Kidnapped begins in June of 1751, in a region of Scotland known as the Lowlands. David Balfour, an Essendean boy of sixteen, is left homeless when his seemingly poor schoolmaster father dies. With his mother already dead, David believes himself to be without inheritance or living relative until the local minister, Mister Campbell, gives him a letter prepared by David’s father before his death. A note instructs David to take the letter to his heretofore unknown uncle, Ebenezer Balfour, at the house of Shaws in Cramond. The discovery that he hails from a wealthy family excites David, although Mister Campbell quickly reminds the boy—who has learned only simple country manners—to be on his best behavior when he arrives there. Mister Campbell gives David a Bible, a small amount of money, and a recipe for a healing drink, and David sets off on a two-day journey by foot to Cramond.
Along the way, David sees a regiment of the king’s soldiers, known as ‘‘redcoats,’’ marching past, and the sight fills him with pride. When he reaches the parish of Cramond, he asks local residents for directions to the Shaw house. He receives reactions both puzzled and negative, and begins to suspect that his family name and fortune may not be as grand as he had at first believed. When he finally arrives at the house of Shaws, he finds that ‘‘the house itself appeared to be a kind of ruin; no road led up to it; no smoke arose from any of the chimneys; nor was there any semblance of a garden.’’ Indeed, the house seems unfinished, with exposed rooms on the upper floor and windows without glass.
After nightfall, David summons the courage to knock at the door, and is reluctantly greeted by an old man holding a gun. When the old man, Ebenezer Balfour, learns of David’s identity— and presumably the death of his own brother— he agrees to let David inside. After a small meal of porridge, Ebenezer shows David to a bedroom, which the old man then locks from the outside. The next day, their relationship seems to improve slightly, and Ebenezer gives David thirty-seven gold guineas, each equal to one British pound, to fulfill a promise he says he once made to David’s father. That evening, Ebenezer asks David to retrieve some papers from a trunk at the top of a tower several stories high. He sends David on the errand without so much as a candle to see by, and thanks only to the lightning from an approaching storm, the boy realizes that the staircase ends abruptly in front of him, high above the ground. After he safely climbs down, David accuses his uncle of trying to murder him and demands an explanation. The old man, surprised to see David still alive, falls victim to a weak heart and must lie down, although he promises to explain everything to David in the morning. David locks Ebenezer inside his room, just as Ebenezer had done to him the night before.
The next morning, before Ebenezer explains himself—David assumes that ‘‘he had no lie ready for me, though he was hard at work preparing one’’—a cabin boy knocks on the door with a letter for Ebenezer from his captain, Elias Hoseason. Ebenezer suggests to David that they go into the nearby port town of Queensferry, where Ebenezer can conduct business with the captain; after completing his business, he vows to take David to Mr. Rankeillor, a local lawyer, and straighten out matters of the boy’s inheritance. David agrees, assuming the old man can do him no harm in such a public place.
The trio reaches Queensferry and meets Captain Hoseason at the local inn. David leaves the two older men alone to talk business, and while speaking with the landlord of the inn, David learns that his own father, Alexander, was actually the older brother of Ebenezer—contrary to what Ebenezer had claimed. From this, David realizes that he himself is the lawful heir to the entire family estate. Captain Hoseason and Ebenezer complete their business and the captain calls for David to join him briefly aboard his ship, the Covenant. David is wary to leave the safety of land in the company of one of his uncle’s associates, but eventually he agrees. The captain, Ebenezer, and David board a rowboat and make their way to where the Covenant is anchored. Once David is aboard the ship, Ebenezer slips away and heads back toward shore. David realizes he has been betrayed and cries out for help, but he is struck from behind and knocked unconscious.
When David awakens, he finds himself tied up somewhere within the ‘‘ill-smelling cavern of the ship’s bowels.’’ He is visited by one of the captain’s senior officers, Mr. Riach, who seems kind toward David and convinces the captain that the boy might die if he is left in such dismal conditions below decks. David is moved to the upper deck at the front of the ship, where he enjoys both sunlight and the company of the rough men who make up the ship’s crew. David eventually pieces together his fate: he is to be taken to the Carolinas in the American Colonies, where he will be sold into slavery as part of Ebenezer’s plan to keep the boy far away from his rightful claim on the family estate. Mr. Riach, whose kindness toward David appears only after he has been drinking, agrees to try and help the boy if he can.
