Was there a brutal triple murder in Culduie in 1869?

No. Sorry to disappoint readers of the excellent Booker Prize nominated book, ‘His Bloody Project: documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae - A NOVEL’, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, but the answer is no!


Despite numerous claims by reviewers that it is based on a ‘real life slaying’, or a ‘re-imagining of a real-life story’, no such events took place in Applecross and the Applecross/Culduie characters are entirely fictional.

Is there any truth in the story?


No. As the author himself has indicated, one or two of the characters (though none of the local Applecross ones) were real people. James Bruce Thomson was a real life prison doctor, and Lord Middleton was the real owner of Applecross at the time. 

Some of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s ancestors did live in Applecross, and the song mentioned in the book (Coille Mhùiridh) is a local song, written around 1825. 

Burnet drew inspiration from a case in 1835 in rural Normandy, in which a young Frenchman, Pierre Riviere, brutally murdered his mother and two siblings with a pruning hook, “to free his father and himself from his mother's tyranny” - then wrote a memoir to justify what he had done.

After writing the novel, Burnet also heard about a murder committed in Benbecula in 1857 by a crofter called Angus Macphee, who 'hideously butchered' his mother and two other family members and, even more coincidentally, was later imprisoned under the supervision of James Bruce Thomson.


However, no such murder ever happened in Applecross - though others did (see, for example, the story of William Dawson, under 'Clachan Church', below).

What’s the book about?

For those who haven’t read it, the story is about a murder by a young crofter in 1869, in Culduie, Applecross. It is told through documents said to have been ‘found’ in the Highland archives, beginning with a confession by the murderer, Roderick Macrae, followed by other accounts of the investigation and trial.


To help readers, a handy map of Culduie is included indicating the location of the houses of the people involved in the story.

Roderick Macrae and his family are said to live in the northernmost house of the row, while the victim, Lachlan Mackenzie, lives in the house at the southern end. According to Roderick, our house, number 2 Culduie, belongs to ‘Mr Gregor and his family’. The other houses are said to be occupied by two other Mackenzie families, the MacBeath family, Mr and Mrs Gillanders, and a widow Finlayson.


Culduie map 1869, from His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae (Published by Saraband)
Culduie map 1869, from His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae (Published by Saraband)
Real Culduie map, 1875, Ordnance Survey
Real Culduie map, 1875, Ordnance Survey

So who did live in Culduie in 1869?

The censuses of 1861 and 1871 list exactly who lived in Culduie, though a bit of informed guesswork is needed to try to work out which houses they lived in.


Several of the houses are still owned, and in some cases still lived in, by the descendants of the families who had them in 1869, hence the desire to stress that the story is entirely fictional.


Our own house, the second from the north in the row, was inhabited in 1871 not by Mr Gregor and family, but by my great, great grandmother, widow Mary Gillies, aged 53, with her children Alexander (a 24 year old fisherman), Barbara (aged 17), and my great grandfather Duncan (aged 15) known as ‘Cearr’- ‘left-handed’. Mary’s husband John had died a few years earlier, aged only 51. The Gillies family had been there  since 1837. Duncan, my great grandfather, went on to marry Ann McNair of Ardubh - the village whose womenfolk are said in the novel to be ‘notoriously wanton’!

In reality, the house of the victim, Lachlan Mackenzie, was occupied in 1871 by Alexander Macleay, aged 54, his wife Martha, 47, and their family. The Macleay family had also been there for over 30 years.

I’m less certain who occupied number 1 Culduie, Roderick Macrae’s house in the novel. I think it was the family of Murchisons named in the census - Murdo, a fisherman aged 60, his wife Flora, aged 62, and their family, including 3 sons who were also fishermen. They had come to Culduie sometime in the 1860s, having previously lived on the Crowlin Islands, off the south west coast of Applecross.

Although the author of the novel thankfully did not use the names of Culduie people who actually lived there in 1869 (he told us he selected 19th century Applecross surnames based on a visit to the churchyard), there were in fact two Macrae families in Culduie at the time - but no Roderick Macrae. There was a fisherman named John Macrae and his family, who I believe lived in a house, now a ruin, half way between the houses and the main road, towards the north of the village; and a joiner called Donald Macrae, further along the village. Both families were, as far as we know, highly respectable and in no way connected with any crime, real or fictional! A local story suggests that John Macrae’s family was in some way related to the author of the famous WWI poem ‘In Flanders fields’, John McCrae, whose grandparents had emigrated from Scotland to Canada.


