Places Discussed

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*Scottish Highlands

*Scottish Highlands. Mountainous region of northern Scotland that is the scene of many adventures of young David Balfour, who finds the Highlands a wild, frightening, demanding, and alien environment. However, with the help of Highlander Alan Breck Stewart, he learns to survive there and to understand himself in doing so. There, he learns what it means to be Scottish. His own upbringing in the Scottish Lowlands has made him ambitious, thrifty, careful, and a little selfish. In the Highlands, he encounters heroism, romance, honor, tragedy, and loyalty. The Highlands thus represent aspects of Scotland and of David himself which, after David’s adventures with Alan Breck Stewart, he cannot ignore or forget.

House of Shaws

House of Shaws. Balfour family estate that is David’s birthright but which at the beginning of the novel is in the possession of David’s wicked uncle, Ebenezer Balfour. The House of Shaws is a dark, forbidding, dangerous, and mysterious place. Its decayed and incomplete state reflects the grim family history and blighted lives of the Balfours. Its darkness and dangers mirror the evils of Ebenezer Balfour. David’s retaking possession of Shaws at the end of the novel signals his achievement of maturity and the beginning of a much brighter future for both the Shaws and the Balfour family.


Covenant. Ship captained by Elias Hoseason on which David Balfour is carried away after being kidnapped on his uncle’s orders. The ship’s name evokes Scottish religious tradition, but for David the Covenant is merely a small and dangerous place in which he learns quickly about the concentrated wickedness, violence, treachery, and brutality of men and the ruthlessness of wind and sea. In the miniature world of the Covenant he also finds occasional kindness and the heroic fighting abilities of the Jacobite adventurer Alan Breck Stewart.

*Scottish Lowlands

*Scottish Lowlands. Region of Scotland below the Highland line that is the home of David Balfour. Stevenson treats Scotland’s Lowlands as prosperous, commercial, materialistic, affluent, and governed by law and order. The Lowlands represent one side of Scottish character and the romantic Highlands another. David’s prudence, ambition, common sense, and faith in law mark him as a Lowlander, just as the daring Alan Breck Stewart is the perfect Highlander in his bravery, honor, loyalty, and quick temper. Contrasts and conflicts between the Lowlands and the Highlands are among the novel’s most important themes.


*Appin. Region of the Scottish Highlands that is home to Alan Breck Stewart and his clan and is the scene of the murder of Colin Campbell. Stevenson’s account of Appin provides views of clan life, the violence associated with clan feuds, the oppression and degradation of the Highlands after the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and the fearful but determined survival of clan loyalties and values under English oppression.


*Earraid (ihr-AYD). Rocky islet onto which David is cast after the loss of the Covenant. Earraid is a small, barren, uninhabited, and inhospitable island among Scotland’s Hebrides where David learns about life without even the most basic comforts. During his four-day stay on this islet, David is wet, cold, hungry, and sick, and this bleak place provides him an education in the basic realities of physical existence and physical pain. When he finally discovers that Earraid is a tidal islet from which he can escape during any low tide, the island also educates him in humility.

*Cluny’s Cage

*Cluny’s Cage. Egg-shaped hanging house made of wattles and moss where, on the side of the mountain Ben Alder, the outlawed Highland chieftain Cluny Macpherson finds refuge. Cluny’s Cage is not only a memorably strange...

(This entire section contains 826 words.)

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dwelling but a symbol of Highland determination and ingenuity. In this hanging home, Macpherson remains in his dear Highlands, tricks the English army, and conducts his clan’s business. At the same time, his prisonlike suspended cage reflects the extremes to which Highlanders must go to survive.


*Balquidder (bal-KWI-tur). Highland region in which David recuperates for a month from exhaustion and where he and Alan Breck Stewart meet Robin Oig, son of the notorious Rob Roy. Stevenson describes this region of the Highlands as a wild country inhabited by outcasts and men without chieftains or major clan connections. This outlaw region essentially serves as a symbol for the decay and disintegration of Highland life. However, Stevenson shows the survival of Highlander honor and love of music even in this place of disorder.


*Glencoe. One of the wildest areas in the Scottish Highlands where, amid waterfalls and rocks, David and Alan hide from pursuing English soldiers. The horrific sublimity of Glencoe adds to the terror of their situation, and Stevenson is careful to point out that Glencoe was the scene of a famous massacre in 1692. The day in which David and Alan spend hiding and broiling on a sun-baked rock in Glencoe, surrounded by English soldiers, is among the most memorable episodes in Kidnapped.


