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Read an Extract from Man Booker Prize-Shortlisted His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
Graeme Macrae Burnet

We are thrilled that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

As soon as we read the book we knew we had to publish it. ‘His Bloody Project explores primary ideas about storytelling and truth-telling,’ our publisher Michael Heyward wrote, ‘about justice, sanity, reason and feeling, as if the form of the novel was being put together before your eyes. It is a puzzle of a book but you will have to experience for yourself the brooding drumbeat of its narrative. The moment I finished I wanted to begin again to discover where I had been and how Graeme Macrae Burnet managed to create his masterful tale.’

Set 150 years ago in a remote Scottish Highlands community, a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae is arrested for a brutal triple murder. A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but the police and the courts must decide what drove him to the murders. In this compelling and original novel, using the words of the accused, personal testimony, transcripts from the trial and newspaper reports, Graeme Macrae Burnet tells a moving story about the provisional nature of the truth, even when the facts are plain.

Read an extract below.

My mother died in the month of April and some weeks later I was alone on the shieling, charged with keeping watch over the sheep and cattle grazing there. The afternoon was very warm. The sky was clear and the hills across the Sound were various hues of purple. The air was so still that it was possible to hear the lapping of the sea and the occasional cry of children playing far below in the village. The animals which I had been charged to watch were rendered slothful by the heat and did not stray far from one hour to the next. The stirks lazily flicked at horseflies with their tails.

I was lying back in the heather, watching the slow progress of the clouds across the sky. I was glad to be away from the croft and from my father, whom I had left leaning on the handle of his cas chrom, puffing on his pipe. I pictured my mother next to him, bent over the ground, thinning weeds from the crops, singing to herself as she always did, her hair falling over her face. It was some moments before I realised that she was not there, and was instead beneath the earth of the burial ground in Camusterrach. I had often come across the carcasses of animals, and I wondered whether the process of decomposition had already taken hold of her body. I felt quite keenly then the reality that I would never see her again and closed my eyes to prevent myself from weeping. I tried to concentrate my thoughts on the sounds of rustling grass and the bleating of the sheep, but I was unable to banish the image of my mother’s decaying body. An insect landed on my face and this had the effect of rousing me from my thoughts. I waved it away with my hand and raised myself onto my elbows, blinking in the sunlight. The hornet then landed on my forearm. I did not draw my arm away, but slowly raised it to the level of my eyes, so that the tiny creature loomed larger than the cattle in the distance. Mr Gillies had, once, with the aid of a diagram drawn on the blackboard, taught us the names for the parts of insects, and these pleasing words I now recited: thorax, spiracle, funiculus, ovipositor, mandible. The hornet negotiated the dark hairs on my arm, as though uncertain of the terrain upon which it had alighted. It was with the detachment of a scientist that I watched the creature halt and bring its gaster down on my skin. I instinctively slapped my hand down upon it and brushed the little corpse from my arm. The insect’s tail had left a tiny barb in my skin and the area around quickly swelled into a pink bleb.

I decided to climb to the waterfall further up the Càrn to bathe my sting, now and again casting a glance over my shoulder to check on the livestock. The waterfall was among a cluster of birch, with a deep pool at its well. It was cool among the trees. The rocks were worn smooth by the centuries’ passage of water. I cupped my hands into the pool to take a drink, then splashed water over my face and head. I took off my clothes and stepped into the water. I closed my eyes and let myself float on my back. Light flickered orange through my eyelids. I listened to the roar of water on water and felt that when I emerged Culduie, Aird-Dubh and everything else would be gone, and I would be entirely alone in the world. I wished only that when I opened my eyes Jetta would be standing on a rock, stepping out of her clothes and joining me in the pool. I opened my eyes and watched the droplets of water fly up like sparks from a fire. I would have happily remained there for the rest of the afternoon, but I was conscious of my duty to the livestock. I allowed the sun to dry my skin, before dressing and setting off down the hillside.  

