This book is kind of unusual. Purporting to be the culmination of the research of the author into one of his own ancestors, it’s a collection of documents relating to a brutal murder that takes place in the Scottish Highlands during the 1800’s. It’s a time when crofters worked rented land owned by the laird, who could do pretty much what he liked with them. Class and status was everything in this era, and the book covers the attitudes of the rich and educated to the lower classes, as well as the prejudice of the English towards the Scots.
I really liked the way that the book is written. Being the collection of documents that it is, it manages to cover a great deal of different voices and attitudes, and it really feels like they could be real documents, the way that they capture the writing style and voice of the time.
Roderick Macrae is a sixteen year old boy, a bright young man whose father is very religious, and whose mother has died in childbirth, taking the light and humour from the lives of her remaining family. Roderick is closest to his sister, Jetta, but largely ignores his infant twin siblings. He works on his fathers croft, and his solitary nature and high intelligence sets him a little apart from his neighbours. The crofting community and lifestyle is captured here, including the appointment of a constable, a go between who is elected to manage the crofters and deal with disputes, in place of the laird and his agent.
When Lachlan Mackenzie is voted in as constable, he takes to bullying the community, and starts a campaign of attack and harrassment on the Macrae family in particular. Roderick eventually feels compelled to murder Lachlan in order to save his family, particularly his father. The book includes statements about him from his community, his own written testament about the events that lead up to the brutal killing, and the notes from the trial.
At it’s best, this book is a historical fiction about a murder based in the reality of the time. At worst, it feels like it overemphasizes the ignorance and belligerence of the ruling classes. They sometimes feel like cartoon villains, which is kind of a shame.
I found the characters were each well drawn and individual, and I liked the way that Roderick himself was often quite ambiguous. He can be very kind to animals, for example, and yet is unable to truly comprehend his sisters situation. He’s capable of murdering his enemy in his extremity, but he also has no interest in denying that he did it.
On the whole, a really well written look at a murder and the events surrounding it, as well as the social pressures that lead to the killing. The historical perspective is also very insightful and whilst tragic, also fascinating.
Read It If: you like Scottish history, it’s a wonderful portrait of the lives and times of the crofters in Scotland, and should also please murder mystery and crime lovers.