See how Culduie developed from 1840 to the present day, based on old maps.

Applecross history


Dear Guest

Welcome to our house. We hope very much that you enjoy your stay here.


In order to give you some historical background, we have compiled this short introduction to the house, the village and the area. It starts by discussing Culduie and this house, before providing some notes on the various other hamlets and villages, starting at Applecross Bay and following the road south to Toscaig.


No 2 Culduie


Number 2 Culduie is our “ancestral home”, and is currently owned by Alan Gillies. He is the sixth in the Gillies line to live on the site.


We first came here in 1837 when Thomas MacKenzie, the tenth and last MacKenzie laird of Applecross, removed Ali Ruadh (Red Alistair) Gillies from his previous home at Arigh Driseag, on the south coast of the Applecross peninsula. This was done to make way for Mr Bain, a shepherd, who needed more land for his flock, and who is said to have had more influence with the laird than the Gillieses. In all, eight families were moved from Arigh Driseag at that time.


Ironically while Culduie flourished, Arigh Driseag has become an overgrown wilderness, and Mr Bain is long gone, as are the MacKenzie lairds who sold the Applecross estate to the Duke of Leeds in 1857. The track to Arigh Driseag, starting from upper Toscaig, is still in reasonable condition, and in recent years a newcomer with a taste for isolation has reoccupied one of the houses.


The original Gillies house in Culduie was built further back behind the village dyke, and its remains can still be traced today just to the left of the gate. The present house was built by Duncan John’s great grandfather, shortly after he got married in 1843, to bring up his family in, leaving the old house for his parents and his younger brother’s family. The house was originally single-storey – the upper floor was only added in the 1930s.




Culduie is a tranquil little hamlet today, but there are hints that it may not always have been so.


The name itself is Gaelic for “the black nook” (Cuil Dubh). Cuil is defined in Dwelly’s Gaelic dictionary as “a corner, or nook, or any retired, obscure, or private place”; Dubh is the Gaelic word for black or dark. The burn (or stream) which runs past the north end of the village is called “Allt nan Corp” - the burn of the body. No-one knows the origin of these names - perhaps at some point in the distant past Culduie was the scene of some dark deed which is now only remembered in the two names. 

A clue to one possible explanation may be found in the name of the nearby anchorage – “Poll Creadha”, which means “clay pool”. In 1905 the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness recorded a story about the dark art of “Corp Creadha” (clay body), in which a clay figure is made and left in a stream. The person whom the figure is meant to represent falls ill and dies, unless the clay figure is found before it disintegrates. The example mentioned in the Transactions took place in Torridon, north of Applecross, and the stream was known as “Allt nan Corp” - the same as the one at Culduie. In 1872 the Inverness Courier reports that a “Corp Creadha” had been found in Strathglass and was made of clay and straw and stuffed with pins, thorns and broken glass. Was Culduie the scene of such voodoo-like practices long ago?

A more mundane explanation for the name of the burn is that it may have been a stopping point for funeral parties in the days when coffins had to be carried long distances by a team of men, with frequent stops for ‘refreshment’. There is even a story from the north east of a funeral party resting the coffin on the parapet of a bridge with the unfortunate result that it ended up falling into the river! Perhaps something similar happened at the Culduie bridge.


There are ten houses in Culduie, each with its own croft running down in front of it to the road. There used to be another two houses, now ruined, standing in the middle of the crofts towards the north end of the village, but they were pulled down around the turn of the century when their occupants died of “an teasach” - Gaelic for “the fever” (probably typhoid). Older people today still remember as children being told not to play in the ruins for fear that they were contaminated. 





