By Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.......The year is 1751. The place is Essendean, Scotland. Seventeen-year-old David Balfour decides to strike out on his own nineteen days after the death of his father, Alexander Balfour. David's mother preceded his father in death. As David heads down the road on foot, a local minister—Mr. Campbell—stops him and gives him a letter David’s father had entrusted to Campbell. The young man is to take it to the House of Shaws at Cramond, near Edinburgh (pronounced ED in bur uh or ED in bur oh), and present it to Ebenezer Balfour, an uncle David has never met.
.......The minister also tells David that his father belonged to the House of Shaws, once “an ancient, honest, reputable house,” the minister says, but “in these latter days decayed.” The minister gives David parting gifts: a Bible, a shilling, and a recipe for making a remedy that will help David recover from illnesses or injuries.
.......At noon on the second day of his journey, he reaches the outskirts of Edinburgh and asks several people directions to the House of Shaws. But each one looks at him strangely, as if he had spoken forbidden words; none gives him the information he seeks. Next, he asks directions of a man driving a cart. The man says, “If ye'll take a word from me, ye'll keep clear of the Shaws.” Finally, when he asks a “dark, sour-looking woman” named Jennet Clouston for directions, she points to a building in a valley far in the distance, saying, "Blood built it; blood stopped the building of it; blood shall bring it down.” Later in the novel, the reader learns that Ebenezer Balfour had run her out of her house.
.......After a long walk over several hours, David nears the house, a run-down building, partly unfinished, with unglazed windows and bats flitting about. It is dusk. Inside, a small fire barely glimmers. David knocks, waits, then knocks again. Ebenezer Balfour pokes a blunderbuss out of a window and greets David gruffly. When David identifies himself, Ebenezer admits him into the forbidding mansion, where mice and spiders have free run. Ebenezer is a strange, eccentric man who, though well off as the owner of the Shaws estate, prefers simple porridge to eat. Except for the glow in the fireplace, the house is dark, for Ebenezer keeps no lanterns because of his uncommon fear of setting the house on fire.
.......David spends the night in a pitch-black bedroom, the door of which Ebenezer locked before he retired. In the morning, over a breakfast of porridge and beer, Ebenezer tells David,
.......As a gesture of goodwill toward his nephew, Ebenezer gives him 37 gold guineas—a considerable sum—then tells him he will have chores for him to do around the house. The first, he says, is to fetch a chest from the top floor of a square tower that is part of the house. In the chest are documents. He hands David a key to the door of the room containing the chest. Because there are no lanterns to light his way up the dark stone stairs, David climbs them carefully, extending a foot to test each step before placing his full weight on it. Before he reaches the top, he tests for the next step and discovers only emptiness. The stairs abruptly end. Had he been less careful, he would have fallen to his death. David now realizes that his uncle wanted him to die.
.......When David returns and enters the kitchen, Ebenezer, apparently surprised to see David still alive, falls to the floor in a fit and turns blue. He asks David for a phial from a cupboard, and David produces it. In a while, Ebenezer, who has a heart ailment, recovers and David takes him to his room and locks him in.
.......In the morning, David releases his “prisoner” and, at the breakfast table, says, "You took me for a country Johnnie Raw, with no more mother-wit or courage than a porridge-stick. I took you for a good man, or no worse than others at the least. It seems we were both wrong. What cause you have to fear me, to cheat me, and to attempt my life–"
.......Ebenezer mumbles something about a joke, then says he will explain everything after breakfast. Meanwhile, a visitor arrives, a boy named Ransome with a message for Ebenezer from Elias Hoseason, the captain of a ship–The Covenant–who wants to see Ebenezer at the Queen’s Ferry Inn in Queensferry about business. Ebenezer asks David to go along, telling him he will explain matters to him before a respected lawyer, Rankeillor, who will verify Ebenezer’s story. David accompanies him.
.......At the inn, Ebenezer and Hoseason do business in the latter’s room while David takes a walk. When he returns, he sits at a table in front of the inn and has an ale with Ransome, who serves as cabin boy on Hoseason’s ship. While talking with the innkeeper, David learns that Ebenezer illegally gained control of the House of Shaws from his brother, Alexander Balfour (David's father). Because Alexander was the older brother–not the younger, as Ebenezer had led David to believe–he was the rightful heir of the estate. Upon his death, the estate should have passed to David.
.......After Ebenezer and Hoseason conclude their business, David accepts the captain’s invitation to row out with him to the Covenant for a drink and a short tour. Ebenezer goes along. But shortly after David steps aboard, crewmen take seize him and knock him unconscious while Ebenezer rows back to shore.
