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 17-year-old David Balfour. (Balfour is Stevenson's mother's maiden name.) David is naive but resourceful; his parents have recently died, and he 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 House of Shaws in Cramond, where David's uncle, Ebenezer Balfour, lives. On his journey, David asks 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 ominous House of Shaws and is confronted by his paranoid Uncle Ebenezer, who is armed with a blunderbuss. His uncle is also miserly, living on "parritch" and small ale, and 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 the steps simply end abruptly and fall into an 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 a pier on the Firth of Forth, where Hoseason awaits, and David makes the mistake of leaving his uncle alone with the captain while he visits the shore 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. David is then immediately struck senseless.

David awakens, bound hand and foot, in the hold 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 the small boat's 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 Alan and take all his money. David and Alan barricade themselves in the round house, where Alan kills the murderous Shuan and David wounds Hoseason. Five of the crew members are killed outright, and the rest refuse to continue fighting

Alan is a Jacobite who supports the claim of the House of Stewart to Scotland's throne. He is initially suspicious of the pro-Whig David, who is also loyal to King George. 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 to Alan, who in turn states that his birthplace, Appin, is under the tyrannical administration of Colin Roy of Glenure, the King's factor and a Campbell. 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 the notorious Torran Rocks. 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 David 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, 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 King's hated agent. David is denounced as a conspirator and flees for his life but by chance reunites with Alan. The youth believes Alan is the assassin, but Alan denies responsibility. The pair flee from redcoat search parties until they reach James (Stewart) of the Glens, whose family has heard of the murder and is burying their hidden store of weapons and burning papers that could incriminate them. James tells the travelers 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 and David with a change of clothes (which the printed description will not match).

Alan and David then begin their flight through the heather, hiding from government soldiers by day. As the trek drains David's strength, his health rapidly deteriorates and by the time they are set upon by wild Highlanders who are sentries for Cluny Macpherson, an outlawed chief in hiding, he is barely conscious. Alan convinces Cluny to give them shelter. The Highland chieftain is offended when David covenantly refuses to play cards but defers to the respected Alan's opinion of the lad. David is tended by a Highland doctor and soon recovers, though in the meantime Alan loses all of their money at cards with Cluny, only for Cluny to give it back when David practically begs for it.

When David and Alan resume their flight in cold and rainy weather, David becomes ill again and nurses a childish anger against Alan over the affront of having to beg for their money. Alan patiently tries to help the sulking David for several days but finally gives in to his own pride and begins taunting him. David forces a showdown with swords by insulting Alan's courage and loyalty, but Alan cannot bring himself to fight him. David, now sick in the extreme, at last feels contrition and realizes a plea for help can do what an apology will not: mend the rift between them. He carries David on his back down the burn to reach the nearest house, fortuitously that of a Maclaren, Duncan Dhu, who is both an ally of the Stewarts and a skilled piper.

David is bed-ridden and given a doctor's care, while Alan hides nearby, visiting after dark. During David's nearly month-long recuperation, he is visited by many curious but loyal neighbors in the region and also by a foe of Alan's, Robin Oig, the son of Rob Roy MacGregor and a wanted outlaw. 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. 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 (unnamed in Kidnapped but called "Alison Hastie" in its sequel) that David is a dying young Jacobite nobleman, despite 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. Rankeillor explains that David's father and uncle had once quarreled over a woman, David's mother, 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.

David and the lawyer hide in bushes outside Ebenezer's house while Alan 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, eventually agreeing that David will be provided two-thirds of the estate's income for as long as his uncle lives.

The novel ends with David and Alan's parting ways, Alan's returning to France, and David's 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.

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