His Bloody Project: A Historical Commentary

Tuesday 27 November 2018

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the University of St Andrews’ Booker Prize Project, where all new undergraduate students are given access to a novel which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize to encourage a shared conversation. This year Graeme Macrae Burnet’s “His Bloody Project” was selected. As part of the Booker Project events, the Library invited students to submit their reaction to the chosen novel and to the murder trial reports and sensational accounts of true crime contained in a variety of documents within in our Special Collections. We held an event where these original documents could be viewed and where second-year History student, Jenna Lipman, gave her wonderful presentation ‘His Bloody Project: A Historical Commentary’.

Jenna has written-up her presentation as the following blog post. Jenna was the winner of the University Booker competition for this presentation. As part of her prize, Jenna will join the Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone, and Graeme Macrae Burnet for dinner after the Booker Prize Project lecture and Q&A on Wednesday 28 November at 5.30pm in the Buchanan building. Come to the lecture and hear Graeme Macrae Burnet talk about his work – the event is free and open to all.

Image by University of St Andrews

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s novel, His Bloody Project, is a tale of murder in the year 1869. Set in the small Scottish hamlet of Culduie, Scottish crofter Roderick Macrae committed a triple homicide of Flora, Donnie, and Lachlan Broad Mackenzie within their home. Although the novel revolves around this horrific triple murder of a respectable family, this is not a thriller or a mystery novel. It’s a social commentary: a question of motive. Macrae admits his own guilt and describes in detail how he left their bodies; what the court struggles to understand is why? In collaboration with the University of St. Andrews Library’s Special Collections Division, various other published murder trial accounts were uncovered to reveal how Burnet’s novel highlights themes of social inequity, xenophobia, and a public fascination with the macabre.

Although Culduie, located in the remote western Highlands, might seem an unlikely place for such a sensational, brutal murder to occur, that is not unintentional. In part, Burnet’s novel seeks to dispel the Victorian ideal of a romanticized Scottish Highlands. The life of Victorian Scottish crofters was not the subject of Burn’s poetry. Instead it was hard labour in unfriendly conditions. Peat farmers, especially, would be among the most economically vulnerable – as was the case with the Macrae family, who were to be evicted from their land by Lachlan Mackenzie. Until the 1886 Crofter’s Act landlords were entitled to terminate the crofter’s tenancy at the end of any year and recover possession of the land, together with any buildings and other permanent improvements that might have been on the croft without compensation. In addition, Roderick’s sister Jetta was impregnated by Lachlan and was left unprovided for. It is this sense of social vulnerability that is a central theme not only to Burnet’s novel, but also encompasses the public’s fascination with murder trials throughout this time period.

Calum McPhee, a native Mingulayan, building a peat stack on the slopes of Hecla (Heckla), Mingulay, 1905 (RMA-S-98)

To understand fully the context of the public’s fascination with the macabre, we must briefly explore the genre of ‘penny dreadfuls’. During the late 18th century, penny dreadfuls, or ‘penny blood’ as they were first known by, were sensational gothic tales of murder mysteries, sold for only one penny. Part of their appeal lay in that these cheap books of fiction acted as an escape from rigid Victorian ideals of propriety. These stories narrated the tales of infamous murderers such as Sweeney Todd (the Demon Barber of Fleet Street), first published as an eighteen-part serial, The String of Pearls, in The People’s Periodical and Family Library. However, as Burnet acknowledges in his preface,

“The memoir- or at least the most sensational parts of it- was later reprinted in countless chapbooks or ‘penny dreadfuls’ and provoked great controversy”.

There is a noticeable shift in the late 19th century as the genre shifted from fanciful fiction to something akin to ‘true crime’ reports. This drove up the demand for serials featuring young boys led into corruption by their poverty. The fictional popularization of Roderick Macrae’s story among penny dreadfuls not only feeds into the public’s desire for accounts of true crime, but also plays upon themes of social and economic inequity.

Title page from An authentic and faithful history of the mysterious murder of Maria Marten, with a full development of all the extraordinary circumstances which led to the discovery of her body in The Red Barn, 1828 (s KC177.M3C8)

The murder of Maria Marten at ‘the Red Barn’ is a case which was not only printed in penny dreadfuls during the 19th century. It appeared in numerous plays popular through the 1980s and as a short horror film, Maria Marten (Or The Mystery At The Red Barn), produced in 1935. Because its remote location, Marten’s history of illicit affairs, and an apparition seeking justice, it captured wide public fascination. In summary, Maria Marten lived in the village of Polstead, England where she was engaged three times to three separate men – all of which resulted in pregnancy. Her first lover was Thomas Corder, whose infant child died early, and their engagement broken off. A few years later, she had a son, Thomas Henry, with respected member of the community, Peter Matthews (whose identity remained undisclosed in several publications). This relationship, too, failed and after several years, she was again engaged to William Corder – brother of her first seducer.

This, tragically, would prove to be Ms Marten’s final engagement. Despite having promised to marry Maria Marten and “avowed this same intention more than once in public company”, she gave birth to her third child before her wedding. This child died shortly after birth, but Maria promised to elope to Ipswich with William Corder, meeting together at the Red Barn (a local landmark). Instead, she was fatally shot and subsequently buried in the barn. Marten was supposedly only discovered after her stepmother, Ann Marten, dreamed of Maria’s ghost informing her of where she was buried. Corder was later found in London, having married another woman, despite repeatedly having written to the Marten family of Maria’s good health. The extraordinary events of this case perpetuated its circulation for over a century. Pamphlets recount that members of the public travelled near and far to see the infamous ‘Red Barn’, some going as far as to rip off the building’s side panelling as souvenirs. This story not only illustrates the public’s immense fascination with death, but also the precarious position single, pregnant women from lower economic backgrounds (such as Jetta Macrae) were placed in.