As the roar of the water subsided, I heard the sound of a sheep. Sheep are naturally in the habit of conversing among themselves, but this was the pained bleating of a single animal, akin to that of a ewe that has lost her lamb. I stood on a hummock and surveyed the hillside, but I could not see the animal in question. A hundred yards or so up a steep incline, the hillside yielded to a boggy plateau, invisible from below, where our peat is cut. I clambered towards it, the bleating growing ever more intense. When I emerged over the ridge, I found a distressed ram, lying on its side, half submerged in the mire. Even in summer the bog remained gluey and treacherous. Older folk in the village were wont to warn children that if they strayed into the bog they would be sucked into the bowels of the earth where they would be devoured by trolls. As a child I had accepted this as fact and although I no longer believed in trolls, I remained wary of the bog. The animal flailed its free limbs uselessly, succeeding only in working itself further into the slough. As I neared the stricken beast, keeping to the heathery outcrops upon which it was safe to stand, I whispered soothing sounds in an attempt to calm it. The sheep turned in my direction, like a sick old woman too weak to raise her head from the pillow. I felt no pity for the beast, only a kind of loathing for its stupidity. A large crow landed on a nearby hummock and studied us with interest. I assessed my possible courses of action. The first of these was to return to the village to fetch a rope and someone to assist me in pulling the beast from the quagmire. I dismissed this idea as, even if the sheep had not been drowned by the time I returned, the crow and his brethren would certainly have set about it. This course of action would also entail disclosing that the ram had strayed into the bog while under my supervision, an eventuality I preferred to avoid. There was thus no alternative to rescuing the sheep unaided.

Without further delay, I knelt on the edge of the bog and, spreading my weight as widely as possible, reached out towards the sheep’s haunch. The mud smelt sour. Clouds of flies flew up in a haze from the fetid surface water. I managed to grasp the sheep’s hoof, but not firmly enough to gain proper purchase. I tested the ground between us and tentatively manoeuvred myself onto my backside, mud seeping into my breeches. The crow observed my progress with interest. I was now able to take hold of the curled horn on the beast’s head. I levered myself backwards and heaved, feeling the muscles at the back of my thighs tauten. The sheep kicked its legs with renewed vigour and emitted a fearful bleating. Then the bog gave a slabbery belch and released its grip on the animal. I collapsed backwards onto the heather, spattered in black mud. In my relief, I laughed out loud. The freed beast struggled in vain to get to its feet and I saw that the hind leg which had been submerged in the bog was dislocated and protruding from the ram’s body at a wholly unnatural angle. The animal collapsed onto its side, its uninjured legs scrabbling in the air. Its bleating continued unabated. The crow emitted a sharp caw, as if in mockery of my efforts. I formed a handful of mud into a ball and threw it in the direction of the evil bird, but it merely watched it plop into the bog, before fixing me again with a haughty stare. I had no choice but to swiftly deliver the sheep from its suffering. It may be a simple matter for a gentleman to dispatch a deer or a grouse by squeezing the trigger of a gun, but to do to death an animal with one’s own hands or with a manual tool, no matter how well adapted to the purpose, is an entirely different matter. I have always shrunk from killing so much as a hen, and do not understand why educated men regard the killing of living creatures as sport. Nevertheless, in these circumstances, it was my duty to end the life of the stricken beast. I considered straddling it and by gripping the horns, twisting back its head to break its neck, but I did not know whether I would have the strength for such an act. I then spied a peat iron protruding from the opposite side of the bog. I fetched the tool and used it, on my return, to shoo away the crow, which flapped a few feet into the air before hopping back to its former vantage point.

‘Are you quite comfortable?’ I asked.

The crow replied with a cackle that I should hasten to the job in hand as he was impatient for his repast.  

The head of the iron had a good heft. The sheep looked at me. I scanned the hillside, but there was no one to be seen. Without further delay, I raised the iron above my head and brought it down with as much force as I could muster. The beast must have moved or I may have misjudged the trajectory as my blow only succeeded in catching the beast on the snout, the blade of the iron splintering the bone. The animal snorted, choking on blood and bone, and made renewed and pitiful efforts to get to its feet. I took aim for a second time and brought the iron down on the top of the beast’s head with such force that my feet left the ground. Blood sprayed into the air, spattering my face. The iron was embedded in the sheep’s skull and it took a considerable effort to extricate it. This done I turned away and brought up the contents of my stomach, steadying myself on the handle of the tool. By the time I recovered myself the crow had taken up residence of the dead beast’s skull and was making short work of its eyes. Two of his fellows had joined him and were strutting around making a methodical inspection of the carcass.

