I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house. The sun began to shine upon the summit of the hills as I went down the road; and by the time I had come as far as the manse, the blackbirds were whistling in the garden lilacs, and the mist that hung around the valley in the time of the dawn was beginning to arise and die away.
Mr. Campbell, the minister of Essendean, was waiting for me by the garden gate, good man! He asked me if I had breakfasted; and hearing that I lacked for nothing, he took my hand in both of his and clapped it kindly under his arm.
“Well, Davie, lad,” said he, “I will go with you as far as the ford, to set you on the way.” And we began to walk forward in silence.
“Are ye sorry to leave Essendean?” said he, after awhile.
Summary: At the death of his father, David Balfour is sent to the house of an uncle he had never known he had, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws. As he approaches the House of Shaws, he asks for directions, and everyone he talks to says dark things about it. His meeting of his uncle will have significant repercussions as Balfour is nearly killed, then sold into slavery, shipwrecked, and chased across the Highlands of Scotland. Along the way he will meet the Highland hero, Alan Breck Stewart, and with the help of the mercurial man's friendship come into his rightful inheritance.
Structurally, the novel builds itself around an actual historical event, the Appin Murder, which it lightly fictionalizes. The real events, more or less, are these. Campbell was the local Factor collecting rents from Stewart lands that had been seized by the English. He was shot by a sniper on May 14, 1752. The chief suspect was Alan Breck Stewart, who was known to be in Scotland collecting rents from the poor locals, who thus had to pay two rents, and recruiting soldiers for the French Crown; he had also previously threatened Campbell. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he eluded capture, so they arrested his foster father, James Stewart. James was tried, convicted, and hung for accessory to murder by a court that consisted of a Campbell for a judge (the Duke of Argyll) and a jury consisting of eleven members of the Campbell clan and four people dependent on the Duke of Argyll. Alan was tried and convicted in absentia. He vanished without a trace, and nobody knows what happened to him. It has come to be almost universally thought that he was probably innocent of the murder.
This being a major load-bearing element in the tale, it is not surprising, then, that Alan Breck Stewart ends up dominating most of the story. The novel in fact can be seen as a frame-story (David and his uncle) giving a context for a main story (David and Alan). But Stevenson manages to balance this by giving us a very independent-minded David, who is often by himself, and is not just a sidekick. The characterizations are, in fact, universally good; nearly every character is vivid and distinctive. David, too, is well done -- obviously intelligent and capable, but obviously seventeen.
Many of the passages in the work that I enjoyed long ago held up very well -- David on the tower stairs, the defense of the round house, and, in some ways the most masterful scene in the book, the contest between Alan Breck Stewart and Robin Oig. And the Highland atmosphere, sympathetic and yet sometimes frankly rendered, gives the whole tale an enduring charm.
Favorite Passage: This has pretty much always been my favorite passage:
...And presently he sat down upon the table, sword in hand; the air that he was making all the time began to run a little clearer, and then clearer still; and then out he burst with a great voice into a Gaelic song.
I have translated it here, not in verse (of which I have no skill) but at least in the king’s English. He sang it often afterwards, and the thing became popular; so that I have heard it and had it explained to me, many’s the time.
“This is the song of the sword of Alan:
The smith made it,
The fire set it;
Now it shines in the hand of Alan Breck.
“Their eyes were many and bright,
Swift were they to behold,
Many the hands they guided:
The sword was alone.
“The dun deer troop over the hill,
They are many, the hill is one;
The dun deer vanish,
The hill remains.
“Come to me from the hills of heather,
Come from the isles of the sea.
O far-beholding eagles,
Here is your meat.”
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.