Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Blood and Soil

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Blood and Soil

Article excerpt

His Bloody Project

Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband, 288pp. 8.99 [pounds sterling]

The remote rural corners of any country will always offer a literary backdrop for crimes whose motives are deep-rooted and implications far-reaching. But don't be misled: Graeme Macrae Burnet's second published work, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted His Bloody Project, is a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel. There is a substantial difference. Where more formulaic authors might begin with a body and triangulate outwards, casting a narrative net that takes in motive and procedure on the way to redemption, Macrae Burnet favours something altogether more evolved.

Here, the deed is spelled out from page one: a triple murder in 1869, committed by the teenager Roderick Macrae in the isolated nine-house hamlet of Culduie, in the Scottish Highland county of Ross-shire. This is crofting country in an era of Presbyterianism --humble, austere, repetitive--and Culduie is a character in its own right.

Although only 300 yards from the sea, the hamlet prefers to look inland, where the inhabitants graze sheep and cut peat from the purpling heathered hillside. With Roddy Macrae's dour, devout and recently widowed father having narrowly avoided a watery grave in a boating disaster, fishing here is considered a doomed pursuit. Some trading takes place with the nearby hamlet of Aird-Dubh; Roddy, however, deems them slovenly folk, whose men are "devoted to the unrestrained consumption of whisky, while their womenfolk are notoriously wanton".

At the heart of the novel lies a social system that has subjugated land workers for centuries. It is one in which the crofters live clustered together and in permanent rent arrears to the laird at the big house, whose miles of beautiful emptiness are used for the folly of hosting stag shoots for vulgar incomers. This culture of tied houses and blood sports overseen by gamekeepers and gillies remains today.

More learned and mentally gifted than his passive father, yet viewed as a suspect after slaughtering a drowning sheep, Roddy feels that his conflict is not with the landed gentry but with an overbearing neighbour, Lachlan Broad (the owner of the dead sheep), who is also the locally elected constable, employed to enforce the laird's rules. A bully and a bureaucrat, Broad tightens the screws on the Macrae household over a series of perceived transgressions, and their small world becomes smaller still as minor punishments--a fraction of land taken away here, a fine or two imposed there--slowly suffocate a community governed by order, borders and good relations. …

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