roderick’s account of his motives was basically a cover-up for a much deeper depravity of a sexual nature:

My view is based on inconsistencies and omissions in the account the prisoner repeated both to Mr Sinclair and to myself. Specifically, these inconsistencies regard the injuries inflicted on Flora Mackenzie, which to my mind, speak of an altogether different motive for the crimes committed. It would be my contention that Roderick Macrae was driven not by a quasinoble desire to protect his father, but by his sexual urges towards Miss Mackenzie. […] Had he admitted outright to the motives for his attack, he might, as you say, be deemed morally insane, as he would not have known that the acts he had committed were wrong. […] the motive claimed by the accused speaks not only of a desire to obscure the true purpose of his attack, but of an ability to deceive and dissemble which is not present in those whom one would deem insane. (257-58)

30Thus Thomson, brought in for the Special Defence of Insanity turns the case around with his analysis of the reliability of the defendant’s account. We see here unreliable sources trying to refute other unreliable sources. After a valiant attempt by Mr Sinclair to save the Roderick he has known – the likeable boy who has suffered greatly – the whole confusing situation is best summed up by Mr Sinclair’s closing remarks: “It may be true that we do not know – that we cannot know – the true motives for this attack, but, gentlemen, it matters not.’ […] What is at issue here are not the bare facts of the case, but the contents of a man’s mind.” (261) And perhaps the statement by John Black Macrae, the most simple-minded laconic and sardonic character in the novel, is the only really truthful one to be found in the entire novel. He says: “One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone.” (181)

31Though much more complex and convoluted than most crime fiction – masterly in its arrangement and presentation of strong characters, its vivid setting and historical style and language – His Bloody Project is still, in essence, a story about a heinous killing and the instruments of the Scottish justice system to judge the crime and determine its punishment. With the reader enticed simultaneously into the role of detective, psychologist and judge, his intellect and his emotions are engaged right to the very end, held in suspense by a gripping narrative.

32The end, when it comes, leaves the reader puzzling still over his doubts, misconceptions and the vagaries of his and the protagonists’ interpretations. Yet, to betray the verdict of the trial and its aftermath displayed in the epilogue would diminish the fascination of the build-up to a satisfying solution, so it will not be disclosed here. What makes the novel fascinating is the investigation of the various levels of reliability to be found in any of the protagonists’ versions of the truth. What we have with His Bloody Project, however, is not a strict dichotomy of reliable and unreliable narration, but rather an elusive gradient of unreliability on which some perspectives appear more likely, i.e. less (or equally) unreliable, than others. His Bloody Project is a perfect example of a Hoggian polydoxy, “which stages the intersection of profoundly disjunctive belief systems within a single piece of fiction. […] Texts with central mysteries that seem to court a variety of explanations […] but […] finally resist the triumph of any one explanatory schema over its alternatives.” (Plotz, 321) Much to the reader’s simultaneous annoyance and pleasure, the truth won’t out in the end, as there are too many divergent truths to choose from. James Bruce Thomson expected “gibberish and ravings” (166) in Roderick’s memoir, but had to acknowledge a level of “aesthetic appreciation” and literary artistry in the work of a supposed criminal that he never would have expected. The insight into the criminal mind, if there is such a thing, is astounding, and one wonders how the author could have so much familiarity with the intricate justifications of so much depravity – without going so far as to say, it takes one to know one. Graeme Macrae Burnet has created a beautiful novel on the basis of a plethora of untruths, semi-truths and deceit, and one is led to ask whether the Keatsian heuristic that “beauty is truth, truth beauty” holds true (!) because in this particular case “that is all ye know on earth”, but by far NOT ‘all that you NEED to know’ to ever make sense of His Bloody Project.



BURNET, Graeme Macrae, His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, Glasgow, Saraband, 2015.

CAMPBELL, Ian, Kailyard: A New Assessment, Edinburgh, The Ramsay Head Press, 1981.

CAMPBELL, Ian & VOGEL, Brian, “The House with the Green Shutters and the Seeing Eye”, Studies in Scottish Literature 27 (1), 1992, accessed 12 April 2016.

COHN, Shari Ann, “A Survey on Scottish Second Sight” The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 59 (835), 1994, 385-400.

EHLAND, Christoph, “Satanic Dialogues: James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the Pathology of Dialogical Imagination”, Imaginary Dialogues in English: Explorations of a Literary Form, Till Kinzel and Jarmila Mildorf (eds), Heidelberg, Winter, 2012, 129-51.

GIBBON, Lewis Grassic, Sunset Song, London, Penguin, 2007, (1932).

GIOVANNELLI, Alessandro, “In Sympathy with Narrative Characters”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67 (1), 2009, 83-95.

MARGOLIN, Uri, “Theorising Narrative (Un) reliability: A Tentative Roadmap”, Unreliable Narration and Trustworthiness. Intermedial and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Vera Nünning (ed), Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, 2015, 31-58.

MCINTOSH, Rowena, “Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project: True Crime Tale Exploring the Life of a 19th Century Crofter”, The List, 30 October 2015, accessed 3 January 2016.

NABOKOV, Vladimir, The Annotated LOLITA Revised and Updated, Alfred Appel, Jr. (ed), London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993, (1955).

OLSEN, Greta, “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators”, Narrative 11,1, Columbus, Ohio State UP, 2003, 93-109.

PETTERSSON, Bo, “Kinds of Unreliability in Fiction: Narratorial, Focal, Expositional and Combined”, Unreliable Narration and Trustworthiness. Intermedial and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Vera Nünning (ed), Berlin/Boston, De Gruyter, 2015, 109-30.

PHELAN, James, “Estranging Unreliability, Bonding Unreliability, and the Ethics of ‘Lolita’”, Narrative 15, 2, Columbus, Ohio State UP, 2007, 222-38.

PLOTZ, John, “Review Essay: The Whole Hogg”, Novel: A Forum on Fiction 43 (2), 2010, 320-25.


1 The recurrent doubling of the various names and use of nicknames, of course, adds further confusion to the accounts presented.

2 Despite the author’s attempts not to dupe his readers into thinking that this was a tale about real, historical incidents, not everybody seems to have understood the whole book as a work of fiction. One review published in the List magazine, for instance, calls it a “true crime tale exploring the life of a 19th century crofter” (Mcintosh, n.p.), obviously failing to understand the meticulously composed set of narrative games at play. Granted, it is a mistake that is easy enough to make, if you read this multilayered, non-linear epistolary only fleetingly.

3 In the novel Roderick’s mother Una and sister Jetta are said to possess the second sight, which is “a special psychic ability of having prophetic visions, […] traditionally believed to be a natural inborn faculty of mind running in certain families in Scotland and other countries.” (Cohn, 385)


University of Paderborn, Germany.
University of Paderborn, Germany.
Robert Wirth is a research associate at the Department of English and American Studies of the University of Paderborn, Germany, lecturing in English language and British cultural studies. He received his MA from the Julius Maximilians University Würzburg, Germany. He has published in journals including The Journal of Scottish Thought and Litteraria Pragensia. His primary research interests lie in the field of Scottish literature, politics and culture, with a main focus on the utilisation of history and nostalgia in political campaigning.

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont sous Licence OpenEdition Books, sauf mention contraire.

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search