Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016, His Bloody Project reveals the provisional nature of truth through a fictional 19th-century triple murder in a remote Scottish crofting community

Whether you’re new to His Bloody Project or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Publication date and time: Published


Presented through a series of supposedly ‘found’ historical documents, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel tells the story behind a 19th-century triple murder in a remote crofting community – a crime that shocked the nation.

In 1869, Roderick Macrae was accused of the brutal slaying of three people, in a murder trial that gripped the British public. Roderick’s memoir, along with court transcripts, medical reports, police statements and newspaper articles, show that he readily admitted his guilt. But do they reveal just why a young man would commit the most atrocious acts of violence? Why didn’t he defend himself more vigorously, or try to cover up the crime? And will he hang?

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

About the author

Graeme Macrae Burnet has been nominated for the Booker Prize twice – shortlisted in 2016 for His Bloody Project and longlisted in 2022 for Case Study. He is among Britain’s leading contemporary novelists, whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages and achieved bestseller status in several countries.

He lives and works in Glasgow, where he studied English literature, before studying further at the University of St Andrews and then working in television and teaching overseas. In 2013 he was awarded a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, and he now writes full-time. 

He is also the author of two novels set in France and written in a style influenced by the Belgian novelist Georges Simenon: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (2014) and The Accident on the A35 (2017). Case Study, his fourth novel, consists of a series of notebooks apparently sent to the author in 2020 to aid his research into a rogue 1960s psychotherapist.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

The main characters

Roderick Macrae 

Roderick, or Roddy, is a 17-year-old crofter living in the small settlement of Culduie in the western Highlands of Scotland. Roddy’s mother dies during his childhood and he has to work the land with his father from a young age to support his family. They endure many hardships and Roddy often fantasises about a life away from Culduie. 

Lachlan Mackenzie/Broad

Lachlan is the constable of the land in Culduie and acts as a hand to the laird, the landowner of the estate the crofters of the area live on. Lachlan consistently abuses his power and bullies the Macrae family, imposing fines and sanctions on their croft, and using unnecessary violence.


Jetta is Roddy’s sister, his best friend and confidant. She is forced to fill the siblings’ mother’s shoes when she dies, serving the family and tending to their needs. Jetta is abused by Lachlan and becomes pregnant, which makes her father furious and leaves her future in Culduie hanging in the balance. 

Scottish crofters,19th century

What the critics said

Justine Jordan, Guardian:

‘The book’s pretence at veracity, as well as being a literary jeux d’esprit, brings an extraordinary historical period into focus, while the multiple unreliable perspectives are designed to keep the audience wondering, throughout the novel and beyond. This is a fiendishly readable tale that richly deserves the wider attention the Booker has brought it.’

Barry Forshaw, FT

‘Although he clearly draws on a Scottish literary tradition, there are other Celtic influences at work too: Joyce’s fragmentary assembly of narrative and that blackly comic strain characteristic of so many Irish writers. But this is not just a tricksy literary experiment – Burnet is a writer of great skill and authority. The central notion – a thuggish bully receiving bloody justice – is satisfyingly freighted with acute historical detail … Whatever the genre, few readers will be able to put down His Bloody Project as it speeds towards a surprising (and ultimately puzzling) conclusion.’

Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

‘This trick of framing a novel as a supposed tale of a discovered manuscript is as old as the novel form itself, and the author’s sensitivity to literary forebears helps boost his book out of the realm of genre. His Bloody Project has the lineaments of the crime thriller but some of the sociology of a Thomas Hardy novel … sane or mad, good or evil, honest or unreliable, this unfortunate young man, thanks to Mr. Burnet’s literary skill, makes a profound connection with the reader.’

Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

‘True to the best of crime writing, the genius lies in the story and the way in which the characters react. It may not be a conventional thriller, but it is no less thrilling for that. The Scottish author’s gleeful wit frequently surfaces in exchanges between characters that live off the page in a work which conveys not only a sense of period but also of place (a remote village).’

A late 19th century view of a crofter's cottage

What the author said

‘I love the fact that people find my books hard to classify. His Bloody Project has been called a crime novel, a historical novel, a gothic novel, literary fiction, as well as a true crime book(!). To me, it’s just a novel.’

Read Graeme Macrae Burnet’s interview with the Booker Prizes website

‘I’m interested in people’s motives – why they behave in the ways they do. Sometimes those are in relation to extreme actions. In His Bloody Project, the central character, Roderick Macrae, murders three of his neighbours very brutally. The novel is about why he did that. I’m interested in Roderick Macrae’s motive. What drove him to commit these terribly violent acts?’

