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Kidnapped (novel)

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RLS Kidnapped 1886 US.jpg
First American edition, New York: Scribner's Sons, 1886
Author(s) Robert Louis Stevenson
Country United Kingdom
Language English, Lowland Scots
Genre(s) Adventure novel
Historical novel
Publisher Cassell and Company Ltd
Publication date 1886
Media type Print ( Hardback)
ISBN 0-486-41026-9
OCLC Number 43167976
Dewey Decimal 823/.8 21
LC Classification PR5484 .K5 2000
Followed by Catriona

Kidnapped is a historical fiction adventure novel by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. Written as a "boys' novel" and first published in the magazine Young Folks from May to July 1886, the novel has attracted the praise and admiration of writers as diverse as Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges, and Seamus Heaney. A sequel, Catriona, was published in 1893.

As historical fiction, it is set around 18th-century Scottish events, notably the " Appin Murder", which occurred near Ballachulish in 1752 in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising. Many of the characters, and one of the principals, Alan Breck Stewart, were real people. The political situation of the time is portrayed from different viewpoints, and the Scottish Highlanders are treated sympathetically.

Beginning with some of the earliest reviews of Kidnapped in 1886, it has been thought the novel was structured after the true story of James Annesley, a presumptive heir to five aristocratic titles who was kidnapped at the age of 12 by his uncle Richard and shipped from Dublin to America in 1728. He managed to escape after 13 years and return to reclaim his birthright from his uncle in one of the longest court-room dramas of its time. As Annseley biographer Ekirch says, "It is inconceivable that Stevenson, a voracious reader of legal history, was unfamiliar with the saga of James Annesley, which by the time of Kidnapped’s publication in 1886 had already influenced four other 19th-century novels, most famously Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering (1815) and Charles Reade’s The Wandering Heir (1873)."

Plot summary

The full title of the book gives away major parts of the plot and creates the false impression that the novel is autobiographical. It is, Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; his Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he Suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The central character and narrator is a young man named David Balfour (Balfour being Stevenson's mother's maiden name), young but resourceful, whose parents have recently died and who is out to make his way in the world. He is given a letter by the minister of Essendean, Mr. Campbell, to be delivered to the ominous House of Shaws in Cramond, where David's uncle, Ebenezer Balfour, lives. On his journey, David inquires to many people where the House of Shaws is, and all of them speak of it darkly as a place of fear and evil.

David arrives at the House of Shaws and is confronted by his paranoid Uncle Ebenezer, armed with a blunderbuss. His uncle is also niggardly living on " parritch" and small ale, and indeed the House of Shaws itself is partially unfinished and somewhat ruinous. David is allowed to stay, and soon discovers evidence that his father may have been older than his uncle, thus making himself the rightful heir to the estate. Ebenezer asks David to get a chest from the top of a tower in the house, but refuses to provide a lamp or candle. David is forced to scale the stairs in the dark, and realizes that not only is the tower unfinished in some places, but that the steps simply end abruptly and fall into the abyss. David concludes that his uncle intended for him to have an "accident" so as not to have to give over his inheritance.

David confronts his uncle, who promises to tell David the whole story of his father the next morning. A ship's cabin boy, Ransome, arrives the next day, and tells Ebenezer that Captain Hoseason of the brig Covenant, needs to meet him to discuss business. Ebenezer takes David to South Queensferry, where Hoseason awaits, and David makes the mistake of leaving his uncle alone with the captain while he visits the docks with Ransome. Hoseason later offers to take them on board the brig briefly, and David complies, only to see his uncle returning to shore alone in a skiff and is then immediately struck senseless.

David awakens bound hand and foot in the hull of the ship. He becomes weak and sick, and one of the Covenant's officers, Mr. Riach, convinces Hoseason to move David up to the forecastle. Mr. Shuan, a mate on the ship finally takes his routine abuse of Ransome too far and murders the unfortunate youth. David is repulsed at the crew's behaviour, and learns that the Captain plans to sell him into servitude in the Carolinas.

David replaces the slain cabin boy, and the ship encounters contrary winds which drive her back toward Scotland. Fog-bound near the Hebrides, they strike a small boat. All of its crew are killed except one man, Alan Breck { Stewart}, who is brought on board and offers Hoseason a large sum of money to drop him off on the mainland. David later overhears the crew plotting to kill Breck and take all his money. The two barricade themselves in the round house where Alan kills the murderous Shuan, and David wounds Hoseason. Five of the crew are killed outright, and the rest refuse to continue fighting.

Alan is a Jacobite Catholic who supports the claim of the House of Stuart to the throne of Scotland. He is initially suspicious of the pro- Whig David, who is also friendly toward the Campbells. Still, the young man has given a good account of himself in the fighting and impresses the old soldier.

