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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…
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.
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.
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!