The marking on the fleece revealed to whom the sheep belonged, and it was with a strong sense of dread that I returned to the village.

That same evening a meeting was held at the home of Kenneth Murchison. Mr Murchison was known to everyone as Kenny Smoke, on account of the fact that he was never seen without a pipe between his lips. He was a burly man, who had to stoop to pass through a door. He had a wide handsome face with a black moustache as thick as a broom-head. He had a bellowing voice and addressed women in a loud cheerful way, just as if he was speaking to a man. I never saw my mother so lively as when Kenny Smoke called. He was a great teller of tales and was able to recite long passages of poetry from memory, and during the black months it was in his house that the people gathered for a ceilidh. As a boy I was enthralled by his stories of ghosts and unchancy beings. My father was wary of Kenny Smoke, as he was of all men whose minds he said were filled with worldly things. His wife, Carmina, was a striking woman, with fine features, large dark eyes and a slender figure. Her father was a merchant in Kyle of Lochalsh and Kenny Smoke had met her at market there. It was unheard of for such a woman to marry into a village like Culduie, and it was often said (although I did not understand what was meant by it) that Kenny Smoke must have been endowed with a great gift in order to tempt her from such a metropolis.

The Smokes had six daughters, which was regarded as a great misfortune. A succession of old crones of the parish had offered remedies for this affliction, but Kenny Smoke turned them all away, proclaiming that any one of his daughters was worth ten of another man’s sons. The Smokes’ house was large and spacious. There was a chimney at the gable end and Kenny Smoke had constructed a large hearth, around which were arranged a number of upholstered chairs. A range of fine crockery was displayed on a dresser, built by a carpenter in Kyle and transported to Culduie by boat. Kenny Smoke and his wife slept in a chamber at the back of the house and there was a separate chamber for their daughters. After his marriage, Kenny Smoke had rented extra land and built a byre for his cattle, saying that he would not have any of his girls living under the same roof as livestock. He always referred to his wife as one of his girls, and on summer evenings they could often be seen walking hand-in-hand to the point at Aird-Dubh. If my father saw them he would mutter that, ‘She has to hold his hand to stop him doing the Devil’s work.’

In the middle of the living quarters was a long table at which the Smokes took their meals. Around this table were assembled myself and my father; Lachlan Broad, who was the owner of the sheep I had killed; and his brother, Aeneas. Kenny Smoke himself sat at the head of the table. There was nothing of the convivial atmosphere that usually attended gatherings in the Smoke household. Lachlan Broad had refused Kenny Smoke’s offer of a dram and sat quite erect with his hands clasped on the table in front of him, the right enclosing the fist of his left, gripping and ungripping it as if his hands were a beating heart. His gaze was directed at the dresser behind my father and me. Broad, it should be said, was a most impressive specimen of the human race. He stood six feet tall, with wide shoulders and great meaty hands. He had been known to carry the carcass of a stag, which two men might struggle to lift, the length of the village. His narrow eyes were pale blue and his great heavy head was topped with thick yellow hair, which grew to his shoulders, this colouring on account, it was said, of some Norse blood on his mother’s side of the family. He never appeared to feel the cold and even in the black months strode around in an open chemise. As if he were not unmistakeable enough, he habitually wore a yellow neckerchief, tied at his throat. His brother was of smaller stature, plump with a ruddy complexion and small bird-like eyes. He had little to say for himself, but habitually brayed like a tinker’s ass at whatever remark his kinsman made. Aeneas sat at his brother’s shoulder, his left ankle resting on his right knee, and was absorbed in the business of cleaning the muck from his boot with a pocketknife.

Kenny Smoke puffed quietly on his pipe and constantly smoothed the whiskers of his great moustache with his thumb and middle finger. My father, whose pipe remained in his pocket, held his cap in both hands in his lap and stared at the table in front of him. We were awaiting the arrival of Calum Finlayson, a boatman from Camusterrach, who at that time held the position of constable to the parish.* It remained bright and sunny outside, which only served to emphasise the sombre atmosphere in the house. Presently, Mr Finlayson made his appearance and greeted the company in a cheerful manner. Kenny Smoke stood up and shook his hand heartily and made some enquiries about the wellbeing of his family. The constable accepted the offer of a cup of tea and Carmina Smoke was summoned. She busied herself preparing the tea and setting out a cup and saucer in front of each of us, even though it was only Mr Finlayson who was wanting it. Lachlan Broad observed her intensely, as if appraising a piece of livestock at market.