The historical and spiritual centre of Applecross is “Clachan”, the churchyard at the head of the Applecross Bay. It has a long history, beginning in the 7th century AD when Maelrubha, an Irish monk, came to Scotland as a missionary among the pagan Picts. In 673 AD it is reported in an Irish chronicle, the Annals of Tighernac, that he founded the monastery of “Aper Crossan” - Applecross. The Pictish word “Aper” meaning estuary (the same as “Aber” in Aberdeen) and “Crossan” being the name of the river. At this time the northern half of Scotland was divided between two peoples, the Scots, who were actually an Irish tribe which had colonised Argyllshire, and the Picts who controlled the rest of Scotland north of Glasgow and Edinburgh.


The reason Maelrubha was able to establish his monastery in this Pictish area at this particular date may have been a weakening of the situation of the local Pictish nobles. An Irish chronicle records a ‘devastating’ raid in 672, probably by a new Pictish King named Bruide, who had seized control from King Drest, whose family lived very close to Applecross - in Skye and Raasay.


Maelrubha was of noble Irish blood, like St Columba of Iona, and had already achieved high office in the famous monastery of Bangor in Northern Ireland when, at the age of twenty-nine, he decided to leave Ireland to become a missionary in Scotland’s pagan north west. During a period of over fifty years he travelled far and wide establishing the Christian religion, using Applecross as a base, and numerous places are named after him, including Loch Maree. Dr Reeves, a nineteenth century Irish antiquarian noted that apart from St Columba “there is no ecclesiastic of the ancient Scottish church whose commemorations are more numerous in the west of Scotland.”

Columba’s and Maelrubha’s areas of activity were quite distinct.  While Columba was based among his own people (Irish Christians) in the kingdom of Dalriada in Argyllshire, Maelrubha was based among the pagan Picts. Just fifty years before Maelrubha left Ireland, a previous attempt at evangelising the area had ended with the Picts massacring a community of 150 monks under the leadership of St Donnan on the island of Eigg, which lies half way between Iona and Applecross. It is thought that the “first real breakthrough in the conversion of this section of Pictland was most likely achieved under Maelrubai of Applecross.”


After 51 years of missionary work Maelrubha died at Applecross. the exact date being recorded in the Irish chronicles - Tuesday 21st April 721.

While St Columba became famous as the “father of Scottish Christianity”, Maelrubha was forgotten. In the seventeenth century the church authorities had no idea who he was, and in 1861 even the writer of a history of the church in Ross-shire, a doctor of divinity, wrote “whether this Mourie [Maelrubha] was a heathen deity or a popish saint it may be impossible to determine.” But he was remembered by the people of Applecross. Nearly a thousand years after his death, in 1656, the presbytery of Dingwall visited Applecross and were horrified to discover the locals indulging in “abominable and heathenishe practizes” including sacrificing bulls to “St Mourie” on the 25th of August each year, making “frequent approaches to some ruinous chappels and circulateing of them” and participating in the “adoring of wells and other superstitious monuments tedious to rehearse.” The guilty people were ordered to appear in sackcloth and be rebuked publicly in six different churches between Applecross and Dingwall, and if they failed to do so they would be excommunicated.


From the time of Maelrubha onwards, the lands of Applecross were regarded as a sanctuary, whose boundaries were apparently marked by a series of stone pillars at a distance of six, or possibly three miles from Clachan Church. A stone pillar 8 feet 3 inches high with traces of a cross on its west face, still stood at Camusterrach in 1860, but it was smashed to pieces, shortly thereafter, by a zealous Protestant stone mason, who regarded it as a remnant of Roman Catholicism.

Applecross is still known throughout the Highlands and Islands as “A’Chomraich” - Gaelic for the sanctuary. Although the monastery itself was destroyed by the Vikings in about 800 AD, the sanctity of the sanctuary was respected throughout the turbulent clan wars of the middle ages and early modern period, with the exception of one clan raid by the MacDonalds, at Toscaig in 1597. In fact, after the failure of the Jacobite rising of 1745 at the battle of Culloden, many families came to A’Chomraich seeking refuge from the ravages of the Duke of Cumberland’s army.


Applecross was not, however, such a refuge for Flora MacDonald, famous for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie escape ‘over the sea to Skye’ by dressing him as her maid. When Flora was eventually captured by the authorities she was imprisoned and questioned on board HMS Furnace, moored in Applecross Bay.