Hoseason has no choice but to give Alan and David passage back to the mainland. David tells his tale of woe to Alan, and Alan explains that the country of Appin where he is from is under the tyrannical administration of Colin Roy of Glenure, a Campbell and English agent. Alan vows that should he find the "Red Fox," he will kill him.

The Covenant tries to negotiate a difficult channel without a proper chart or pilot, and is soon driven aground on a rocky reef. David and Alan are separated in the confusion, with David being washed ashore on the isle of Erraid near Mull, while Alan and the surviving crew row to safety on that same island. David spends a few days alone in the wild before getting his bearings.

David learns that his new friend has survived, and has two encounters with beggarly guides: one who attempts to stab him with a knife, and another who is blind but an excellent shot with a pistol. David soon reaches Torosay where he is ferried across the river and receives further instructions from Alan's friend Neil Roy McRob, and later meets a Catechist who takes the lad to the mainland.

As he continues his journey, David encounters none other than the Red Fox (Colin Roy) himself, who is accompanied by a lawyer, servant, and sheriff's officer. When David stops the Campbell man to ask him for directions, a hidden sniper kills the hated King's agent. David is denounced as a conspirator and flees for his life, but by chance reunites with Alan. The youth believes Breck to be the assassin, but Alan denies responsibility. The pair flee from Redcoat search parties until they reach James (Stewart) of the Glens, whose family is burying their hidden store of weapons and burning papers which could incriminate them. James tells the travellers that he will have no choice but to "paper" them (distribute printed descriptions of the two with a reward listed), but provides them with weapons and food for their journey south.

Alan and David then begin their flight through the heather, hiding from English soldiers by day. As the two continue their journey, David's health rapidly deteriorates, and by the time they are set upon by wild Highlanders who serve a chief in hiding, Cluny Macpherson, he is barely conscious. Alan convinces Cluny to give them shelter. The Highland Chieftain takes a dislike to David, but defers to the wily Breck's opinion of the lad. David is tended by Cluny's people, and soon recovers, though in the meantime Alan loses all of their money playing cards with Cluny.

As David and Alan continue their flight, David becomes progressively more ill, and he nurses anger against Breck for several days over the loss of his money. The pair nearly come to blows, but eventually reach the house of Duncan Dhu, who is a brilliant piper.

While staying there, Alan meets a foe of his, Robin Oig—son of Rob Roy MacGregor, who is a murderer and renegade. Alan and Robin nearly fight a duel, but Duncan persuades them to leave the contest to bagpipes. Both play brilliantly, but Alan admits Robin is the better piper, so the quarrel is resolved and Alan and David prepare to leave the Highlands and return to David's country.

In one of the most humorous passages in the book, Alan convinces an innkeeper's daughter from Limekilns that David is a dying young Jacobite nobleman, in spite of David's objections, and she ferries them across the Firth of Forth. There they meet a lawyer of David's uncle, Mr. Rankeillor, who agrees to help David receive his inheritance.

David and the lawyer hide in bushes outside Ebenezer's house while Breck speaks to him, claiming to be a man who found David nearly dead after the wreck of the Covenant and is representing folk holding him captive in the Hebrides. He asks David's uncle whether to kill him or keep him. The uncle flatly denies Alan's statement that David had been kidnapped, but eventually admits that he paid Hoseason "twenty pound" to take David to "Caroliny". David and Rankeillor then emerge from their hiding places and speak with Ebenezer in the kitchen, after which the story of David's patronage is revealed: Apparently, his father and uncle had once quarrelled over a woman, and the older Balfour had married her; informally giving the estate to his brother while living as an impoverished school teacher with his wife. This agreement had lapsed with his death, and David was provided two-thirds of the estate's income for as long as his wicked uncle survived.

The novel ends with David and Alan parting ways, Alan going to France, and David going to a bank to settle his money. At one point in the book, a reference is made to David's eventually studying at the University of Leyden, a fairly common practice for young Scottish gentry seeking a law career in the eighteenth century.

The End.

Look at the sequel named Catriona.


David Balfour is accused of being an accomplice in the Appin Murder, a real life murder. The characters of Alan Breck Stewart, Colin Roy Campbell, James Stewart, Cluny Macpherson and Robin Oig Macgregor were real people.


David Balfour: Honest 17-year-old who heads out on his own after his father dies. His mother had died earlier. David 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.

Ebenezer Balfour: Devious uncle of David. Ebenezer cheated David's father out of the House of Shaws. He first tries to murder David. When that scheme fails, he arranges to have him kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Alexander Balfour: David's dead father.

Mr. Campbell: Kind minister who helps David at the beginning of his journey.