From CBC’s Writers & Company interview with Eleanor Wachtel

‘I went to a great deal of trouble to make it seem as though these are real documents. You can ask me why and the answer is that I’m not sure.’

From an interview with the Scotsman

Crime fiction tends to have a certain structure, whereby very conventionally there’s a crime, a mystery, usually a murder and then there’s a journey through the narrative, whereby somebody solves the crime and that forms the narrative arc called the book. His Bloody Project isn’t really like that because we know from the beginning that Roddy is guilty of the crimes.’

From an interview with Edinburgh Napier University

Questions and discussion points

Despite being a work of fiction, His Bloody Project is constructed as a supposedly factual account of three murders committed in the 1800s. In the novel’s preface, the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, reveals that he found the documents that follow while researching his family history at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. He gives the lead protagonist his surname and even the novel’s subtitle – ‘Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae’ – crafts a picture of a true crime. Discuss this deliberate and considered presentation of the novel, and how the literary techniques and format employed by the author shaped your interpretation of the events. 

Much of the novel is a first-person account, written by Roderick Macrae, a 17-year-old boy who murdered three people in the small Scottish township of Culduie. When reading this section of the novel (‘The Account of Roderick Macrae’), did you take Roddy’s memoir at face value, and did your thoughts toward him or the events in question change after reading the preceding sections of the novel?

One of the inspirations for His Bloody Project is a real 19th century memoir, I, Pierre Rivière, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister, and My Brother… written by French peasant Pierre Rivière while in prison for killing his family (the memoir was edited by Michel Foucault and published in 1976). Burnet says he was particularly struck by the eloquence of Rivière’s writing and the way it contrasted sharply with the brutality of his actions. Do you see a similar juxtaposition between Roddy’s words and deeds?

His Bloody Project details the power structures between crofters and Lairds in mid-19th century Scotland, a time just after the first wave of Highland Clearances. To what extent did you read the novel as a work of historical fiction, rather than, say, a crime thriller? 

During the period the novel is set in, estate owners held huge amounts of power while the crofting families who lived on their land had very few rights. “It is not that the laird might have use for the sea-ware, my point is merely that the sea-ware is the property of the laird?” He paused for a moment. “I’m sure I do not need to instruct a devout man like yourself that it is not for one man to be taking what belongs to another.” (Page 74). In a key section of the novel, Roddy and his father collect seaweed to use as fertiliser, but are forced to return it after the constable declares it properly of the estate. Discuss this extension of land ownership that is detailed in the novel, and how it contributed to the poverty cycle endured by the crofters and Roddy’s family.

‘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.’ (Page 33). This bloody killing of a wounded sheep by Roddy sets off a chain of events that culminate in murder. Roddy can be viewed as both a simple and complex man, a man who is sympathetic towards animals, yet also capable of highly-brutal acts. Did these acts convince you that there is more to Roddy than meets the eye? And if so, what? 

Lachlan’s death is foretold by Roddy’s sister, Jetta (Page 142). Like their mother, Jetta is said to have second sight - she is ‘prone to visions’ and ‘concerned with omens and charms’. There is a strong sense of superstition in the book, despite those in the novel living under the Presbyterian church. Why do you think religion and folklore existed hand in hand in Scottish communities of the time?
The dynamic between Roddy and his father is complex and multifaceted. How does their relationship evolve throughout the novel, and what role does the father’s history of violence and authoritarian behaviour play in shaping Roddy’s actions and decisions? Consider their interactions, beliefs, and the family’s history on their relationship.

The book explores the concept of culpability and the blurred lines between sanity and insanity. ‘In the yellow months, the nights here are never properly dark. The world appears instead as if all colour has been drained from it, and when the moon is high, everything is silver, as if rendered in the etching of a book. If I found myself close to the windows of my neighbors, I would gaze enviously at the slumbering bodies.’ (Page 91). Roddy writes poetically and articulately. Despite this, his actions are often unusual and there is ambiguity in his statements, his intent never fully explained. How do you interpret the character of Roderick Macrae?

Within the trial scenes, there is a great deal of conjecture accompanied by conflicting witness statements. Did this exploration of subjectivity affect your trust in the characters’ versions of events? Discuss how the author has employed unreliable narration throughout the novel and the impact of this narrative technique.

Justice and morality are key themes in the novel and Lachlan’s fate could be attributed to the abuse he bestowed on the Macrae family in his tyrannical reign as constable. How did the author challenge your perception of right and wrong through both Roddy and Lachlan’s actions? 

Crofters spreading kelp

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