Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

kidnappedMy heart’s in the Highlands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Davie Balfour is left orphaned on the death of his father, he is given a letter that his father left for him and told to take it to one Ebenezer Balfour, Esquire, of Shaws. Dutifully he obeys, only to find that miserly old Ebenezer is his uncle, who is not best pleased at having his nephew foisted upon him, for fear he may discover the family secret. So Ebenezer tricks David into going aboard the brig Covenanter, where he is promptly knocked senseless and carried off to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas. But with the help of a new-found friend, Alan Breck Stewart, David escapes and finds himself wandering the Highlands of Scotland – a dangerous place just a few years after the failed Jacobite rebellion, where clan is set against clan, and supporters of the Pretender are being hunted or victimised by those who support the King. And when David is accidentally caught up in a murder, he finds he too is being hunted. His only hope is to make it safely back to the Lowlands, while Alan Breck must try to escape back to France, where his chief is in exile.

kidnapped tower

Written in 1886, the story is set over a century earlier, in 1752. In reality, it’s mainly an adventure story, but I always find old historical novels interesting because of the double hit – seeing how people of an earlier generation interpreted an even earlier historical period. Stevenson gives us a very unromanticised version of the clans as uncouth hard-drinking, hard fighting men scratching out a subsistence living from the barren wastelands of the Highlands – a good deal more accurate, I’d imagine, than some of the later more idealised versions of the Jacobite story. It surprised me a little though since I thought that, by the time he was writing this book, the romanticisation of the landscape and culture, begun by Sir Walter Scott and encouraged by Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Highlands, was well underway. Stevenson’s depiction conveys none of the wild grandeur we now associate with the mountains and glens and even our heroes are pretty unheroic.

kidnapped shipwreck

However, without over-emphasising it, he does show some sympathy for the hardships the Highlanders were forced to suffer at the hands of a government determined to destroy the clan system to prevent further rebellion. He talks of the banning of the kilt and points up the difficulties this caused to those too poor to acquire other kinds of clothing; he describes the hiding of arms to get round the ban on Highlanders carrying weapons; he shows the severe privations caused to the poor by being expected to support their own chieftains in exile while also paying taxes to the government; and he hints at the depopulation of the landscape through forced mass emigration to the New World – the beginnings of the euphemistically named Highland Clearances. But his hero is a loyal supporter of King George and a true son of the Covenanters, complete with priggish antipathy towards anything that might be considered fun.

kidnapped 4

All of this is entertaining to anyone with an interest in Scottish history, but I feel Stevenson assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the aftermath of the Rebellion that most non-Scottish readers and probably even many modern Scottish readers may not have. And I suspect the result of that may mean that the story feels slow in places as he digresses a little from the action to set the book in its historical and social context. I felt the pacing was uneven overall. There are some great action scenes – the battle aboard the ship, the shipwreck, the flight from the murder scene – but there are also quite lengthy lulls, usually when poor David is taken ill, which happens with great regularity. Again, probably realistic given the circumstances, but not the stuff of which great heroic adventures are normally made. And I found his personality grating – the older David who is narrating the story frequently remarks himself on how self-obsessed and immature his younger self’s behaviour was, and I could only agree. There is some Scots dialect in the dialogue but not enough and not broad enough, I think, to cause problems for non-Scottish readers.

kidnapped 3

The beginning of the book was the best part for me, when David was at sea, and it picked up again towards the end, when they had made it back to civilisation and set out to prove David’s identity. But I found the central section dragged, when David and Alan are wandering interminably around the Highlands, and half the time is spent on David bemoaning the physical hardship he is undergoing or describing his ill-health. And the ending is so abrupt that I actually wondered if a final chapter might be missing from my Kindle edition, but apparently not. Definitely worth reading, but if I was recommending just one novel about the Jacobite rebellion it would still be DK Broster’s The Flight of the Heron – it may be overly romanticised, but it’s also much more fun. And with a far, far better hero in my beloved Ewen Cameron, the Darcy of the Highlands…

Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 5 of my 20 Books of Summer

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67 thoughts on “Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. You highlight something really interesting here, FictionFan: how an earlier historical era viewed an even earlier one. You make a really well-taken point that that’s what happened here, and it’s a fascinating perspective. Perhaps the middle of this one may have dragged just a bit, but I still think it’s one of those interesting ‘rousing adventure’ sorts of stories.

