His Bloody Project: Author returns to the scene of the crime

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
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The village of Culduie seems an unlikely setting for a crime novel

The quiet west Highland settlement of Culduie seems an unlikely setting for a dark and heinous crime but on 10 August 1869 young Roddy Macrae walked along its only street intent on killing village constable Lachlan "Broad" Mackenzie.

Seventeen-year-old Roddy brutally murdered Lachlan and two other villagers also met violent ends.

The story of what led to the deaths and the trial of Roddy Macrae is told in vivid detail by Graeme Macrae Burnet in his Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel His Bloody Project.

The village of Culduie is real and so are many of the characters in the novel but the tale told by Burnet is a fiction.

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Culduie is nestled at the foot of the Carn nan Uaighean

The Scottish author goes to great lengths to convince his readers that the murders actually happened, claiming his interest was prompted by the discovery of a manuscript written by Roddy Macrae detailing the events leading up to the deaths.

He also provides evidence from the trial and the testimony of a leading criminal anthropologist of the period.

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The ugliness of the crime was in contrast to the beauty of the landscape

Burnet says: "I want the reader to be immersed in the world of the book, primarily to believe that the characters are real.

"Although I also want them to understand that it is a work of fiction.

"I take it as a compliment to the writing when people have regarded the documents as actually real."

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
Image caption,
Graeme Macrae Burnet returned to Culduie for the BBC Alba documentary

Burnet, who was brought up about 20 miles away in Lochcarron, travelled to Culduie for the BBC Alba documentary His Bloody Project.

He says he had no "malevolence" for the village but chose it for "purely geographical" reasons.

"In my novelist's head I had a very strong image of Roddy, especially when he sets out to commit his crimes, walking along a straight road connecting one end of a village to another," he says.

"Knowing the area around Wester Ross, as I do quite well, I had a look at a couple of villages but Culduie really fitted the image I already had in my head."

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
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Culduie remains a small Highland settlement

In Roddy Macrae's "found" memoir, the young crofter describes the village in which he was born, saying it is set back 300 yards from the sea and nestles at the foot of the Carn nan Uaighean.

It is accurate description of the real Culduie as it remains today.

Burnet says: "I go to great lengths to make the documents seem real so it would be strange not to use a real place.

"There is also a map in the book so even if I had changed the name of the village it would have been very apparent where it was."

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Image caption,
Burnet says he chose Culduie for "geographical reasons"

According to historian Gordon Cameron, Culduie is one of the youngest villages in Applecross, a peninsula on the west coast of Scotland that is still hard to reach 150 years later.

Mr Cameron says Culduie was originally a sheep farm, up to about 1840.

"There was a sheep farmer here and he wanted a better site so he came to an arrangement with the factor (the landlord's agent).

"The sheep farmer was given a place on the other side of Applecross, in Airigh Drisaig, and the people who were there came to live in Culduie."

"They had to cultivate the land. They were the first to work the crofts."

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Culduie is close to the coast and backed by hills

Burnet says he was "shocked" when he was researching the novel to discover the terrible conditions that crofters lived under.

He says: "Roddy and his family would have lived in a blackhouse with livestock inside in the winter.

"The living quarters would have been at the other end.

"There was a thatched roof and there was a fire burning 24 hours a day and the smoke slowly seeping out through the hatch. It must have been an oppressive atmosphere."

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Image caption,
The crofters worked small plots of land in the township

Crofters worked small plots of land rented from the landlord or laird, who usually owned vast tracts of Highland estates.

During his research Burnet came across a list of stringent regulations which governed the lives of crofters on nearby Skye in 1881.

He says: "Shellfish on the shore, the heather on the hills, and the seaware (seaweed) were the property of the laird and they could not be taken without his permission, through the factor or the ground officer."

The author says he is not sure how strictly the regulations were enforced but in the novel they lead to a shocking scene in which Roddy's father is made to return the seaweed he has spent all day collecting to the sea.

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
Image caption,
Cathy Macdonald presents the BBC Alba documentary

The laird of the Applecross estate at the time of the novel was Lord Middleton, who was a real person.