.......David awakens later in great pain, bound hand and foot in darkness. He has been kidnapped. He learns later that his uncle made a deal with Hoseason to sell David into slavery in America, in the Carolinas. After David becomes ill, the crew removes him to new, more comfortable surroundings in the forecastle. Meanwhile, the cabin boy, Ransome, suffers a brutal beating from the chief officer, Mr. Shuan, for bringing him a dirty pannikin (metal cup). Ransome had already been in poor health because of the strong drink he would receive but could not abide. Now, he “was as white as wax, and had a look upon [his face] like a dreadful smile.” Not long afterward, he dies.” David is assigned to take over Ransome’s duty as cabin boy in the roundhouse, above the decks, where the captain and two mates–Mr. Riach and Mr. Shuan–sleep and eat. Within and beneath the cabin are storehouses for food, firearms, and powder.
.......A few days later, the Covenant collides with and sinks a smaller vessel bound for France, but there is a survivor, a Highland Scotsman named Alan Breck Stewart. When he climbs aboard, he carries a considerable sum of money which he is to give to a Highland chieftain whose lands the English crown expropriated. Stewart and the chieftain are Jacobites, supporters of the descendants of James II, a Catholic king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1655 to 1688. When tensions between Catholics and Protestants increased, James was overthrown in 1688 and replaced by William of Orange. James fled to France, where he died in 1701. However, the Catholic Jacobite cause did not die, and even in 1751 it remains alive and opposed to King George III, the current English monarch. Many Jacobites, including Alan Breck Stewart and the Highland chieftain, had taken refuge in friendly France. However, Stewart and others returned to Scotland from time to time to collect money to support the cause and its exiled leaders.
.......At the dinner table in the round-house, Stewart offers to give Hoseason 60 guineas if the captain will drop him off at Linnhe Loch, Scotland, and Hoseason agrees. They shake hands and Hoseason leaves Stewart to his meal. Later, David overhears Hoseason and Mr. Riach plotting to kill Stewart and take all his money. However, because all the weapons are in the round-house, Hoseason orders David to sneak guns and powder out under Stewart’s nose, promising to give David a share of Stewart’s money.
.......But once inside, David warns Alan and agrees to join him in a fight for their lives. When Hoseason opens the door, Stewart draws a sword against him. Hoseason closes the door. Moments later, crewmen rush in. Stewart, an expert swordsman, runs several men through while David holds his own with a pistol. Stewart seems to relish the fight and, at the moment of victory, sings a song. He parleys with the captain, who speaks through a window, and they reach a truce.
.......On the evening of the following day, the ship enters waters off the western coast of Scotland, near the Island of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. There, it encounters miles of treacherous reefs. David recalls that “the tide caught the brig, and threw the wind out of her sails. She came round into the wind like a top, and the next moment struck [a] reef.” The heaving ship casts David into the sea, where he clings to a spar and makes it to the shore of a tiny island. The ship sinks.
.......Cold, tired, hungry, alone–not knowing whether Stewart survived–David heads eastward, satisfying his hunger with shellfish along the coast. After the tide runs low, he crosses on steppingstones from the small island to the Island of Mull. When he asks an old man whether he has seen someone fitting Stewart’s description, the man replies that several men passed by wearing sailors’ trousers (the crewmen) and another in breeches and stockings (Stewart in French garb). Moreover, the old man says, Stewart left word that he was headed toward “his country” (County Appin) by way of Torosay and that David was to follow him. After the old man’s wife gives David bread, grouse, and a strong punch, he falls asleep and resumes his journey at noon the next day.
.......During his journey, he encounters an Island of Mull resident who lodges David for five shillings and agrees to act as a guide through part of the countryside. Hector Maclean, another Island of Mull resident, changes a guinea into shillings so that David can pay the guide. Later on, David meets a blind man, Duncan Mackiegh, who guides David through part of the Island of Mull. In spite of his blindness, he knows every rock and bush on the island. He is a dangerous man who carries a pistol and can shoot "by ear." However, David pretends to have a pistol, too, and thereby avoids trouble with Mackeigh.
.......After David and lodges him at Torosay, he travels to mainland Scotland on a ferry piloted by Neil Roy Macrob, a friend of Alan Breck Stewart. Macrob gives David directions on how to rendezvous with Stewart.
