Seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae lives in a tiny and extremely remote crofting community near the coast of the Applecross peninsula in Wester Ross. It is 1869 and the course of Roderick's life is set. His mother has died in childbirth and his pious and violent father sees Roderick as little more than a labourer whose role is to help the family eke out an existence from their meagre croft. Roderick is a bright lad, and his schoolmaster believes he has the potential to make more of himself: but his father dismisses any prospect of a life other than the one Roderick has always known. Things are far from idyllic, and the appointment of a new constable, tasked with maintaining order on behalf of the landowner, brings to a head tensions that have been simmering within the community for years. One day Roderick leaves his home with two farming implements. He walks the short distance to the other end of the settlement, where he kills three people in the most brutal way imaginable.
Modern visitors to Applecross rarely see beyond the sublime location and amazing views out towards Raasay and the Isle of Skye. "His Bloody Project" by Graeme Macrae Burnet is an excellent novel that recreates in a compelling way the life of a community on the edge of subsistence and for whom the sheer hard grind of day to day existence is all they will ever know. The novel is in the form of a series of "discovered" historical documents which describe the events of August 1869, and the circumstances that led to them, from a number of points of view. At the core of the book is "The Account of Roderick Macrae", written while he was in jail awaiting trial. This is compelling stuff in its own right, but becomes doubly so when set against the context of the statements of local residents; the medical reports on the victims' injuries; and the opinion of the resident surgeon at Perth Prison who examined Roderick and assessed his sanity. And then we move on to a detailed account of a trial in which the facts are never in question, simply whether Roderick can be held responsible for his actions or not. The result is a deeply satisfying read that leaves the reader with a much deeper understanding of a way of life long gone: and an intriguing sense of uncertainty about the real reason for the murders.