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His Bloody (Lockdown) Project - Graeme Macrae Burnet

Shortly before lockdown, whilst on a visit to my parents’ house, I spotted a copy of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional novel His Bloody Project on a bookshelf. I had heard of the book and I knew it had received some acclaim after its release in 2015. I duly purloined it to add to my pile of things I might read at some point, and there the book sat for a few months as a combination of getting through lockdown, the day-job, and other displacement activities kept me from it.


Having worked my way through various back issues of The Big Issue and a fantasy novel by Steven Erikson a friend had suggested I read (Gardens of the Moon, in case you are interested, the epic introduction to an even more epic series), His Bloody Project worked its way to the top of the pile.


I finally picked up His Bloody Project on Tuesday evening.


I put it down in the wee small hours of Thursday morning.


It was gripping. It flowed. It had believable yet challenging characters. It had a quirky format that made it seem like a historian’s treatise. Its setting in a Gaelic crofting community, offering a window into a Highland historical moment in the Nineteenth century then culminating in a Scottish criminal trial, called to me; although judging by the acclaim on the inside cover you don’t need to be a half-Gael Scots lawyer with an interest in the Scottish land question to find this a good read. There are parts of the memoir of our hero/antihero that read like a nice coming of age story, but then you remember the book is called His Bloody Project and the book begins with bloody murder. You need to remind yourself that the main narrator has something of James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner about him, namely the dreaded unreliable narrator; sometimes you believe him, sometimes you want to believe him, and sometimes a detail or even a throwaway comment roundhouses you and makes you completely reassess everything.


I have always enjoyed historical fiction. The bonus of learning something about the Napoleonic Wars at the same time as reading about Richard Sharpe’s derring-do in the novels of Bernard Cornwell – albeit with Sharpe miraculously at the centre of the action, and then getting the girl – makes for a happy by-product of the time invested in a novel. Burnet’s book brings the same boon. You are reminded of God’s grip – or at least the grip of a version of God – on a district of Scotland that reformed hard. You learn about a real scientist of the era, speaking authoritatively about insanity and phrenology in a way that might be questioned somewhat now. You are taken to a 19th century criminal court, presided over by a real judge, which (barring the occasional wrinkle that can be forgiven for the sake of the narrative) makes for a plausible denouement, which stars all the (surviving) key characters in a nifty reprise. It is also sourced to an appropriate level: for example, highlighting the lack of Scottish criminal appeal process at the time, and noting this was only really rectified in the aftermath of the trial of Oscar Slater; that episode recently featured in a podcast by Andrew Tickell of Glasgow Caledonian University.


(Editor's note - you can access the podcast at the following link - https://www.spreaker.com/user/andrewtickell/the-trial-of-oscar-slater. I met Andrew at our Postgraduate Law Conference a few years ago - genuinely one of the nicest people I've met in the awkwardness of an academic conference setting).


Before the courtroom drama, a real Highland village in a real Highland Parish, with its all too real Highland pastor with a somewhat fatalistic approach to the welfare of his flock (think of Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies), forms the backdrop for the main events. The portrayal of a game of shinty at what might be thought of as a local gala day should also entertain fans and cynics of that game in equal measure. This is all astutely set in an era prior to the introduction of full crofting tenure in the Highlands and Islands such that the injustices meted out on our [anti]hero’s family (including a reduction of his holding by a high-handed bully of a local official, and that same nemesis denying the family usage of seaweed to fertilise the croft) are perfectly credible.


Back in June, in the mid-lockdown era, Kapil Summan at Scottish Legal News got in touch with me to ask for my favourite legal (or rather law-related) book. Historical fiction fan that I am, I plonked for C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. (Thanks to my friend Andrew Bone and my namesake uncle Malcolm for introducing me to then supplying me with those books back in 2013.) When Kapil had ingathered the various suggestions from figures in Scottish legal life (assuming I can be so bold to include myself in that description), as digested here, it transpired that the advocate Megan Dewart was also a Shardlake fan. I am not sure my recent reading of His Bloody Project would instantly oust my choice of Shardlake, but had I known what I know now, and known that Shardlake had another vote, I might just have selected another book.


I have tried my best to pitch this quasi-book review in a way that offers no spoilers – and don’t worry, the book makes immediately clear there has been a violent episode in Culduie, and the contents page at the beginning indicates this will culminate in a trial. If anyone wants to read a bit more (with more spoiler potential), this BBC report that accompanied a BBC Alba programme could be of interest. As to whether I would recommend it to everyone, let me put it like this: the BBFC would probably give this at least a 15 rating. There will be challenging moments for some readers, no doubt. Some might devour it in one sitting though. It took me two.

(Editor addition - Graeme recorded a video about His Bloody Project for the Scottish Book Trust YouTube channel, which can be viewed below)


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