    • Even in my lifetime the accepted story of the Jacobite rebellion has changed – makes you wonder how you can ever really know the ‘truth’. I really enjoyed the beginning, but it didn’t hold up as well in the middle, I felt. Whereas from memory, Treasure Island was pretty rip-roaring all the way through…

      • Interesting question about knowing the truth (or not), FictionFan. One does wonder whether it’s ever possible, especially when it comes to historical things, to know what truth is. I know, a bit existential, but still…

  2. I remember trying to read this as a child and not managing to finish it then. Kidnapped doesn’t really excite me like Treasure Island still does and it’s interesting that your review confirms that.
    For fans of RLS, apart from Treasure Island itself which remains one of the most exciting books ever written, I would recommend RLS’s short stories, especially the ones set in the south seas. They are Conrad-esque, years before Conrad even spoke English.

    • Yes, I remember starting it a couple of times and then abandoning it when I was young, but on the whole it was worth persevering with as an adult – but more for the history than the adventure really. I re-read TI a couple of years back and was pleasantly surprised that I found it just as rip-roaring as when I was a kid – definitely a better book in my opinion. I haven’t read many of his short stories and none of the South Seas ones, but I’ve enjoyed the few I have read – I must get around to reading more.

    • I enjoyed it too but not as much as Treasure Island, which I loved all over again when I re-read it a couple of years ago. (Haha! Every blog needs a perpetually dancing mini-Prof, don’t you think? 😉 )

  3. Great review. It’s been a while, but I also recall being impressed by the sense of historical presence but yawning through some of the middle. I thought Treasure Island kept the reader engaged more consistently. Whether it’s a better book overall I’ll let others decide.

    • Thank you! Yes, I enjoyed Treasure Island more too, both as a kid and on a recent re-read a couple of years back. I think it stayed fairly rip-roaring all the way through, unlike this one.

  4. I read this as a teen and remember loving the beginning and the end. The middle was interminable, and I didn’t have enough background to appreciate the history. Hmm, time for a reread perhaps? With a little more knowledge (and wikipedia) at my side, I might enjoy this book more.

    • Yes, it definitely dips in the middle. To be honest, I’m not sure the history bit is interesting enough to make me strongly recommend a re-read – but I do strongly recommend The Flight of the Heron if you haven’t read it. It’s a bit on the romantic side, but it’s much clearer on the history too, I think…

  5. Hello FF–interesting review. Maybe RLS was being a bit
    autobiographical with the interludes of sickness narrative–
    the author being behind the story and so forth. He was a
    sickly man—but a prolific writer! I enjoy the notion that
    wherever one goes—the locals tout him as a native of their
    own parts–New York, California, Scotland–and have a
    museum to prove it!

  6. I’m like MarinaSofia on this: as a kid I read Treasure Island several times and Kidnapped just the once. The latter’s sequel, Catriona, on the other hand, became a regular staple; I loved it. In fact, thanks for the reminder — I must go reread it.

    • I preferred Treasure Island too, both as a kid and an adult – much more fun! I never made it all the way through Kidnapped as a kid, in fact. I haven’t read Catriona but with your recommendation and MarinaSofia’s, I’m beginning to think I must…

  7. The “Darcy of the Highlands”?? Hmm, I’d never heard that one before. And speaking of hearing, why, how awesome is it that you’ve provided a link to our dear Professor Duke?!! As for Kidnapped, how I escaped not having to read this befuddles me! I know it’s considered a classic, too! Well written review, though I can’t imagine wanting to slosh through pages and pages of this kind of adventure, ha — not with more tennis coming up!

    • I think I fell in love with Ewen Cameron even before I became aware of Darcy – a handsome Highland warrior who also dances and romances? What’s not to love? I don’t necessarily recommend Kidnapped, but I strongly recommend The Flight of the Heron if you ever get the chance – a bit romanticised, maybe, but still a great book – in fact the whole trilogy is great. (Hmm! Time for a re-read, perhaps…) Haha! I’m not sure the Prof will like his little GIF too much, though! But I couldn’t resist… 😉

  8. Oh, of course you’d like it, I suppose. You must admit, though, that the uncle was pretty cool. Like Scrooge a bit. When I think on the book, all I remember about Alan is that he whistles. Is that right?

    Loved the review to many deaths, but FEF…does that make you a modern Scottish reader?

    Now that fellow at the bottom has a cool cape, but he should really be wearing a t-shirt instead of that silly white thing.

    Oh no! *covers eyes* I should tell you–since I care–that that funny looking thing moving on your sidebar is such a distraction. You wouldn’t believe how close we came to cutting that…

    • Men in kilts? Of course, I would! Yes! I thought of Scrooge too when I read his bit! Except Scrooge didn’t have a blunderbuss… D’you know, the problem with having blog breaks is it’s so long ago since I finished this I can’t remember if he whistles or not! *shamefaced* He does play the bagpipes though!

      Thank you! *smiles* Er…excuse me, Cheeky Chicky, but what might you be implying? Are you confusing me with BUS??

      *nods* Yes, I knew you’d be jealous of him…

      *laughs* I couldn’t help it! I’d just discovered how to make gifs and I was overcome with an irresistible impulse! But you’ll be glad to hear I do find moving things distracting, so it may not stay for very long. (Glad you didn’t cut it though, TwinkleToes – it lets your personality show through…)

      • *laughs* You can’t remember! It’s the biggest thing I remember. Odd how that sort of thing works, you must admit.

        Not at all! I wouldn’t do that… *kicks dirt*

        His hair is funny in the middle.

        *laughs lots* It was quite funny and fun to see it there, I must admit. Now, we mustn’t add TwinkleToes to the nickname lineup. It lacks any real viciousness.

        • Do you know that, according to Goodreads, I read over 45,000 pages per year! Imagine how brilliant I’d be if I remembered it all!

          Hmm… you only do that because you know I can’t stay angry when you do…

          He’s not really my idea of Ewen Cameron. What a pity Colin Firth never played him… *dreamy face*

          *laughs* OK, I promise! You have a valid point – I shall revert to Tash… is that better?

          • Goodness! You poor thing you! I feel for you. I bet you remember…70%!

            It’s something Tom Sawyer and Shasta might do.

            Colin was just in a new movie…did you see that?

            That’s much better! Hast thou gotten around to Horse and His Boy yet?

            • 7, more like!

              But not nearly as cutely and adorably…

              No! What? I hardly ever watch films, but I hear The Martian’s due out in October…

              Not yet – I got sidetracked away from the Narnia books, but will return soon.

            • Humph noodles. Then I fear you probably need to read it all over again.

              Quite right. They’re more cute, since I’m a warrior.

              I’ve got on to loving watching movies in the theaters, can you believe. So, I did know about The Martian! Oh, he was in some sort of spy movie. You’d hate it.

              I believe you not!

            • Nooooooooooo!!!!!

              *nods* Yes, but a c&a one… like Reepicheep.

              I’ve always enjoyed films more in the cinema – especially action films – though I don’t go very often. Can’t wait to see The Martian! I probably would! He should stick to being Darby.

              Well, which you prefer me to read – Narnia or the Bible? *chuckles wickedly*

            • Yes! For sure! “After the love has gone…” This is what happens when you listen to music and blog.

              And here I thought you hated mice!

              But…but…Matt Damon was just the wrong choice!

              Those two and nothing else!

            • I hope you’re singing that song to Julia and not me!

              Usually, but that’s because they’re not warriorish…

              Well, I don’t know him very well, so I’ll have to wait and see. Who would you have cast?

              *jaw drops* But… but… that’s not fair!

            • I was actually singing it to the Steelers, can you believe.

              Well, not every good thing is warriorish, don’t you know.

              Either Taylor K (John Carter) or Chris Pratt.

              But it’s business!

  9. My father read “Kidnapped” to me when I was a young boy, and I really liked it, but maybe some of that was just the pleasure of having him read to me, a chapter a night. It was from one of those lovely Illustrated Classics volumes, with the nice plastic covers, and dramatic colour pictures. I don’t think that those were shortened or changed in any way, so I think I heard the whole story.

    Thus I may not have actually read it, just listened to it. I can give you my young boy reactions: I loved the opening, with the dastardly uncle (I was not sure what a blunderbuss was, but my father explalined). The kidnapping was quite discomfiting; I imagined how awful that would be. I wondered if he could somehow escape from the ship, and that stern Captain Hoseason. The early scenes with David and Alan were dramatic, and anything else that happened on the boat. The rest of it I do not remember all that much, except the meeting with some of the other highland clan leaders, and appreciating the dangerousness of what they were trying to do, and admiring their courage. Yes, I do recall that David never approves of any of this, though he likes Alan. He was rather priggish at that. Then the ending was dramatic and gratifying, too. As to the abruptness of it, I suppose I did not mind as much as a boy.