When the tea had been poured and Carmina Smoke had retired to the back chamber, Calum Finlayson opened the proceedings.

‘Let us see whether we cannot settle this matter amicably, gentlemen,’ he said.

Kenny Smoke nodded earnestly and said, ‘Indeed.’

Lachlan Broad exhaled noisily through his nose, and his brother emitted his braying laugh. Calum Finlayson ignored this rude sound and, in a gentle tone, requested that I relate as precisely as possible what had occurred that afternoon. I felt quite anxious in front of the assembled men, but told the story to the best of my ability, omitting only the interlude at the waterfall, which could reasonably be construed as a neglect of my duty to keep watch over the livestock. I included the detail of being stung by the hornet, calculating that it might be thought that it was this that had distracted me when the ram had wandered off. I also stated that when I found the sheep, its eyes had already been put out, this in order to stress the suffering of the beast and my lack of choice in acting as I did.

When I had finished, Mr Finlayson thanked me for my account. I had kept my eyes all this time on the table in front of me, but thinking that this might be the end of the ordeal I now raised them. Lachlan Broad shifted his weight in his seat and gave a dismissive snort through his nose. He leaned forward as if intending to speak, but Mr Finlayson raised a finger in his direction to silence him.

‘Was it not your duty, Roddy,’ he asked, ‘to keep watch over the animals for the duration of the afternoon?’

‘It was,’ I replied.

‘And did you keep watch?’

‘I did, Mr Finlayson.’ I was suddenly afraid that someone might have seen me make my way towards the waterfall and was about to be brought forth to contradict my story.

‘So how can it be,’ asked Mr Finlayson, his tone still placid, ‘that the sheep was able to wander off into the bog?’

‘I cannot say,’ I replied.

‘Perhaps your attention wandered,’ he said.

‘If the sheep strayed while I was guarding it, then my attention must have wandered,’ I said. I was relieved that there did not appear to be any witness to appear against me. ‘I wish to say that I am sorry for the suffering of the sheep and I am willing to do what is required to compensate Mr Mackenzie for its loss.’

Mr Finlayson nodded as if he was pleased by my remark. Kenny Smoke took his pipe from his mouth and said, ‘We all know that it’s not possible to keep track of fifty sheep on a hillside. The boy has said he’s sorry, should we not leave it at that?’

Lachlan Broad turned his gaze upon him. ‘I note that it is not your sheep that has been bludgeoned to death, Mr Murchison, and while we all appreciate your hospitality, I do not see that your opinion has any bearing on this matter.’ His brother sniggered and shifted his weight on his seat.

Mr Finlayson raised his hand to quell any further discussion and addressed his comments to Lachlan Broad. ‘Nevertheless, Mr Murchison is quite right to state that it is no easy task to keep track of the livestock and if a mistake has been made then it was an honest mistake and no malice has been intended.’

‘There is malice in abundance in that boy,’ said Broad, directing a thick finger at me.

Mr Finlayson stated that we were not there to make insulting remarks, but that if Mr Mackenzie now wished to put some questions to me, he was free to do so.

Broad satisfied himself by muttering something about the impossibility of getting a word of truth out of me.

Mr Finlayson allowed a few moments of silence to settle on the room and then stated that if everyone was satisfied with what they had heard, it fell to him to determine on the matter. ‘I propose,’ he said, ‘that for the loss of the ram, John Macrae pay thirty-five shillings in compensation to Lachlan Mackenzie, that being the price at market for such a beast.’

‘And what about the winter feed and labour I have incurred in rearing the animal?’ said Broad.

Calum Finlayson appeared to give this question due consideration. ‘Had you sold the beast at market, these costs would not have been restored to you. Furthermore, in addition to the thirty-five shillings, you also have the fleece and flesh of the animal.’

‘Aye, what’s left of them after the crows had set about it,’ said Broad.

Mr Finlayson ignored this remark and turned to my father to ask if his determination was acceptable. My father indicated with a brief nod that it was.

