WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, chapter one of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project
The Account of Roderick Macrae
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, Oona, 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.
Culduie is a township of nine houses, situated in the parish of Applecross. It lies half a mile or so south of Camusterrach where the church and the school in which I received my education are located. On account of the inn and the emporium in the village of Applecross, few travellers venture as far as Culduie. At the head of Applecross Bay is the Big House, where Lord Middleton resides, and during the sporting season entertains his guests. There are no spectacles or entertainments to detain visitors in Culduie. The road past our township leads to Toscaig and to nowhere beyond, and in consequence we have little contact with the outside world.
Culduie is set back some three hundred yards from the sea and nestles at the foot of Càrn nan Uaighean. Between the village and the road is a tract of fertile ground, which is cultivated by the people. Higher into the mountains are the summer grazings and the peat bogs that supply us with our fuel. Culduie is somewhat protected from the worst of the climate by the Aird-Dubh peninsula, which projects into the sea, forming a natural harbour. The village of Aird-Dubh is poorly served with arable land and the people there are mostly concerned with fishing for their livelihoods. A certain amount of exchange of labour and goods takes place between these two communities, but, aside from such necessary contact, we keep our distance from one another. According to my father, Aird-Dubh folk are slovenly in their habits and of low morals, and he has dealings with them only on sufferance. In common with all those engaged in the fishing trade, the men are devoted to the unrestrained consumption of whisky, while their womenfolk are notoriously wanton. Having been schooled with children from this village, I can vouch for the fact that while there is little to distinguish them physically from our own people, they are devious and not to be trusted.
At the junction of the track connecting Culduie to the road is the house of Kenny Smoke, which, being the only one boasting a slate roof, is the finest in the village. The other eight houses are constructed from stones reinforced with turf and have thatch roofs. Each house has one or two glazed windows. My own family’s house is the northernmost of the village and sits somewhat at an angle, so that while the other houses look out towards the bay, ours faces the village. The home of Lachlan Broad is situated at the opposite end of the track, and, after that of Kenny Smoke, is the second largest in the village. Aside from those mentioned, the houses are occupied by two further families of the clan Mackenzie; the MacBeath family; Mr and Mrs Gillanders, whose children have all gone; our neighbour Mr Gregor and his family; and Mrs Finlayson, a widow. Aside from the nine houses there are various outbuildings, many of quite rude construction, which are used for housing livestock, storing tools and such like. That is the extent of our community.
Our own house comprises two chambers. The greater part consists of the byre and, to the right of the door, our living quarters. The floor slopes downwards a little towards the sea, which prevents the dung from the animals running into our quarters. The byre is partitioned by a balustrade constructed from scraps of wood gathered from the shore. In the middle of the living area is the fire and, beyond that, the table at which we take our meals. Aside from the table, our furniture consists of two sturdy benches, my father’s armchair and a large wooden dresser, which belonged to my mother’s family before she was married.
I sleep on a bunk with my younger brother and sister at the far end of the room. The second chamber at the back of the house is where my father and elder sister sleep; Jetta in a box-bed my father constructed for this purpose. I am envious of my sister’s bed and often dreamt of lying with her there, but it is warmer in the main chamber and in the black months when the animals are indoors, I take pleasure in the soft sounds they make. We keep two milk cows and six sheep, which is what is allowed to us by the division of the common grazings.
I should state from the outset that some bad blood existed between my father and Lachlan Mackenzie long before I was born. I cannot testify to the source of this animosity, for my father has never spoken of it. Nor do I know upon whose side the fault lies; whether this enmity arose in their lifetimes, or is the product of some ancient grudge. In these parts it is not uncommon for grievances to be nursed long after their original source is forgotten. It is to my father’s credit that he never endeavoured to perpetuate this feud by proselytising to myself or other members of our family. For this reason, I believe that he must have wished for whatever grievance existed between our two families to be laid to rest.
As a small boy, I was quite terrified of Lachlan Broad and avoided venturing beyond the junction to the end of the village where the members of the clan Mackenzie are concentrated. In addition to that of Lachlan Broad, there are the families of his brother, Aeneas, and his cousin, Peter, and those three are notorious for their carousing and frequent involvement in altercations at the inn in Applecross. They are all three great powerful fellows, who take pleasure in the knowledge that people step aside to let them pass.
On one occasion, when I was five or six years old, I was flying a kite my father had made me from some scraps of sackcloth. The kite plunged into some crops and I ran, quite unthinking, to retrieve it. I was on my knees trying to disentangle the string from among the corn when I felt myself gripped on the shoulder by a great hand and roughly hauled to track. I was still clutching my kite and Lachlan Broad tore it from me and dashed it to the ground. He then hit me on the side of the head with the flat of his hand, knocking me down. I was so frightened that I lost control of my bladder, causing our neighbour a great deal of mirth. I was then picked up and dragged the length of the village, where Broad berated my father for the damage I had done to his crops. The commotion brought my mother to the door and at this point Broad released me from his grip and I scuttled into the house like a scared dog and cowered in the byre.
Later that evening, Lachlan Broad returned to our house and demanded five shillings in compensation for the portion of his crops I had destroyed. I hid in the back chamber with my ear to the door. My mother refused, arguing that if any damage had been done to his crops, it had been caused by him dragging me through his rig. Broad then took his complaint to the constable, who dismissed it. One morning, some days later, my father found that a great portion of our crops had been trampled underfoot overnight. It was not known who carried out this destruction, but no one doubted that it was Lachlan Broad and his kinsmen.
As I grew older, I never entered the lower end of the village without an accompanying sense of foreboding, and this feeling has never left me.