Clachan Church


The present church at Clachan was built in 1817.


In 1792 the minister had complained that there was only “the skeleton of the parish church” standing. “It was condemned in 1788,” he says “but it is still the only edifice for public worship.” In 1836 his successor notes that the river has no bridge (it had been destroyed by shoals of ice while the river was in spate in the winter of 1808-9). He notes that the lack of a bridge “frequently prevents the people from attending public worship. They often however wade into the water and sit in the church during the service with feet wet and clothing.”

The ruin in the churchyard is part of a medieval church from around the fifteenth century.


Very few traces are left of the monastery of Maelrubha. There are a couple of fragments of eighth century carved stone crosses exhibited in the church which give an idea of the quality of the carvings to be found here at one time. Unfortunately, many other beautifully carved stones were smashed up during the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century and used as drainage stones. A few mounds traced by archaeologists possibly show the boundary wall of the monastery, part of which can be seen cutting across the south east corner of the churchyard (to the right of the gate). In later years this was known as “suicides’ corner”, presumably as this was where suicides were buried.

The stone cross standing at the gate is said to commemorate Ruaridh Mor MacAogan, “Big Roderick MacAogan”, Abbot of Applecross in the late 8th century. It was during his time that the Vikings destroyed the monastery, and he and his brethren fled to Applecross’s parent monastery of Bangor in Northern Ireland, where Ruaridh died in 801 AD. Tradition says that his body was floated back from Ireland on a slab of stone in order that he could be buried at A’Chomraich, and that the slab was erected at the head of his grave. Unfortunately the slab was moved in the past and it is not known where it originally stood.


Most of the gravestones in the churchyard are of a relatively recent date. One of the older ones, standing towards the back, states “Here lys Wm Dawson departed this lyf 1743”. He was the gardener at Applecross House, and was apparently murdered, hanged with his own scarf by some local youths. The story goes that his sister Eilidh (Helen) Dawson knew who was responsible for the murder but wouldn’t tell, and perhaps because of this later gained a reputation among the locals as a witch. Scandalous stories about her were made into a song, unfortunately now lost, and such was the fear of being associated with her that one family who were related to her changed their name in the early 19th century. There certainly was a Helen Dawson who lived around this time. She appears regularly in the poor roll from 1786 until July 3rd 1795 when a bill was entered in the Kirk Session records - “For a coffin for Nellie Dawson – 5 shillings”.

The white house opposite the gate of the churchyard was the manse and was built in 1796.


The Big House


Most of the present Applecross House (“the big house”) dates from around 1730-1740, but there is a date stone of 1675, the date of the building of the original simple square tower which still forms the core of the present house. In 1997 the loopholes of this keep were discovered during renovations - they had been covered up when the need for such defences were no longer necessary. There was probably a house on the site from shortly after the MacKenzie clan managed to gain possession of Applecross in the second half of the sixteenth century.

Very little is known about the early MacKenzie lairds of Applecross, but Iain Molach (“Hairy John”) MacKenzie, laird from about 1646 to 1685, stands out. He was well known to the travelling entertainers of the period, who wrote songs about him, some portraying him as a generous patron of the arts, others as a warrior on his galley and as a huntsman. His fame even spread to Ireland where a story has been handed down about an Irish travelling harper who, after returning from a tour of Scotland was asked where he received the most generosity in Scotland. He replied “From the right hand of the laird of Applecross.” He was then asked where he received the next most generous reward, and replied “From the left hand of the laird of Applecross”. Iain Molach was also a keen historian and genealogist and was the author of a history of the MacKenzie clan.


The MacKenzies lost Applecross, temporarily, after the Jacobite rising of 1715. Alexander MacKenzie supported the rising and fought at the Battle of Sheriffmuir. When the rising was defeated he lost all his lands and had to flee to France, never to return to Applecross, or Scotland. After a period of nine years, during which the Government had great difficulty in obtaining any rents from Applecross, Alexander’s son Roderick bought Applecross back for a sum of £3,777. Once bitten, twice shy, the MacKenzies of Applecross did not join the final 1745 rebellion, even though the ship which brought Bonnie Prince Charlie to Scotland called at Applecross on its way back to France and urged MacKenzie to “hurry up” and go to the Prince with all his men.