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The story takes place in Scotland and the waters around it in the summer of 1751. David's travels take him over much of the Scottish countryside, especially the Highlands. Most editions of the novel contain background explanations that clarify the historical situation. The 1700s saw two Scottish rebellions against England caused by the decision that the House of Hanover would rule both countries. The Scots wanted their own royal family, the Stuarts, to rule again; they fought bloody wars in the attempt to accomplish this goal. The last revolt, in 1745-1746, ended with defeat for Scotland. By 1751 many of the Highland chiefs were either in hiding or had escaped to the Continent, and their followers were still supporting them with money and assistance.

One of the principal conflicts in the text exists between the attitude of David, who represents the Whig Lowlander acceptance of the Hanoverian monarchy, and that of Alan Breck Stewart, who stands for the rebellious Highland resistance to British control and, in some cases, the hope that the Stuarts might again rule the British Isles. This issue causes considerable friction in the plot, as it did in history. Stevenson manages to achieve an admirable objectivity toward both sides of the controversy. Among the perennial historical lessons in the book lies the fact that armed rebellion, successful or not, never leads to absolute peace and serenity.

Literary Techniques

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The main device in Kidnapped is that David Balfour narrates the entire text. The reader knows only what he knows and tends to believe what David believes. Thereby an element of realism is developed, in that the headlong plot is not slowed by deep thoughts and profound speculations, such as might be expected from the author himself in a third-person narrative or from a more sophisticated narrator. David tends to believe what he is told, at least for the first several chapters. As he becomes more aware of the machinations of his enemies, he grows more wary, but in a quite credible manner. For example, in the early scene in which the wicked uncle, Ebenezer Balfour (it has been speculated that Stevenson used his mother's maiden name as something of a tribute to her), tells David that he must lock the lad out of the house while Ebenezer is absent, David accepts the strange suggestion with unexpected equanimity, although he is surprised. Also, he is remarkably unperturbed by his uncle's crude attempts to kill him. Although he is temporarily indignant, the feeling passes, and he soon is ready to follow Ebenezer's suggestions. It would be difficult for an author to create this sense of honest naivety with any other point of view.

Literary Qualities

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While Treasure Island benefits from being told mostly in the voice of the bright and observant young Jim Hawkins, it suffers from the fact that parts of the story—matters that could not be known to Jim—have to be told by a different character. Kidnapped, on the other hand, is told as a memoir, so that the text benefits from the consistency of one voice and the perspective of a distance in time. David, in the telling, can recognize things he could not know at the time of the action.

I could not believe such wickedness, and ran along the shore from rock to rock, crying on them piteously. The vivid personality traits in nearly all the characters add realistic complexity and humor to the story. Captain Hoseason, for instance, participates in the brutal kidnapping of David, but whenever his ship passes a certain point of land, he has a gun salute fired in honor of his aged mother, who lives there. Also, the hard-hearted captain never swears. Other characters abuse the language but prove much kinder than Hoseason, such as Mr. Riach, the mate who tends to David's injuries and treats his illness. One mate is unmanageable when he drinks; another cannot be trusted when he is not drinking. Stevenson effectively weaves these quirky characteristics into the action-filled plot. Stevenson also carefully mixes Scottish terms into the dialogue in a believable fashion, but never to the point of sacrificing clarity or slowing down the action.

Character causes incident, and incident reveals character throughout Kidnapped. When, for example, Alan and David take cover from the soldiers in the Maclaren house, Alan encounters Robert Oig Macgregor, a member of a hostile clan. As the two prepare to duel to the death, their host, Duncan Maclaren, cleverly turns the duel into a contest over who is the better bagpiper. This incident reveals Alan's honorable nature, for he admits that his enemy, Macgregor, is a better piper. The characterization of this proud little man establishes the fact that although he might kill an enemy, he would not lie to him.

