It took an Argentinian-Canadian (Alberto Manguel) and a Swiss (Alex Capus) to persuade me. I have decided to fill a huge gap in my reading and finally acquaint myself with some classics from the pen of Robert Louis Stevenson.
While I located Stevenson’s childhood home, in a lovely part of town I might add, I never did pinpoint the Balfour/Breck statue. Instead I decided to track them down on the pages of Kidnapped.
There’s no need for plot details. I’m probably the last 50-something, 20+-years Alba inhabiting “reader” to have discovered them. But just in case I’m not, let the full title suffice:
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
It was originally published in the American magazine OurYoung Folks, targeted at 10-18 year olds. Well, I can pretend, can’t I?
As a young adult book, it’s an exciting adventure of kidnapping and escape and Jacobite rebellion and murder. Sandwiched between the plot-driven beginning and ending, however, is a description of Balfour’s flight for his life across Scotland, from the Isle of Mull in the West to Edinburgh in the East. It’s this section which makes Kidnapped rather special, describing the Scottish landscape in all its glory. As I was reading, I was imagining a whole series of literary pics. Then I found Tim Wright’s Kidmapper, in which he documents his own journey following in David Balfour’s footsteps, reading the novel in situ, taking pictures and recording his thoughts as he goes. Which is all rather glorious.
I digress though from the novel which is realistic in its depiction of Scotland and its weather (even down to the midgies!) and sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. Real historical events such as the Appin Murder are incorporated as a backdrop. Actually this pivotal event in the history of the Highland clearances occurs almost in the passing. The portrait of the Jacobite resistance fighter Allan Breck is romantic and flattering to one who was described by his uncle, as “a desperate foolish fellow”.
Stevenson’s style has dated but the Scots carries it. Balfour’s voice irritates at times, dropping far too many hints about the difficulties to come, thereby spoiling the surprise. Though if I were 10 years old, I think the hints might soften the shocking events that follow. Fortunately Balfour matures as the novel progresses – though the bickering between him and Breck never stops and that is mighty entertaining.
Actually Kidnapped is much more than an adventure story. Historical fiction, bildungsroman, a retelling of the Odyssey even … no wonder it’s a classic.
Next on Stevenson in September: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde