In 1869 in the remote northern Scottish village of Culduie, teenager Roderick (Roddy) Macrae brutally murders his neighbor, Lachlan “Broad’ Mackenzie, and two others. He readily admits to his crime, motivated, he says, by a desire to end the dreadful vendetta that Broad waged against his widowed father. The sympathetic defence lawyer, Andrew Simpson, urges him to write an account of the events leading up to the tragedy.  

Roddy agrees. In a surprisingly articulate essay, the young crofter describes his motive, originating with his birth and escalating through the lad’s mercy killing of an injured sheep belonging to Broad (interpreted as wanton), Broad’s sexual torment of his sister and mother, and his abuse of power as a constable that strips the family of land, crops, and finally their home.  

Given Roddy’s passivity, intelligence, and previously clean record, Simpson prepares a defence of temporary insanity and brings two physicians to assess his client, one a purported expert in the new field of medical criminology.  

The jury trial proceeds with an almost verbatim transcript derived from newspaper sources. The reader is able to juxtapose Roderick’s account with that presented in court. To report the outcome here would reveal too much.


A remarkable novel that is well anchored in the feudalistic, social history of Highland Scotland and in the history of medicine and psychiatry. Evoking the impoverished, enslaved life of crofters, it is occasionally difficult to read, promising at every page yet more examples of cruelty, injustice, and vindictiveness.  

The book mimics a historical treatise, structured around “documents,” and motivated by the author’s “discovery” of Roddy’s moving, first-person account in an Inverness archive. It includes testimony of witnesses, the plausible reporting of journalists who follow the trial, and the supposedly informed opinions of real-life people-- psychiatrist J. Bruce Thomson and Presbyterian minister Angus Galbraith. The villages described are real places.  

The implied sexual abuse of Roddy’s sister (and possibly his mother) dangles throughout his narrative, flagrant to the reader, but often seeming to have escaped his understanding. However, Broad’s abuse of the women and the sister’s suicide never emerge in court—indeed, they are never mentioned--a direct contrast to the patterns of defence in our time. Nevertheless, in an ambiguous twist, it is alleged Roddy himself may have been an abuser.  

The testimony of both physicians is cringe-inducing – relying as it does on the contemporary conviction that heredity explained the generation and maintenance of a “criminal class.” This view is a socially constructed definition of disease that has been explored and exposed by medical historians, such as Ian Dowbiggin and Janet Tighe. The evolution of the insanity defence shaped psychiatry as much as psychiatry shaped it.  

Yet, to readers familiar with what is now the “battered-wife” defence, Roddy doesn’t need to have been insane:  his actions seem rational and possibly forgivable.

The judge and both lawyers make laudable attempts to apply the law fairly and logically in recognition of new medical expertise. Parallel (hi)stories may be found in the work of Charles E. Rosenberg on the trial of the presidential assassin, Charles Guiteau, and the short story by Susan Glaspell, “A Jury of her Peers” (this database



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