    I always thought that “David Balfour” was the sequel to “Kidnapped.’ My father read that to me, too, but we both agreed that it was really slow. Well, there is a lot of romance in in, which I might appreciate more now, but didn’t have much use for at six or seven years old! But I am certain it is not nearly as good as “Kidnapped.”

    I wholly agree that “Treasure Island” is better. I consider it the best adventure story ever written. I recently listened to a wonderful reading of it, where the reader made Long John Silver sound much like Robert Newton’s incomparable portrayal of him! (I even have a DVD of a TV series, “Long John Silver,” with Newton playing SIlver at a later time, apparently as a thoroughly decent person. I have not watched it yet; it is probably not that good, but Silver was actually my early boyhood idol, because of his high intelligence and basic charm). But “Kidnapped” definitely made an impression on me; the perils at sea; and the hauntingly doomed Scottish rebellion–although when I I listened to it, I did not completely realize that nothing much would come of this last valiant effort. I was used to the heroic side winning, and I hoped that the clans would, too.

    • I didn’t read it as a kid so don’t know how I’d have felt about it then. But the beginning – right up to the murder really – is great. After that I did find it dragged a bit, and I found David annoying which never helps! But I did enjoy the look at the historical aspects of it, especially since I’ve been digging around in Scottish history over the last couple of years in the lead up to the Independence debate. Too early to say who won really – I’m not sure the rebellion is altogether over yet… 😉

      Realthog (another visitor) has just advised that David Balfour and Catriona are the same book – for some reason it’s published as David Balfour on your side of the pond. I might try to get around to reading it sometime, but as usual am backed up to the eyeballs with review books and planned stuff for the next few months.

      Treasure Island is definitely more fun! And from what I remember the action is fairly constant without the lulls that happen in Kidnapped. But no – best adventure book is King Solomon’s Mines! And Allan Quatermain was my childhood hero – still is! Until I fell in love with Ewen Cameron that is… and then Darcy…

      • I read “King Solomon’s Mines,” and thought it was excellent. I really should read another book by H. Rider Haggard. I know that “She” is another of his famous ones. There should be more of those kind of “wholesome” adventure novels, but I guuss that the world has shrunk to the extent that there is not nearly as much unknown terrain.

        Have you read any of Alistair MacLean’s novels? I remember liking those, though I read them as a teenager. They were adventure novels but with an espionage context. And then Howard Pease, who wrote the Tod Moran sea stories for young adults; for that age, they were great adventures, always with a mystery to solve. They are sadly out of print, I think, a great shame for “the wiser youngsters of today,” to whom Stevenson addrressed his poetric preface to “Treasure Island.”

        I still have somewhat of a crush on Estella in “Great Expectations.” She was haughty as a child, cold as an adult; but she knew it, and wanted to be better. Give me the second ending to that novel, any time. I thought Holiday Grainger was quite good in that role in the recent version. I have seen them all, I think!

        • Too bad there is not an “edit: function here, as “poetric” is not a neologism, but a typographical error!

        • The only other Rider Haggard that I’ve read (I think) is Allan Quatermain which is also excellent, but I’ve been meaning to read She for ages, since most people rate it as one of, if not the, best. My sister (who lurks here as BigSister) rates Nada the Lily very highly too. Have you read Andy Weir’s The Martian? If you can tolerate the strong language he uses from time to time, it’s an excellent adventure of the old style that just happens to be set on Mars. Just a great fun read with an old-fashioned heroic hero!

          I did read some Alastair MacLean way, way back, also in my teens and from what I remember I enjoyed them. Don’t know Howard Pease at all. Even back in my youth I preferred the older writers on the whole – loved the way they used language. Even not particularly literary writers, like Rider Haggard, somehow had a real facility for vocabulary that’s so often missing in later ‘genre’ novels.

          Oh, dear I hated Estella! But I think that may be gender related! I felt so sorry for poor Pip. University kind of destroyed Great Expectations for me by over-analysing it and I’ve never been able to enjoy it quite as much as the other Dickens’ novels since.

          • I had this sort of epiphany after seeing the recent version of “Great Expectations.” (Not that it was better than the David Lean version, or any more insightful than any version, including the actual theatre version I saw not that long ago), but maybe just seeing it again made me “realize” that it is really a fairy tale, in some sense. One with an unfortunately unhappy ending–but Dickens saved it with his revised ending. Dickens’ characters are usually larger than life (one of my literature professors once said that because Dickens felt orphaned in some sense by his parents sending him off to school at a young age, he saw and described things through the eyes of a young boy, hence larger than life), but “Great Expectations” is particularly like a fairy tale, with the large, forbidding house; the woman sitting in a room full of cobwebs; the beautiful young girl. It’s the ultimate in nice male romantic fantasy, in that sense; rescuing the damsel n the tower. Well, maybe they discussed all that at your university; but I am concerned that they somehow tried to teach it from some kind of economic or feminist perspective–I hope not, as it is poetic, at least in themes. It is one of my favorite novels of all time.