The Farm


The “Mains of Applecross” (at the campsite) is the farm belonging to the Applecross estate. It consists of buildings constructed in the mid 1800s, but the fact that it has been occupied for centuries, even from before Maelrubha’s time is shown by the presence nearby of ruins of a “broch”  These were circular drystone towers built in the West Highlands and the islands around the years 100 BC to 100 AD. Nowadays there is nothing left of the broch above ground, but if you know where to look you can just make out traces of the foundation stones forming a circle. The field next to the broch is still known as “Cul an Dun” (the back of the fort). Later, Viking influence is also shown in another name used for the farm - Borrodale - from the old Norse “borgr” (a burgh or stronghold) and “dalr” (a dale). It is not known whether the Vikings ever actually settled in Applecross but they certainly raided the monastery around 800 AD, and they settled nearby in the Western and Northern Isles.


A tantalising glimpse of how the largely unrecorded Viking period affected Applecross is given an old Viking saga. According to the Landnamabok Saga, in about 930 AD Helgi, son of Ottar “harried in Scotland and got there, in the spoil, Nidbiorg, the daughter of King Biolan, and of Kadlin, the daughter of Going-Hrolf.”  It is thought that “King Biolan” was one of the Irish O’Beolan family, who was actually related to Maelrubha, and who came to rule Applecross after the destruction of the monastery. If so, the saga tells us that the ruler of Applecross was married to a Viking woman, the daughter of an important Viking warlord; and that their daughter Nidbiorg was abducted by a different Viking band. The saga goes on to say that Nidbiorg actually married her abductor and they founded a powerful dynasty in Iceland.

The O’Beolan family continued to rule Applecross for several hundred years, and one of them was eventually made Earl of Ross in the early 13th century as a reward for subduing a rebellion against the King of Scotland, Alexander II.



The Street and Milton


“The Street” is the name used locally for the row of houses, beginning with the pub, which run along the shore just south of the bay. They were originally built by the laird for estate workers, as were the houses at Milton (“Milltown”) which is the next village along. The mill was towards the south end of Milton and the mill race, or water channel (now dry) can still be seen running from Milton loch down past the mill building.

The Post Office now lies a couple of hundred yards north of the Street but until about ten years ago it was two doors to the south of the pub. In 1836 the nearest Post Office was at Lochcarron, 20 miles away, and it was noted by the minister that “letter carriers are employed ... a serious expense to the few contributors who furnish their salary” - the minister himself presumably being one! Even earlier, in 1733 the laird of Applecross was able to receive regular news from the outside world - on 27th July in that year he wrote to his lawyer in Edinburgh asking him to arrange with the Post Office to send him the newspapers for “tho’ I live in a remote corner yet I love to know what the world’s doing.”


There has been an Applecross Inn since at least 1812, although it originally occupied the northernmost house at Milton, where the road forks. The innkeeper at that time had a few run-ins with the Kirk Session - though not over alcohol. On 18th August 1812 he was accused of having his fishing net set on the Sabbath. He neatly side-stepped the accusation by blaming his maid, who, he said, had forgotten to take it in as she had been told to do. The maid was fined and publicly reprimanded before the congregation. He was also in trouble for spreading an accusation that one Margaret MacKay of Borrodale had stolen a fish from his net. When asked by the Kirk Session to substantiate the accusation he claimed that he had never made it.




The primary school is at Camusterrach. It was built in 1874 to replace an older school at Milton, using stone quarried from the “Creag Darach” (oak tree cliffs) which run alongside the road between Camusterrach and Culduie. At that time the school had an average attendance of 55 and taught “the ordinary rudiments of English, Latin and Greek to boys and girls” - no mention of Gaelic, the native language of all the people until well into the twentieth century. There has been a school at Applecross since at least the mid-eighteenth century, and in 1792 it was recorded that the schoolmaster’s salary was “200 merks Scotch ... 1/6d for English scholars, 2/6d for Latin and Arithmetic; and the cock fight dues.”




