The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale by Robert Louis Stevenson

Brotherly love?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure. The old Laird has two sons. Jamie, the eldest, known as the Master of Ballantrae, is attractive and popular but evil, while Henry, the younger, is dull but good. The family decides one son should join Charlie’s rebellion while the other should declare loyalty to the Hanoverian King George II, a kind of hedging of bets in which many noble families would indulge (so says Stevenson, and I have no reason to doubt him). By rights, as the younger, Henry should have joined the rising, but the Master thinks this is the more exciting option so claims it for himself. When the rising fails, word reaches Durrisdeer that Jamie died in battle. Henry gains the estate but is vilified by the townspeople for, as rumour has it, betraying his more popular brother, while his father and Alison, the woman he is to marry, make no secret that they loved Jamie best and mourn his loss extravagantly. So things are bad for Henry… but they’re going to get worse when news arrives that Jamie didn’t die after all…

The Master and McKellar’s first meeting

I freely admit I thought this was going to be a story about the Jacobite rebellion, but it isn’t. The enmity between the brothers had begun before long before the rising, and although it is used to set up the conditions for further strife between them, in fact it’s a minor strand in the book. This is actually a story of two opposing characters and their lifelong struggle against each other. It’s told by Ephraim Mackellar, steward to the estate of Durrisdeer and loyal supporter of Henry, who was present for many of the main events and has gathered the rest of the story from witnesses and participants. It will involve duels, smugglers and plots, love and hate, loyalty and betrayal; it will take us aboard a pirate ship and all the way across the Atlantic to the little town of New York in the far away American colonies. And it will end with a terrifying journey through the wilds of (Native American) Indian country on a quest for treasure!

It would be possible to read this, perhaps, as some kind of allegory for the Scotland of the time, divided in loyalty between the deposed Stuarts and the reigning Hanoverians, but I don’t think that can be taken too far since neither brother seems actively to care who wins, nor to be loyal to anything or anybody very much, so long as they come out of it with their lands and position intact. The things that divide them are personal, not political. There’s also a kind of variant on the Jekyll and Hyde theme going on – the two brothers opposite in everything, one tediously decent, the other excitingly bad.

Errol Flynn swashbuckling as the Master…

However as we get to know the brothers over the long years covered by the story, we see that the contrasts between them are not as glaring as they first appear. The same flaws and weaknesses run through all members of this doomed family (not a spoiler – we’re told they’re doomed from the very beginning) – they just show themselves in different ways. Poor Mackellar – while his loyalty to Henry never fails him, as time goes on he becomes a solitary and unregarded voice of reason in the middle of their feud, and grows to see that, to coin a phrase, there are faults on both sides.

In the midst of our evil season sprang up a hurricane of wind; so that all supposed she must go down. […] At first I was terrified beyond motion, and almost beyond thought, my mind appearing to be frozen. Presently there stole in on me a ray of comfort. If the Nonesuch foundered, she would carry down with her into the deeps of that unsounded sea the creature whom we all so feared and hated; there would be no more Master of Ballantrae, the fish would sport among his ribs; his schemes all brought to nothing, his harmless enemies at peace. At first, I have said, it was but a ray of comfort; but it had soon grown to be broad sunshine. The thought of the man’s death, of his deletion from this world, which he embittered for so many, took possession of my mind. I hugged it, I found it sweet in my belly. I conceived the ship’s last plunge, the sea bursting upon all sides into the cabin, the brief mortal conflict there, all by myself, in that closed place; I numbered the horrors, I had almost said with satisfaction; I felt I could bear all and more, if the Nonesuch carried down with her, overtook by the same ruin, the enemy of my poor master’s house.

Stevenson always writes adventure brilliantly and there are some great action scenes in the book, many of them with more than an edge of creepiness and horror. But there’s much more to this one than simply that. The characterisation is the important thing, of the brothers certainly as the central figures in this drama, but equally of the other players – the old Laird, Alison and not least, Mackellar himself. Stevenson does an excellent job of showing how the various experiences they undergo change each of them – some becoming stronger, better people, others giving way to weakness and cruelty. I admit none of them are particularly likeable, (though despite myself I developed a soft spot for poor, pompous, self-righteous Mackellar – he had a lot to contend with, poor man), but they’re so well drawn that I was fully invested in their fates anyway.

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Sargent

Each of the settings is done brilliantly, from the life of a middle-ranking Laird of this period to the growing settlements in the New World. The pirate episode is especially good, as is the later voyage to America – Stevenson always seems to excel once he gets his characters out on the ocean wave. There are dark deeds a-plenty and not a little gore, but there’s also occasional humour to give a bit of light amidst the bleakness. There’s a lot of foreshadowing of doom, and a couple of times Mackellar tells us in advance what’s going to happen, but nevertheless the story held my interest throughout and the ending still managed to surprise and shock me. Though the adventure side means it could easily be enjoyed by older children, it seems to me this has rather more adult themes than Treasure Island or Kidnapped, in the sense that the good and evil debate is muddier and more complex, and rooted in the development of the characters rather than in the events – again, the comparison to Jekyll and Hyde would be closer. Oh, and there’s very little Scottish dialect in it, so perfectly accessible to non-Scots readers. Another excellent one from Stevenson’s hugely talented pen, fully deserving of its status as a classic, and highly recommended!