            I have not read the Weir novel, but there is this new movie with the same title; I assume it is not the same writer or novel. I will try the Weir one. I love great adventure stories, particularly set in the 19th or 18th centuries; but any good tableau will do it it is written well.

            It is nice that your sister visits here! I just rewatched a film version of Chandler’s “The LIttle Sister,” a movie called “Marlowe,” with James Garner. I thought that perhaps her name alluded to that, but apparently not. 🙂

            • Miss ‘Avisham is undoubtedly one of the greatest characters in English literature – unforgettable! No, it wasn’t a feminist or economic thing – they had a terrible habit of concentrating on the structure of novels and breaking them down so that you could see how it all worked. For me, it was a bit like explaining a magic trick – it’s never as thrilling once you know how it’s done. It was partly the Uni’s fault, I think, but also it became clear to me fairly quickly that the more I know about a book the less likely I am to enjoy it as a reader.

              I think it is the movie of the book – I remember hearing the film rights had been sold! Ooh, is it out? That’s one I want to see! I warn you, you may never look at a potato the same way again… 😉

              Haha! No, neither of us managed to be terribly imaginative about our pseudonyms I fear… 😉

  10. I enjoyed your review (though I’ve never read Kidnapped) I can’t promise i will either, with the TBR in its present parlous state. I think the TBR must be a bacterium, dividing and multiplying with ferocious speed.

    But I also enjoyed the professorial twinkles enormously, after clicking that little giffy!

    Thanks FF, thanks Prof

    PS There will be MY VERY OWN home-made giffy on Wednesday. Alas, it is too small for satisfaction as the only original I found to work from was unsuitably wee. But its the thought that counts. And i was also pleased as punch with the gratuitous link to the book I am reviewing. (You’ll just have to wait and see)

    • Nah, don’t read Kidnapped, but DO read The Flight of the Heron sometime, if you never have. Overly romantic, but he was the first man I fell in love with I think (if you discount Gilbert Blythe and Aslan).

      Hehe! It’s a nice little gif, isn’t it? I doubt the Prof feels that way though… *chuckles* And, as always, the video is great!

      Hmm… intrigued! It can’t be Being Nixon and I wouldn’t have thought The Last Refuge was your thing either. You’re not reading Spjut, are you? Or indeed The Flight of the Heron??

  11. Ah, good – I had a go at this in the past and found it dragged and thought it was me being impatient! But I can take the slower Arnold Bennett and Anthony Trollopes, so it’s probably not me!

    • I don’t mind slow either if it’s slow but interesting, but I did find this dragged in the middle. I think it was because I didn’t much like the hero. I wan’t my heroes to be heroic, not sickly! 😉

  12. Treasure Island is still my favorite Stevenson book. Kidnapped was good but slower moving to me when I read it ages ago. I probably was not in a good frame of mind back then when I picked it up.

    • Yes, I preferred Treasure Island too – more action! The start fo Kidnapped was just as good but then it dipped in the middle. And David was so annoying – never a good thing for a hero!

  13. I found Kidnapped really hard to get through as a child. Then I felt stupid because in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ it’s one of Sandy’s favourite books and she spends time having imaginary conversations with Alan Breck. It was traumatic because I really liked Sandy; in my head we were great friends and I didn’t want to admit to her that I completely failed understand her passion for the book. At that point I vowed to re-read RLS, but I still haven’t got round to it….

    • Haha! I had a similar problem with Anne of Green Gables’ love for Tennyson’s poetry. I tried really hard to love it for her sake, but couldn’t! You might get on better with Kidnapped as an adult though – I reckon the dip in the middle would be hard for a child to get through, especially if they didn’t really understand the historical setting (which Sandy probably did, being Scottish!)

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀

  14. I guess as the replies become more diagonal, the site does not allow them to keep going further to the right! So I will put this here. The movie of “The Martian” is supposed to come out in October, I think. I do like baked potatoes, though, so maybe it is best I avoid this one. 🙂 If they do one with beets, I am fine, since I never eat those.

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