Up until the time of the agricultural improvements of the nineteenth century, most of the people of Applecross lived clustered around the farm. A map of 1750 shows nothing but woods between Milton and Toscaig and even in 1797 a list of all male inhabitants shows 82 men between Clachan church and Milton, then none at all between there and Toscaig. But with the coming of the sheep and the enclosure of the fields, in order to yield a greater return for the laird, the people were moved off the good land around the farm and the big house. Those who didn’t emigrate established villages such as Ardbain, Ardubh and Coillieghillie on previously uncultivated land in isolated coves around the Applecross shoreline.

Coillieghillie (“the wood of the boy”) is said to have turned this isolation to its advantage, as it was the main place where illicit whisky was landed after having been shipped from Skye or Raasay. Such smuggling was not confined to the crofters however. In 1754 the Reverend Aneas McAuley, minister of Applecross, was reported to the presbytery by the minister of Lochcarron for buying a quantity of rum and geneva (gin) from a barque involved in the smuggling trade and selling it to the locals and even to people in neighbouring parishes.



Toscaig and the violation of the Sanctuary

Toscaig is a much older village than these other settlements, and it was the site of the only recorded violation of the sanctuary by a Scottish clan. The story is told in a manuscript written by the MacKenzie laird of Applecross known as Iain Molach, or Hairy John, in 1667. Since it conveniently portrays the rival clan MacDonald, with whom the MacKenzies spent many years feuding, as the perpetrators of the violation, it should perhaps be viewed with some circumspection.


According to the manuscript Alasdair MacGorrie, a “speciall comander” of Clan MacDonald of Glengarry and cousin of the chief, came to Toscaig seeking the murderers of his father, who had fled to A’Chomraich. He had already sought out one of the others involved in the murder and “burnt him with his whole familie sleeping in his own house” at Torridon. His mission of revenge at Toscaig, which was carried out “contrarie to ye opinion of all his freinds”, was less successful however. While he didn’t find those responsible for his father’s death, he did end up killing two old men of the MacKenzie clan, thus spilling blood in the sanctuary.


Fittingly Alasdair was to meet his own end only ten days later at the very same spot. On this occasion, clan MacDonald of Glengarry was preparing a major raid on MacKenzie territory and had anchored at Kyleakin near the modern Skye bridge, “to ye number of 37 boats and great galleyes”. Alasdair was sent ahead to scout the area and again landed at Toscaig.


Meanwhile the MacKenzies who had heard rumours of the raid, sent a galley south from Gairloch to investigate. They stopped at Coillieghillie and asked “a poor woman gathering shell fish in ye ebb sea” if any strange ships had been seen. She replied that a ship had come in to Loch Toscaig that morning. The MacKenzies sent some men round the headland by boat while the rest made their way overland to Toscaig. After killing the MacGorrie’s sentry, whom they had found sleeping on a hill, they attacked...


“M’Gorrie’s men took such alarm that they all ran to ther boat excepting himself who had formerlie given ane oath that he would never goe to his boat with his back to the enemie. He made to a Rock and was shott with ane arrow by Donald McWilliam Chalich; when he gott to the crag he put his targe [shield] on his hand and defended himself against all their arrowes; when John Dubh McChynnich McMurchie perceaved his abilitie, and thinking that he keeped them from following the galley, he went above the rock and took a great stone and struck him in the head till he fell dead to the ground. Thus the most valiant of all his name, if he had wit to guide his courage, died.”

Thus the violator of the sanctuary met his end.


The story continues with the MacKenzies then returning to their boat and pursuing the fleeing MacDonalds until the entire MacDonald fleet came into view. At this point the pursuers became the pursued. The tiring MacKenzie crew realised they could not outrun the MacDonald fleet and put ashore at Uags on the south west corner of Applecross, fleeing to the hills, hotly pursued by the MacDonalds. Being on their own ground however they had some Applecross men among their number, one of whom, a Matheson, led them


“over a ford that was on a water that went between two rocks, which ford the enemie did not find which forced them to reteire. No sooner did the enemie find Alister M’Gorrie dead but all ther bragging turned to lamentatione. They took it such ane ominous mischance that all of them reteired home and disbanded.”


The location of Alasdair’s death is said to be near the modern Toscaig pier, beside a small loch which used to exist where there is now only a piece of boggy ground.