Social Concerns

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From a historical point of view, one of the chief conflicts in Kidnapped is that David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart are from different parts of Scotland and hold opposing political beliefs. David is a Lowlander with loyalist sympathies, while Alan is a Jacobite with a price on his head for aiding the cause of the Stuarts in their endeavor to seize the throne of England. At the time of the story, 1751, sentiments on both sides of the issue ran high. From a social standpoint, these two characters have lived very different lives. David comes from the small community of Essendean, among common folk; Alan, however, has traveled widely and consorted with persons of all levels of society.

One important social revelation in the novel is the high sense of honor among people of but modest rank. In the Highlands, where Alan is from, the people often surprise David by exhibiting a sensitivity and civility unexpected in such rude surroundings. And, even the bragging, rowdy Alan can be gracious, as in the fact that he refuses to speak Gaelic with his comrades because he knows that David does not understand the tongue. Thus, while Alan brags of being "a bonny fighter," which indeed he is, he also displays a profound respect for character, as in the way he treats the honorable lawyer Mr. Rankeillor.

Additional Commentary

No social issues presented in this novel seem likely to prove controversial. The issue of rebellion, however, could be viewed as a sensitive subject. One might wish to consider the problem of how much obedience to the law is morally necessary in an individual, considering that David, for most of the book, consorts with people who are technically outlaws. Stevenson's portrayal of these persons, though, is evenhanded.

Literary Precedents

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The bildungsroman, a genre of novel about the development from youth and innocence to age and experience has an old tradition in world literature. While Stevenson probably did not have such an intention in mind. Kidnapped does bear a thematic resemblance to Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795-1796), Dickenss David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Great Expectations (1860-1861), and Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The tradition has been followed by many authors in later years also. The novels of Sir Walter Scott offer numerous tales of young men learning about life and experiencing lively adventures.

For Further Reference

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Allen, Walter. The English Novel. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958. A general history of the English novel, with a brief section placing Stevenson in the mainstream of the form.

Bowyer, John Wilson, and John Lee Brooks. The Victorian Age: Prose, Poetry, Drama. New York: Appleton- Century-Crofts, 1954. An anthology that contains a dense and informative introduction to Stevenson and his works.

Daiches, David. Robert Louis Stevenson and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. Probably the best biography, it is detailed and thorough, with sound literary judgments.

Eigner, Edwin M. Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. Places Stevenson in the tradition of romanticism and examines several of his themes. It draws a number of fascinating parallels between Kidnapped and Huckleberry Finn.

Furnas, J. C. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Voyage to Windward. New York: Sloane, 1951. A somewhat idealized but useful biography.

Kiely, Robert. Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964. A scholarly explanation of the importance of adventure in Stevenson's life and the reasons for his treatment of it in his books.

Legouis, Emile, and Louis Cazamian. A History of English Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1964. Survey that indicates the high esteem in which Stevenson is held by French scholars.

Magill, Frank, ed. Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1983. Contains a balanced and clear survey of the life and the principal works.

Wagenknecht, Edward. The Cavalcade of the English Novel New York: Henry Holt, 1954. A standard history of the English novel, with a chapter on Stevenson that reviews his life and the achievements of his better works, including Kidnapped.

Zabel, Morton Dauwen. Introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson: The Two Major Novels. New York: Bantam Books, 1960. A concise summary of the most important strengths and weaknesses of Stevenson's writing, especially in the novels.


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Calder, Jenni. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Claims that Stevenson could not have written Kidnapped or Treasure Island if he had not had the life experiences he had. Discusses the characters of David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart and concludes that the novel’s success rests on the credibility of Balfour’s character.

Calder, Jenni. Stevenson and Victorian Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981. Includes a number of articles that refer to Kidnapped. Christopher Harvie’s “The Politics of Stevenson” examines settings in Stevenson’s novels and his development of a rich Scottish dialogue, as well as the role that Scottish politics play in Kidnapped. W. W. Robson, in “On Kidnapped,” analyzes the way the vernacular and character interaction are affected by the intersection of time and place.

Stewart, Ralph. “The Unity of Kidnapped.” Victorian Newsletter 64 (Fall, 1983): 30-31. Discusses how the setting in the Scottish Highlands advances the adventure plot and examines historic sources that inspired Stevenson.

Zharen, W. M. von. “Kidnapped: Improved Hodgepodge?” In Children’s Novels and the Movies, edited by Douglas Street. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Compares Kidnapped to motion picture productions of the novel and considers the reason behind changes made to the story. Discusses the reasons for the novel’s appeal to children.




Critical Essays