Graeme Macrae Burnet

Author of His Bloody Project. Ageing existentialist. Black pudding aficionado.

Born in Kilmarnock, Scotland. Based in Glasgow, Scotland, UK

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Graeme was brought up Kilmarnock, Ayrshire and now lives in Glasgow. He has also lived in the Czech Republic, France, Portugal and London.

A former TV researcher, English teacher and bookseller, his French-set debut The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau was a cult hit and won him a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. His second novel, His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker prize and won the Satire Prize for Fiction. It has been variously described as "astonishing", "fiendishly readable" , "spellbinding" and "masterly", and is set to be translated into more than a dozen languages.

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Extract: His Bloody Project

From The Account of Roderick Macrae 

(written in Inverness Gaol, September 1869)

I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, 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.

Mr Sinclair has instructed me to set out, with as much clarity as possible, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Lachlan Mackenzie and the others, and this I will do to the best of my ability, apologising in advance for the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style.

I shall begin by saying that I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering my father from the tribulations 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.

My name is Roderick John Macrae. I was born in 1852 and have lived all my days in the village of Culduie in Ross-shire. My father, John Macrae, is a crofter of good standing in the parish, who does not deserve to be tarnished with the ignominy of the actions for which I alone am responsible. My mother, Una, was born in 1832 in the township of Toscaig, some two miles south of Culduie. She died in the birthing of my brother, Iain, in 1868, and it is this event which, in my mind, marks the beginning of our troubles. 

* * * * *


by J. Bruce Thomson

James Bruce Thomson (1810–1873) was Resident Surgeon at the General Prison for Scotland in Perth. In this capacity he examined around 6,000 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. 

I arrived in Inverness on the 23rd day of August 1869, and spent the night at an inn where I was met by Mr Andrew Sinclair, advocate to a young crofter accused of murdering three of his neighbours. Mr Sinclair had written to me expressing his desire to have my opinion, as the country’s pre-eminent authority on such matters, as to the sanity or otherwise of his client. We are none of us entirely immune to such appeals to our vanity and, as the case had several interesting features, not least the alleged intelligence of the perpetrator, I consented and travelled from Perth as soon as my duties permitted.

From the beginning I found Mr Sinclair not to be a man of the highest calibre, which was hardly unexpected given the limited opportunities for educated discourse in a backwater such as Inverness. He was entirely unversed in current thinking in the field of Criminal Anthropology and I spent much of the evening outlining to him some of my continental colleagues’ recent innovations in this discipline. Naturally, he was anxious to discuss his client, but I bound him to silence, wishing to reach my own conclusions unencumbered by prejudicial thoughts, no matter how ill informed.

The following morning I accompanied Mr Sinclair to Inverness gaol to inspect the prisoner, and I again directed the advocate not to speak of his client before I had the opportunity to examine him. Mr Sinclair preceded me into the cell, in order, he said, to ascertain whether his client was willing to receive me. I found this a most irregular occurrence as I have never before heard of a prisoner being consulted about who may or may not enter his cell, but I attributed it to the advocate’s lack of experience in dealing with cases of this nature. Mr Sinclair remained some minutes inside the cell before informing the gaoler that I might be admitted. From the first instance, I found the relations between advocate and client to be quite unorthodox. They conversed together, not as a professional man and a criminal, but rather in the manner of two acquaintances somehow in cahoots. Nevertheless, the dialogue between them provided me with an opportunity to observe the prisoner before commencing my examination proper.

My initial impression of R— M— was not entirely negative. In his general bearing, he was certainly of low physical stock, but he was not as repellent in his features as the majority of the criminal class, perhaps on account of not breathing the rank air of his urban brethren. His complexion, however, was pallid, and his eyes, while alert, were close-set and capped by thick eyebrows. His beard grew sparsely, although this may have been due to his relative youth, rather than any hereditary deficiency. In his discourse with Mr Sinclair, he appeared quite lucid, but I noted that the advocate’s questions were frequently of a leading nature, requiring the prisoner only to offer confirmation of what had been suggested to him.

I dismissed the advocate and in the presence of the gaoler directed the prisoner to remove his clothes. This he did without protest. He stood before me quite without shame, and I commenced a detailed examination of his person. He stood 5 feet 4½ inches tall, and was of smaller than average build. His chest was disproportionately protruding – what in layman’s terms would be called ‘pigeon-chested’ – and his arms longer than average. The upper- and forearms were well developed, no doubt as a result of his life of physical labour. The hands were large and calloused, with exceptionally long fingers, but there was no evidence of webbing or other abnormalities. His torso was hirsute from the nipples to the pubis, but he was quite hairless on the back and shoulders. His penis was large, though within the normal range of dimensions, and the testicles properly descended. His legs were scrawny, and when asked to walk the length of the cell (admittedly not a great distance) his gait appeared somewhat rolling or lop-sided, suggesting an asymmetry in his bearing. This may have been due to some injury sustained at an earlier time, but when asked, the prisoner was unable to furnish me with any explanation.

I carried out a detailed inspection of the subject’s cranium and physiognomy. The forehead and brow were large and heavy, while the skull was flat on top and markedly obtruding to the back. On the whole, the cranium was quite mis-shapen and not dissimilar to many of those I had examined in my capacity as prison surgeon. The ears were considerably larger than average, with large, flattened lobes.

As to the visage: the eyes, as already noted, were small and deep-set, but alert and darting. The nose was protuberant, though admirably straight; the lips thin and pale. Likewise, the cheekbones were high and prominent as, has recently been pointed out, is often the case among the criminal breed. The teeth were quite healthy and the canines not preternaturally developed.

R— M— thus shared a certain number of traits with the inmates of the General Prison (these being chiefly, the mis-shapen cranium, unappealing facial features, pigeon chest, elongated arms and ears). In other respects, however, he was a healthy and well-developed specimen of the human race and if one were to observe him in his natural environment, one would not instinctively mark him out as a member of the criminal class. From this point of view, he formed an interesting subject and one which I was curious to study further.

I allowed the prisoner to dress and put a few simple questions to him. He was entirely unresponsive. He appeared at times not to have heard my questions, or pretended not to have done so. I suspect he was well aware of what was being asked, but refused to answer, for motives of his own. Such a strategy did, however, suggest that the subject was not an outright imbecile and was capable of some reasoning, flawed or otherwise. Nevertheless, I saw no purpose in prolonging my enquiries in the face of this stubborn attitude, and had the gaoler release me from the cell.

Mr Sinclair was waiting outside and questioned me impatiently as soon as I emerged. His manner was less that of a professional man than of a nervous parent eager for information about his child’s health. As we advanced along the passage I outlined my findings to him.

‘But as to his state of mind?’ he asked.

I was aware that the advocate was anxious for me to pronounce on this question, so that he might offer a plea of insanity to the court, thus saving his client from the gallows, and perhaps not incidentally garnering a good deal of renown for himself. Nevertheless, at this point, I refused to venture an opinion.