Book 16 of 90

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37 thoughts on “The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. Oh yes, this sounds like a rip-roaring adventure! And you can’t beat pirates and treasure. I already feel a bit sorry for poor Henry, he might be dull but he seems to get the rough end of the stick. Then again, I have a weakness for evil yet dashing chaps like Jamie, so I could probably get over it. Super review, FF, I really enjoyed this!


    • I think in general it’s because they have better dress sense… 😉 I may have to see if I can track down the Errol Flynn movie… though from the stills it doesn’t seem to bear a huge amount of comparison with the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like the fact that this is as much about the brothers and their relationship as it is about the larger events going on, FictionFan. To me, that makes a story more engaging – when it’s about people, if that makes sense. And there’s the fact that Stevenson really could write a corking adventure! Glad you enjoyed this as much as you did.


    • Yes, much more complex characterisation in this one all round, I felt, and it was good to see how they changed as things happened to them. But he still always remembers that the main thing is an interesting story! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know this book existed, having only read Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Your review makes me want to read it.


    • That’s all I’ve read of Stevenson too and I have much less excuse than you! Personally I much preferred this one to Kidnapped… up there with Treasure Island for sure, though J&H is my favourite…


  4. I’m so glad you liked this one!
    Is their mother still alive, because I can’t help but wonder how she feels about their extreme sibling rivalry! Poor woman.
    I have to ask, do you like it more than Treasure Island?


  5. This is a great book, isn’t it? I read it a few years ago and remember really enjoying it, particularly the fascinating relationship between the two brothers. I don’t think I would have fully appreciated it as a child – it’s definitely a more mature book than Treasure Island and Kidnapped, I think.


    • It is! I was surprised at the depth of the characterisation, though when I think about Jekyll and Hyde I don’t know why I should be – I tend to pigeon-hole Stevenson as “just” an adventure writer. But this one has the adventure and a lot more besides… thoroughly enjoyed it! 😀


  6. This one sounds like a winner! I can tell from your excellent review that you enjoyed it lots, and I think I would, too. Sibling rivalry is a good hook to hang a theme on. Sure, it’s been done before and often, but it lends itself to many conflicts. Must check to see if I can find a copy, drat!


    • I did! I always like adventure stories and I love well written historical fiction… and then of course there were the pirates! But the characterisation in this one was particularly good too – all round, excellent! If you do get a chance to read it, I hope you enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, an excellent mix of adventure and good characterisation – I don’t know why, as a Scot, I haven’t read more Stevenson. He’s one of those writers who thoroughly deserves his reputation!


    • Thank you very much – glad you enjoyed it! 😀 I’m reading some of the older Scottish classics at the moment and thoroughly enjoying them, and Robert Louis Stevenson is turning out to be one of my favourite authors.


  7. Unfortunately you are never going to win me over to this author although it does sound as if there is a little bit more going on than the adventure angle – it’s good to know, if only theoretically that he was able to portray the relationship between the brothers so effectively.


    • Hahaha – I’ll just keep going on about him until eventually I wear you down! You might as well just give in now to the inevitable… 😉 There is still adventure in this, but it’s definitely got more depth than Treasure Island. I’m sure you’d enjoy it… *runs away*

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Perhaps I can be a little overly nostalgic, but it seems like the authors of these ‘classics’ are way better than contemporary authors at adding humour into any genre. When I read a thriller written nowadays, I find the attempts at humour rather pathetic…


    • I think you’re right! Interesting – hmm, thinking about it maybe it’s because modern books are so often in the first person? The older authors tended to have, not exactly an omniscient narrator, but a storyteller who could poke fun at the characters from a bit of a distance. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t write such bleak stories so the humour doesn’t seem so forced? You’ve got me mulling now…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve only read Treasure Island – loved it as a child when I read it as an exciting adventure story. I then read it again as an adult and sound there was a lot more to it than adventure , the morality issue for example. Squire Trelawney and the docto ar motivated by greed you could say just as much as Silver.


    • Yes, I was surprised when I re-read it recently that there isn’t quite as clear a divide between the goodies and baddies as I felt I remembered. Part of what I love about him is that you can read his books as child and adult and find different things in them. I realised when I re-read Jekyll and Hyde recently that it’s a lot more morally complex than I’d remembered too.


    • It’s one of the best of the few I’ve read – I much preferred it to Kidnapped, though I think Jekyll and Hyde is still my fave. And Treasure Island of course – yo-ho-ho!


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