This novel came to my attention when it made it onto the 2016 Man Booker Prize short list. As I was planning my first visit to Scotland in the spring of 2017, I reached for it. An excellent read (if not exactly excellent tourism brochure copy).
Burnet uses a series of historical documents that he ostensibly found in an Inverness library to tell the story of a 1869 Highlands murder in Calduie, a tiny, poor Ross-shire village. The accused is 17-year-old Roddy Macrae.
This story has it all: The hard life of the Highland crofters, educated but clueless jurists, and a whacking good mystery. The court records and news reports are a wonderfully indirect way to piece the story together---the excerpts (and the gaps) tell as much about the writers as they do about the subject. No one, not even Roddy, feels like a reliable narrator. Nothing looks quite right.
‘Roderick John Macrae, you are charged under this indictment with the crime of murder. How say you: are you guilty or not guilty?’
Roddy stood with his hands at his sides, and after glancing towards his counsel replied in a clear, but quiet voice, ‘Not guilty, my lord.’ He resumed his seat and Andrew Sinclair rose to submit the Special Defence of Insanity.
This was read by the Clerk of the Court: ‘The panel pleads generally not guilty. He further pleads specially that at the time at which the acts set forth in the indictment are alleged to have been committed he was labouring under insanity.’
Mr Philby wrote, ‘For a young man who had never previously ventured more than a few miles from his village, he did not seem unduly unsettled by the array of learned faces which now scrutinised him from the bench. Whether this was due to the insanity claimed by the defence or merely spoke of a certain sang-froid, it was not at this point possible to venture an opinion.’The news reports of the trial do not give the reader a feeling of confidence in either the jurists or the witnesses, paying more attention to their appearance than to their competence or reliability. Then again, in 1869, how competent might a mortician reasonably be expected to be?
The first witness to be called was Dr Charles MacLennan, who had carried out the post-mortem examination of the bodies. The practitioner was dressed in a tweed suit and yellow waistcoat, and boasted drooping moustaches, which leant him a suitably sombre air.And trustworthy? Well...
The next witness was Carmina Murchison. She wore a green taffeta dress and would not, The Scotsman noted, ‘have looked out of place in the salons of George Street’. Not a single newspaper omitted mention of Mrs Murchison’s striking appearance and Mr Philby was even moved to note that ‘no juryman with blood in his veins could doubt a word which emerged from such lips’.The chasm between the British-aligned Scottish Lowlanders and the Highlanders rings clearly throughout the book, the latter being painted as barbarians and peasants, fully to blame for their own poverty.
The Scotsman noted that Mr Murchison ‘seemed a fine fellow, but his baffling adherence to the idea that land should be allocated on the basis of tradition rather than utility was yet another example of how the intransigence of the Highland tribes is bringing about their own demise’.The expert doctor who gives his opinion of Roddy's mental state to the court mentions that some of the madmen he encounters all but speak in tongues.
‘I have encountered prisoners who spout incomprehensible gibberish; whose speech is nothing more than a stream of unintelligible, unconnected words, or is not even recognisable as language.'I've always said that historical fiction can be as enlightening, or even more so, and Graeme Burnet joins my list of authors that I trot out to illustrate that.
(A mischievous sketch in The Scotsman suggested that the prisoners to whom Dr Munro referred might merely have been speaking Gaelic...)