‘It seems to me,’ persisted Lachlan Broad, ‘that you are letting the boy off scot-free. Surely there should be some additional punishment.’

‘What would you suggest?’ said the constable. ‘A public flogging?’

I had already received, in front of my siblings, a most thorough beating from my father, but I did not think it was my place to divulge this. Nor did my father see fit to mention it.

‘I can think of worse ideas,’ said Broad, fixing his gaze on me. ‘Perhaps we might beat some truth out of the runt.’

‘Aye, beat some truth out the runt,’ repeated Aeneas Mackenzie.

Calum Finlayson stood up and leant across the table towards the two men. ‘I did not come here to listen to foul language and insults,’ he said. ‘The boy has owned up to his deed and should be commended for doing so. I have proposed a settlement in your favour. If it is not acceptable, I suggest that you take the matter to the police.’

Lachlan Broad glowered at him. The suggestion was quite impractical as such an action would involve a journey of seventy miles to Dingwall, and, moreover, any failure to accept the adjudication of the constable would be poorly received in the community. ‘Perhaps the factor would be interested in hearing about what has occurred.’

‘I can assure you,’ said Mr Finlayson, ‘that the factor has more important matters to concern himself with than the loss of a sheep. As Mr Macrae has accepted my proposal I suggest you do the same.’

Lachlan Broad indicated with a gesture of his hand that he accepted the judgement. My father, who had barely spoken during the proceedings, then raised a craggy finger. The constable asked him if there was something he wished to say.

‘The matter of payment,’ said my father.

‘Yes?’ said Mr Finlayson.

With some difficulty my father explained that while he accepted the settlement, he did not, at that time, have thirty-five shillings, nor anything like it.

This caused Lachlan Broad and his brother great mirth. ‘I am sorry to hear that, John Black,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I could take that gloomy daughter of yours instead. I’m sure I could put a smile on her face.’

‘We could both put a smile on her gloomy face,’ put in Aeneas Mackenzie, with a stupid giggle.

Kenny Smoke rose from his seat and leaned across the table. ‘I will not have such talk in my house, Lachlan Broad.’

‘Perhaps you would rather I had one of your daughters,’ said Broad. ‘The eldest is quite ripe now.’

Kenny Smoke became quite red in the face and I was sure he was about to fly at him, but Calum Finlayson rose from his seat and placed a hand on his chest.

Lachlan Broad broke into a laugh, his arms folded across his chest. Kenny Smoke remained standing for some moments, glaring at Broad, who smirked back at him. My father stared at the table in front of him. Under the table I could see his hand worrying at the coarse cloth of his breeches.

Eventually, Kenny Smoke resumed his seat and Mr Finlayson, no doubt anxious to bring the proceedings to a close, continued, ‘Given Mr Macrae’s circumstances, I propose that the sum agreed be paid at a rate of one shilling per week until it is settled.’

Lachlan Broad shrugged his shoulders. ‘So be it,’ he said in a mocking tone, ‘I would not wish to be the cause of any hardship to my poor neighbour here.’

And in this way the discussions were concluded. Lachlan Broad pushed back his chair and slapped his brother twice on the thigh to indicate that they were leaving. When they were gone Kenny Smoke let go a long breath and uttered an oath which does not bear repeating here. Mr Finlayson told me that I had conducted myself well. Kenny Smoke went to the dresser and fetched a bottle of whisky and four glasses, which he placed on the table between us. I was gratified that he had included a glass for me, but, before the whisky could be poured, my father stood up and thanked Mr Finlayson for the fairness of his ruling, though I could not help but think that he would have happily agreed to Lachlan Broad’s proposal to have me flogged. Kenny Smoke begged him to share a dram, but he refused. Father then prodded me on the arm and we left. I feared a second beating when we got home, but I was merely deprived of my supper. I lay on my bunk picturing Kenny Smoke and Calum Finlayson drinking whisky and laughing about the incident while my father nursed his pipe in the gathering gloom.

His Bloody Project

His Bloody Project

Graeme Macrae Burnet

* The village or parish constable was an official elected by members of the community to serve as a go-between between the factor and the people. It was his role to enforce the crofters’ terms of tenancy and to settle disputes. The factor, in turn, was the steward or agent charged with the running of the estate on behalf of the laird. The factor was, generally speaking, an unpopular and feared figure.


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