.......Along the way on a narrow path through woods, David encounters four men on horseback, one of them Colin Roy Campbell, known as the Red Fox. He is the enemy of Stewart and the Scots whose lands the crown expropriated. Campbell acts as the king's agent, or factor, in two Highland counties, Appin and Mamore. His job is to collect taxes and claim Scottish lands for the crown. When he questions David, the youth says he is no troublemaker but an “honest subject of King George.” A shot rings out and the Red Fox falls dead from his horse. The other horsemen think David stood in the path to delay Campbell long enough for the killer to aim and shoot. When they chase him, he runs into the forest–smack into Stewart. Believing Stewart is their other culprit, they give chase. But the cover of the forest saves them. David accuses Stewart of being the shooter, but the latter says, "I swear upon the Holy Iron I had neither art
nor part, act nor thought in it."
.......They take temporary refuge with James Stewart, known as James of the Glens, who gives them a change of clothes and pocket money. Then off they go once more. While they run and English soldiers follow, authorities arrest James Stewart for the murder of the Red Fox. (The real-life James Stewart was hanged for the crime even though he was apparently innocent.) At nightfall, David and Alan take refuge in a cave. David says,
.......Along the way, they encounter Robin Oig, one of the sons of Rob Roy Macgregor, a famous Highland outlaw. There is bad blood between Oig and Stewart, involving an old family grudge. But to settle matters, they duel with bagpipes, not swords. After they both play with stunning virtuosity, Stewart admits Oig gets the better of him. Stewart says, "Ye are a great piper. I am notfit to blow in the same kingdom with ye. Body of me! ye have mair musicin your sporran than I have in my head!" They part in peace.
.......When David and Stewart reach Queensferry, David sees the lawyer Rankeillor, who discloses the following: David’s father and his brother, Ebenezer, had a dispute over a woman, David’s mother. It was settled when David’s father gave up the House of Shaws to meet Ebenezer’s demands. However, Ebenezer was never the rightful owner. Therefore, the property should now pass to the rightful owner, David.
.......David, Alan, Rankeillor, and Rankeillor's law clerk, Torrance, go out to the House of Shaws, reaching it in the evening. Stewart pounds on the door and gains entrance after saying he would like to discuss a matter involving David Balfour. First, he tells Ebenezer that a gentleman in his family found Balfour lying on a beach, half-drowned, after a shipwreck. Then, he says, the gentleman and several others imprisoned him in a ruined castle. Pretending that he is a business associate of Captain Hoseason, Stewart says Hoseason told him about the deal Ebenezer made to sell David in the Carolinas. When Ebenezer admits that he made the deal, paying Hoseason "twenty pound" to get rid of David, Rankeillor, David, and the law clerk all come forward. For Ebenezer, the jig is up.
.......While David, Alan, and the law clerk eat supper and drink wine, Rankeillor and Ebenezer come to an agreement in another room: David is to receive two-thirds of the annual income of the House of Shaws.
.......In the following days, Stewart continues to hide out while David tracks down a lawyer–another Stewart, from Alan's country, who is "to be wholly trusted"–to arrange ship passage for Alan to France. David and Alan then say good-bye, and David goes to a bank in Edinburgh to settle his affairs.
The action takes place in 1751 in rural and urban Scottish locales and aboard a ship. The novel begins at the home of David Balfour in Essendean, Scotland, then moves to the Scottish countryside, then to an estate at Cramond, near Edinburgh. The action then shifts to an inn at the port at Queensferry and next to a ship leaving Scotland for the Carolinas in America. After slow sailing on rough seas along the Scottish coast, the ship strikes a reef and sinks. The rest of the action takes place in Scotland–on islands, in woods, in the countryside, in a cave, in small settlements and towns, and in Edinburgh.
David Balfour: Honest,
sensible 17-year-old who strikes out on his own after his father dies.
His mother had died earlier. At the beginning of the novel, Balfour is
unaware that he is heir to an estate, the House of Shaws. Although David
is a Lowland Scot, he could be any boy anywhere embarking on a journey
from youth to manhood.