This fascination with the macabre spurred multiple publications graphically detailing local murders and their subsequent trials. These pamphlets not only included images of the murder and arrest of the accused, but frequently would also feature evidence such as letters or testimonies presented in the trial itself. Differing from a traditional newspaper, authors of these publications attempted to both relay the verdict and act as detective: analyzing whether the cases were circumstantial or just.

Title page from The important results of an elaborate investigation into the mysterious case of Elizabeth Fenning, 1815 (r HV6555.G7F5)

For example, Eliza Fenning was a recently-employed servant girl, executed at age 20 for the attempted murder of her employers. Fenning had been employed by the Turner family for seven weeks before the accident. On the 21st of March 1815, the family (including Eliza) at their supper, which included hardened black dumplings whose dough refused to rise. Within half an hour, everyone who had consumed these dumplings suddenly became violently ill. It was suspected that arsenic which had disappeared two weeks prior was baked into the food. Yet, at best, the evidence was circumstantial.

Title page from Five cases of recovery from the effects of arsenic; with the methods so successfully employed for detecting the white metallic oxide … To which are annexed many corroborating facts … relative to the guilt of Eliza Fenning, by John Marshall, 1815 (s R111.M2.10)

A knife, supposedly turned black when being cut by the dumplings was never entered into evidence, nor could the conditions be reproduced. The baking tin of dumplings was washed by the patriarch at the house, Orlibar Turner; and when sithed, supposedly produced a small quantity of white powder identified as arsenic. Yet, the alibis of everyone in the house did not align – a discrepancy author John Watkins took issue with in his publication. Finally, despite Eliza being sick herself, two other servants (apprentice Thomas King and maid Sarah Peter) did not eat the dumplings. Although Thomas King was present at the dinner, he was neither mentioned in the testimonies of others, nor gave his own testimony during Eliza’s trial. The case brought against Eliza, which resulted in her eventual execution, was primarily based on accusation alone.

Compared to other stories of brutal homicide, Eliza Fenning’s case of attempted murder should not have made a blip in the news cycles. Yet, it was the economic imbalance between Fenning and the Turner household which sparked an outcry among the general public of London. Eliza’s family managed to raise about £5 for their daughter’s defense (about £633 in today’s money), but it was to no avail. Although Roderick Macrae openly admits to the murders of the Mackenzie family, the Fenning case sheds light on why there would have been interest in the balance of social inequity as a motivation. Macrae came from a poor family of peat farmers. He was clearly very intelligent, but like his father, received a limited formal education. Then, at the point of losing everything at the hands of Lachlan Mackenzie, Roddy snaps. The power-imbalance between these two men sets the wheels in motion for Mackenzie’s eventual demise.

Scene of the Kirkforthar Murder in the Report of the trial and execution of Michael Scanlan for the murder of Margaret Maxwell on 16th February 1852 (StA HV6535.G6F5)
Title page from Report of the trial and execution of Michael Scanlan for the murder of Margaret Maxwell on 16th February 1852 (StA HV6535.G6F5)

Another theme which Macrae discusses in his confession is his ostracization from the community. At the beginning of his account, Roderick describes how his father’s family is called ‘the black Macraes’ by locals, referring to the “swarthy colouring” of his ancestors. The concept of xenophobia and subsequent ostracization plays out with the trial of Michael and Peter Scanlan, who were the last men to be hung in Fife. The two brothers were sentenced for the brutal murder of Presbyterian, sixty-five year old Margaret Maxwell by excessive battery. Determined to be an attempted-robbery gone wrong, the Kirkforthar police immediately suspected

“that the murder was an Irish one; and this supposition was strengthened by the fact that there were a great many Irishmen employed at the limeworks in the vicinity.”

As evidence, they cited how the murder occurred on a Saturday, which was payday; and how Irishmen were notorious for drinking on payday. Although the evidence of their guilt relied entirely upon the confession of their ‘accomplice’, Thomas M’Manus (who was given immunity for his testimony), the Scanlan brothers were declared guilty with an unsuccessful appeal of verdict. For context, the large influx of Irish into Scotland following famine created visible rifts between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant Scots. Satirical magazine Punch published a comic depicted a Young Ireland Party as “Mr. G-O’rilla” (pictured below). In the same way that the Macrae’s were publicly ostracized for their ethnic heritage, there is a visible trend of general xenophobia: a fear of those who are ‘other’.

Cartoon of a Young Ireland Party writer depicted as “Mr. G-O’rilla” in Punch, 14 December 1861, p. 244 (per AP101.P8)

Finally, the sensationalism and popularity of such cases lies largely in their ‘happy rarity’. In the analysis of the Scanlan murder trial, it’s discussed about how murders give “places not otherwise remarkable” notoriety. In the case of Margaret Maxwell, although several showed up to her funeral, thousands visited her cottage where the murder took place to see the sale of her affects. Residents feel a need to take a piece of the atrocity home as souvenirs. Most of all, it’s the rarity of murder in these parts which gives them fame. At the end of the Scanlan trial pamphlet, the author writes,

“what then, in Edinburgh, Glasgow, or London, would have passed away as a dark but familiar event, produced such strong excitement here”.

Although the hamlet of Culduie might appear an unlikely place for a triple-homicide, it is its remote location which lends infamy.

Jenna Lipman

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One reply to "His Bloody Project: A Historical Commentary"

  • Judy Hoak
    Judy Hoak
    Tuesday 18 December 2018, 1.36am

    Jenna, what an insightful and brilliantly written review of such a difficult novel. Your writing gave me a real desire to read this unusual novel. Congratulations on the review. Your grandfather directed me to read the review, and I agree with him that you are a born writer. Hope to meet you when u come to Miromar. Sincerely, Judy Hoak


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