I’m Scottish in the way that a lot of Canadians are. Meaning, a couple hundred years ago some people came from Scotland and had children and they had children and on down the line until I was born. And, like most Canadians again, the Scotishness got mixed up with other Europeans and folks from around the world and so by the time you get to me, you have someone not that Scottish at all. That said, my maiden name is a pretty classic Scottish name so it’s one of the more obvious heritages I have and so I like to claim it as my own.
In my mind, there are two Roberts who are important names in Scottish literature – Robbie Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson is a classic children’s author – adventure, fantasy, swashbuckling. He is, of course, the writer of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as Kidnapped. Of those three, I had never read this one and so I plucked it off the shelf and started reading it aloud with Pearl. (I had a lot of fun doing terrible Scottish accents.)
Kidnapped is not an entirely accurate title for this book. But Kidnapped and Shipwrecked, Followed By A Lot Of Wandering Around Being Grumpy And Then Visiting A Lawyer is a much less catchy title.
David Balfour is about eighteen when his father dies, leaving him an orphan. He goes off to seek his uncle, Ebenezer, who is a miserly old wretch living in the family’s ancestral home. (Are there any kindly, generous Ebenezer characters in literature?) David begins to suspect that the estate and wealth is rightfully his but before he can discover the truth, his uncle tricks him into boarding the brig Covenant, captained by the devious Hoseason. Here is the kidnapping of the title and it seems that David’s fate is to be sold as a slave in the Carolinas.
The ship is a lawless, dangerous place, full of drink and abuse and, eventually a murder. David finds an unexpected ally though when the brig hits a boat in the fog and takes aboard the lone survivor, Alan Breck. Alan is a Highland rebel, a Jacobite, and although David himself is a Whig, they join forces to fight off Hoseason and his men. During this stand-off, the brig is sunk and David is cast ashore on a small island, alone, in the Highlands. (The island turns out to be a peninsula, which I found super anti-climactic.)
David is reunited with Alan and the rest of the story is the two of them trying to return to the Lowlands, where David can come into his inheritance and Alan, as a Jacobite, can flee to France. Throw in the fact that they are prime suspects in the murder of an important and tyrannical administrator of King George, and David and Alan must sneak through the heather of the Highlands, meeting and hiding with a few other Highland rebels. A basic knowledge of Scottish history comes in very handy here.
There is a lot that could be exciting here and I did find the story of the Highlanders very interesting. Like David himself, I can’t help but find something noble in the stories of these Jacobites with their outlawed plaids and fierce clan loyalty. Unfortunately, so much of the story is devoted to David and Alan creeping through the heather and over the moors and sniping at each other and being cold and hungry and then David gets sick and I’m sure it’s all realistic but it’s kind of boring to read about, chapter after chapter.
Even the conclusion, which should be exciting, mostly takes place in a lawyer’s office – one of the less exciting places in the world. Apparently, Catriona is a sequel to this book and I would be interested to see what further befalls David Balfour, which, I suppose, means Stevenson did something right in his tale.