Burnet says he does know a lot about the real laird but he was not a "particularly notorious landlord" and the Applecross estate had not been part of the Highland Clearances.

He says: "The Middleton estate was a hunting estate, it hadn't been turned over for sheep farming, like many of the estates further north."

In the novel, it is not the laird who strikes fear into the crofters or even his factor.

Instead it is the village constable, who acts on local matters on behalf of the factor, a role zealously carried out by Lachlan "Broad".

His death is foretold by Roddy's sister Jetta, who, like her late mother, is "prone to visions" and "greatly concerned with omens and charms".

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
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Culduie lies about 20 miles from Lochcarron where Burnet was brought up

Burnet says: "We tend to associate 19th Century Highland communities with the church and Presbyterianism but I realised there was strong strain of folklore.

"People call it superstition but it is a belief system just as religion is a belief system so I would not want to place one above the other.

"There are vestiges of this in the way of life of the village and Roddy's sister Jetta and his mother Una are perceived to have the second sight and to have visions that may foretell the future.

"Whether that is actually happening or not is really only in the perception of the characters."

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The church at Cambusterrach that inspired Burnet

Roddy's father John is a devout Presbyterian and his belief in divine providence means he struggles to resist as fresh troubles are heaped on the family.

The church of Burnet's imagination was inspired by the building in Camusterrach, about a mile north of Culduie.

The fictional minister, the Reverend James Galbraith, is of little comfort to a family beset by tragedy on all sides.

Burnet says: "In my grandmother's house I came across this old book which is by a minister called Angus Galbraith who looks in the picture very much the stern Presbyterian, who I remember from my childhood in Lochcarron.

"I used this as a source for how he would preach at the funeral of Roddy's mother.

"Also he does not urge Roddy's father to resist the abuses that he suffers. It is that idea of providence and acceptance of one's fate, which I personally don't feel is very healthy."

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
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Applecross is the closest Roddy Macrae got to the big city

To the strict Presbyterian John Macrae, the inn at Applecross would be a "den of iniquity".

But to young Roddy it is the closest he ever comes to the temptations of city life.

The village is not much bigger than Culduie but the regular stream of people to the Big House, the residence of the laird, and to the inn gave Shore Street a bustle unlike anything Roddy had experienced.

The village held a Summer Gathering, a day of festivity when the whole community would come together.

This street, between the shore and the cottages, would be crammed with food and goods for sale.

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
Image caption,
Applecross House or the "Big House" was the home of Lord Middleton

The inn of Burnet's imagination is lively with people singing a local Gaelic song, Coille Mhuiridh.

In the book it has been translated in to English.

Burnet says: "I was really surprised and thrilled to find that my great-great-great grandfather was Donald Macrae, the bard of Applecross, who wrote this beautiful song, which I then put into the book."

Image source, Caledonia TV/BBC ALBA
Image caption,
Roddy leaves home and sets off for Lochcarron, or Jeantown as it was then known, but he is drawn back to Culduie

In the novel, Roddy's memoir ends with the death of Lachlan Broad but Burnet then turns his attention to the young crofter's detention in prison in Inverness and his trial.

Again he uses real-life characters such as criminal anthropologist James Bruce Thompson and John Murdoch, the journalist and land reformer, who founded the campaigning newspaper The Highlander.

Burnet says: "His was the first newspaper I think that put forward the more radical idea that the crofter should have some rights.

"He travelled around the Highlands and when he went to Skye he found that the crofting community was so cowed they would not even attend his meetings for fear of reprisals from the estates.

"This is again the mentality of fear of authority which you can see in the character of John Macrae."

In its examination of the character of the crofters and the conditions that existed in the Highlands the book is not entirely a crime novel.

It is about how the mind works, how the law is constructed and how the world of the Highlands is perceived.

The author says: "As a reader I don't particularly want the loose ends of a book or a film tied up for me. I want to work things out for myself.

"The structure of the book, with the different voices and viewpoints on the central events, really invites the reader to play detective, play psychologist for themselves."

Sar-sgeoil: His Bloody Project is on BBC Alba on Tuesday 19 September from 21:00.