This famous historical novel (historical even at the time Stevenson was writing, since it takes as the central event the notorious ‘Appin murder’ of 1752 and includes a number of real people as characters) set in 1751 during the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion, was written more as a ‘boys’ own’ sort of book, but has become more critically acclaimed.
The story begins with eighteen-year old David Balfour leaving the village of Essendean where his father had been the school-master: both he and his wife have recently died, leaving David alone in the world and ignorant of his family history. Mr Campbell, the minister, gives David a letter to take to David’s uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws in Cramond (a sea-side village not far from Edinburgh). Once he arrives in Cramond, he discovers that Shaws is a decaying and part-finished house, and his uncle is ill-spoken of in the village. Determined to find out his family, he finally gains entrance to Shaws, but is surprised to be treated in a suspicious and decidedly unwelcoming manner. Ebenezer is a miser subsisting on small ale and ‘parritch’ and he is evidently dismayed to see his nephew: it is not long before various things said show David that Ebenezer was in fact the younger of the two sons, and that David himself is entitled to some share of the estate. However, he is determined to see the family lawyer after Ebenezer attempts to kill him by sending up the unfinished tower at night without a light.
The next day, the cabin boy Ransome comes to tell Ebenezer that his Captain Hoseason needs to see him before the ship sails, and David accompanies his uncle. However, not as suspicious as he ought to be, David agrees to go on board the ship, but finds himself stunned and kidnapped, coming to when the ship is on its way. Once he recovers, he discovers that the ship is en route to the Carolinas, where David will be sold into indentured service. The ship runs into contrary winds which force the captain to round Scotland between the Outer Hebrides and the Inner, and where they rescue a man called Alan Breck Stewart from a wreck. He is an obvious Jacobite, speaking with animosity against the King and the Stewart’s traditional enemies, the Campbells, and the captain determines to renege on an agreement to put Alan down near Balachulish, hoping to steal all the money he has; David decides to help out the newcomer, and they fight and kill two of the crew, wounding several others. The ship is then wrecked, and breaks up quickly.
David is separated from the others, has to spend a few days on a small island near Mull, but finally is able to make his way to the mainland. He follows Alan’s advice and tries to get to Balachulish to meet up with his comrade. While on his way, he witnesses the murder of the King’s unpopular agent, Colin Roy Campbell, and is immediately suspected of being an accomplice. He flees, and almost immediately meets up again with Alan, whom David suspects of having something to do with the murder, though Alan denies this. They go for aid to James Stewart, head of the clan, who gives them a little money and new clothes, and they go on the run, for Alan is also suspected of the murder.
The flight through the heather is tense and exciting, as they dodge Redcoat soldiers, and – after Alan loses all their money in playing cards with Cluny Macpherson – bickering between the two, intensified by David’s illness. However, the comradeship between them is ultimately more important than their differences, for David is a lowland Scottish Whig, whereas Alan is a Highlander loyal to Charles Stuart: not to mention that David is some years the younger and almost a foot taller, which short, rather vain, Alan feels rather.
Kidnapped is an exciting read, with its dual storyline, and plenty of action; there’s a real sense of menace from Captain Hoseason and his crew, not to mention the difficulties of fleeing to safety through lands loyal to the Stewarts’ traditional enemies, the Campbells, and avoiding soldiers loyal to King George. The shifting changes in the relationship between David and Alan are interesting and realistic, and the differences between them are well-drawn. Both are very likeable characters.
I did feel the book ended rather abruptly – I read it in an e-book edition and was convinced that a concluding paragraph was missing, but was mistaken! That said, I enjoyed it a lot – though sympathetic towards the Highlanders, a note of scepticism is sounded due to David’s Whiggish tendencies, which makes the book less pro-Stuart than it might be.
I am surprised that I never read this book when I was a child, since I had it in a two-in-one with its sequel, Catriona, but it’s a good read for an adult as well, since it’s not a simplistic tale.