Jennet Clouston: Woman forced out of her home by Ebenezer Balfour.

At sea and in the Hebrides

Elias Hoseason: Captain of a ship, the Covenant. He "buys" David from Ebenezer in hopes of selling him into slavery at a profit.

Mr. Shuan: First officer under Captain Hoseason. When he drinks, he is extremely cruel.

Mr. Riach: Second officer under Captain Hoseason.

Ransome: Abused cabin boy whom Hoseason uses to help ensnare David in the kidnap scheme.

Old Man and His Wife: Poor but generous residents of the Island of Mull who give David food, drink, and valuable information, then allow him to rest in their hut.

Guide: Island of Mull resident who lodges David for five shillings and agrees to guide him to Torosay.

Hector Maclean: Island of Mull resident who changes a guinea into shillings so that David can pay the guide.

Duncan Mackiegh: Blind Man 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 him.

Neil Roy Macrob: Friend of Alan and skipper of a ferry that takes David from Torosay to mainland Scotland. Macrob gives David directions on how to assemble with Stewart. Island of Mull Innkeeper: Man who befriends David and lodges him at Torosay.

In the Highlands

Alan Breck Stewart: Daring, swashbuckling, happy-go-lucky Highland Scotsman in rebellion against the English crown. He becomes friends with David and helps him survive when English chase him and Alan through the wilderness. Stewart is based on a real-life Jacobite rebel of the same name. "Breck" is a nickname referring to pockmarking on his face.

Colin Roy Campbell: Also known as the "Red Fox." Scotsman loyal to the English crown. He acts as the king's agent in two Highland counties, Appin and Mamore. His job is to collect taxes and claim Scottish lands for the crown. He is shot dead while talking with David. Alan is accused as the murderer and David as his accomplice. Colin is based on a real-life Scotsman of the same name who was shot dead near Ballachulish. His case became known as the "Appin Murder."

James of the Glen (James Stewart): Highland chieftain who lost his lands to the English crown. He is the head of the Stewart clan, to which Alan belongs. James is based on a real-life Scotsman of the same name who was accused of being an accomplice and aiding and abetting the murder of Colin Campbell. He was tried at Inveraray, found guilty, and hanged near Ballachulish November 8, 1752.

Mrs. Stewart: Wife of James Stewart. She treats David kindly and says she will always remember him.

Cluny Macpherson: Another chieftain who lost his lands, chief of clan Vourich. As a Jacobite rebel, he is in exile from English rule and lives in a hideout near Ben Alder.

Robin Oig: Son of Rob Roy MacGregor, a famous Highland outlaw.

Henderland: Evangelist who becomes friends with David in the Highlands and provides him valuable information about the region. He is moderate and reasonable in carrying out his mission.


Queensferry Innkeeper: Man who provides some information about Ebenezer Balfour's background.

Mr. Rankeillor: Lawyer who helps David settle legal matters with his uncle.

Major themes

The solid historical and environmental background, and the realism with which the physical hardship suffered by Alan and David is described, give the novel an immediacy which perhaps explains the hold it has on some readers, given the simple narrative line and spare plotting. Indeed, plot only takes a dominant role at the beginning and end of the novel, while the heart of it lies in what Henry James described as the "really excellent" chapters of the flight in the heather. Some of the Scottish dialogue may be hard going for non-Scots readers, though Stevenson himself admitted that he had applied only a smattering so as not to tax the inner ear of non-Scots. Kidnapped also shows the importance of friendship and loyalty; mostly between David and Alan.

Literary significance and criticism

Kidnapped was well received and sold well while Stevenson was alive, but after his death many viewed it with scepticism seeing it as simply a "boys' novel". By the mid-20th century, however, it had regained critical approval and study. It presents, however, the Jacobite version of the Appin Murder, and is not historically accurate.

The sequel Catriona was written in 1893 while Stevenson was living on Samoa. It has in large part a romantic theme, and much less adventure, and has not achieved the popular appeal of Kidnapped.


The novel has been adapted a number of times. The Robert Louis Stevenson website maintains a complete list of derivative works.

Film versions were made in 1938, 1960, 1971, 1986, 1995, and 2005.

A comic book version was published in 2007-2008 by Marvel Illustrated by Roy Thomas and Mario Gully, who had previously adapted Treasure Island.

Edinburgh: City of Literature

As part of the events to celebrate Edinburgh being named the first UNESCO City of Literature, three versions of the book were made freely available (including being left on buses and in other public places) throughout February 2007. These three versions were:

  • A new printing of the novel with notes by Professor Barry Menikoff.
  • A retelling of the tale for children.
  • Kidnapped, a graphic novel version, has been created by Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy. Translations of the graphic novel were also published in Lowland Scots and Scots Gaelic
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