The plot of Kidnapped moves swiftly, and the vocabulary is easy to understand except for occasional words and phrases in 18th Century Scottish dialect. Examples of dialectal words in the novel are laird (lord), sate (sat), kirk, (church), parritch (porridge), slockens (moistens), pit-mirk (darkness, as in a pit), nae (no), cannae (cannot), dinnae (did not), wouldnae (would not), bittie (bit), swier (not willing), gliff (look), nane (none), ken (know), mair (more), dirdum (blame), tow (rope), sough (report), whilk (which), sporran (leather pouch that hangs from the belt of a Highland Scotsman), lee (lie, falsehood), tauld (told), and tod (fox). However, these words and phrases rarely obscure the meaning of a sentence or paragraph. But they do serve an important purpose: to season the novel with authenticity. The narrator is David Balfour, writing in first-person point of view from the perspective of a young adult looking back on a perilous adventure that transported him from boyhood to manhood. The chapters are relatively short. Many of them begin with a paragraph or two setting the scene in lively, colorful language, as the opening of Chapter II demonstrates:
.......Presently after, I came by a house where a shepherd lived, and got a rough direction for the neighbourhood of Cramond; and so, from one to another, worked my way to the westward of the capital by Colinton, till I came out upon the Glasgow road. And there, to my great pleasure and wonder, I beheld a regiment marching to the fifes, every foot in time; an old red-faced general on a grey horse at the one end, and at the other the company of Grenadiers, with their Pope's-hats. The pride of life seemed to mount into my brain at the sight of the red coats and the hearing of that merry music.
.......The hand of Providence brought me in my drifting to the very doors of the British Linen Company's bank.
Dual Nature of Man
Robert Louis Stevenson is famous for writing about humans as a mixture of good and bad. One of his most popular works, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, centers on this idea. In Kidnapped, Stevenson also focuses in part on the dual nature of man. For example, Alan Beck Stewart is essentially a good man, but at times he exhibits less than exemplary behavior. He brags, he takes pleasure in killing enemies, and he gambles recklessly–in games of chance and the game of life. Ebenezer Balfour is essentially a bad man, but at times he exhibits a guilty conscience and remorse. The division of Scotland into Highlands and Lowlands reflects this dichotomy in man. Whereas a good many of the Highlanders are outlawed Jacobites, the Lowlanders are mostly very proper Whigs. What is more, the Highlanders–like Stewart–tend to have a romantic, adventurous spirit and the Lowlanders a staid, conservative spirit.
Kidnapped's two main characters, David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart, hold rival political and religious views: David is a Whig and a Protestant, and Stewart is a Jacobite and a Catholic. Jacobites were supporters of the descendants of James II, a Catholic king of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1655 to 1688. (In Latin, James is Jacobus, from which the term Jacobites derives.) When tensions between Catholics and Protestants peaked in 1688, James was overthrown and replaced by William of Orange. James fled to France, where he died in 1701. However, the Catholic Jacobite cause did not die and even in 1751 (the year in which Stevenson sets the novel) it remained alive and opposed to the reigning British king, George III. Jacobites believed that the descendants of James II were the rightful heirs of the throne. Most Jacobites were Roman Catholics; a few were Anglicans. Whigs were supporters of the Protestant monarch.
Foolproof evidence does not exist to prove who killed the historical Colin Roy Campbell, known as the Red Fox. However, a woman named Anda Penman, a descendant of the Scottish Stewart clan, disclosed in 2001 what she said was a long-guarded family secret: Donald Stewart, of Ballachuilish, killed Campbell. Before Penman died not long after her disclosure, researchers were unable to verify her story. For more information about the assassination of the Red Fox, see The Appin Murder.
Kidnapped may be categorized as (1) an apprenticeship novel, (2) an adventure novel, and (3) a historical novel. Young Folks magazine published Kidnapped in May, June, and July of 1886.
Coming of Age: The
central theme is the coming of age of David Balfour. Like the heroes of
other novels of this type, Balfour undergoes many trials that test his
character and moral fiber. By the end of the novel, having demonstrated
courage and good judgment, he passes from boyhood into young manhood.
The climax of a literary work can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final event leading to the resolution of the work. The climax of Kidnapped occurs, according to the first definition, when an unknown assassin kills Colin Roy Campbell (the Red Fox) and the latter's compatriots implicate David Balfour as an accomplice. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when Alan Breck Stewart tricks Ebenezer Balfour into admitting that he arranged the kidnapping of Balfour.
Stevenson's full name was
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson. Balfour was the maiden name of his
mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour. Like David Balfour in Kidnapped,
Stevenson struck out at age 17 to find his destiny. First, he enrolled
in Edinburgh University to study lighthouse engineering. Later, he set
his sights on law as a career but never practiced it after completing his
studies. He spent time in Switzerland and France before going to America,
living and working in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and then in
San Francisco and Monterey, California. He married an American divorcee.
Because of failing health, he moved to the South Seas and died at Vailima,
Samoa, in 1894.
Study Questions and Essay Topics