Meanwhile, the cabin boy, Ransome, periodically relates to David terrible tales of his abuse at the hands of another of the ship’s senior officers, Mr. Shuan. One night, David learns that Ransome has been severely beaten by Mr. Shuan; the boy is brought down to David’s berth, and Captain Hoseason tells David that he is moving to the ship’s roundhouse (a cabin that has one curved wall), where he will live and serve as the new cabin boy. Soon after, David hears that Ransome has died. The captain tells his officers that they will say the boy went overboard. Mr. Shuan changes starkly after the incident, becoming fearful of David and forgetful of Ransome’s existence, as if the whole affair were just a nightmare. Despite this, and despite Mr. Riach’s failure to deliver on his promise to help David return home, the boy settles rather easily into his new life aboard the ship.
More than a week later, as David is serving Captain Hoseason and Mr. Riach their supper, the Covenant strikes another, smaller vessel in the fog and sinks it. By good fortune and brute strength, one member of the smaller boat manages to grab onto the Covenant and climb aboard. They bring the man into the roundhouse for a meal and a drink. The man, short and weathered but wearing fine French clothes and carrying a belt filled with gold coins, explains that he is a fugitive in his native Scotland. He tells the captain that he works in the service of a Highland chief who has been exiled by King George, and who is the rightful heir to the throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland. The money he carries is rent paid by the chief’s still loyal clan members. If he is discovered by the king’s soldiers, the redcoats, he will surely be imprisoned or killed.
Captain Hoseason refuses to transport the man to France, but agrees to take him as far as Linnhe Loch on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands in exchange for sixty gold guineas. The captain steps out with his officers, and David later overhears him planning to murder the man. They ask David to retrieve some pistols and gunpowder from the roundhouse, since most of the ship’s weaponry is stored there and they do not want to raise the Highlander’s suspicions by doing it themselves. David agrees, and returns to the roundhouse.
Instead of helping the captain and his men, David tells the Highlander, whose name is Alan Breck Stewart, of the captain’s plot. Alan asks David to stand with him against the attackers, and David agrees. They secure the roundhouse and load as many guns as possible before the captain and his men have a chance to advance. Although they are outnumbered fifteen to two, David and Alan successfully fend off their attackers, killing several of the crewmen. Alan is so impressed with David’s courage that he gives the boy one of the silver buttons from his coat, which were given to him by his own father.
David learns of Alan’s hatred for a man named Colin Roy Campbell, also known as the Red Fox, from a Scottish Highland clan that supported King George and made enemies of other Highland clans. Colin Roy was chosen as the king’s agent in the area, and was responsible for seizing possession of the Stewart clan’s estates in the name of the king. David also learns that Alan once served in the English army as a redcoat, but changed sides when his conscience got the better of him. For this act of desertion, capture by the redcoats would mean certain death for Alan.
Captain Hoseason eventually calls for a truce so that David and Alan can help the shorthanded crew navigate the Covenant through treacherous waters off the western coast of Scotland. Despite their best efforts, the ship crashes into a reef and David is thrown overboard. He manages to make it to shore, but can find no sign of the rest of the crew or Alan.
David explores the beach and surrounding area where he has washed ashore, and comes to the conclusion that he is trapped on an island with very little food or water available. He sees signs of a town on the main island of Mull across the strait from his island, and notes that ‘‘it seemed impossible that I should be left to die on the shores of my own country, and within view of a church tower and the smoke of men’s houses.’’ After four miserable days, David realizes that the body of water separating him from the main island all but disappears when the tide goes out, and that he can walk the distance without trouble.
David makes his way to the town he had seen from his previous location. He comes across an old gentleman who confirms that Alan and some of the other crewmen are still alive, and delivers a message: David is to travel to Torosay on the other side of the island, where he can then ferry to the mainland and meet up with Alan. The old gentleman and his wife offer David food and drink, and the man gives David a hat to wear on his journey.
At the end of the next day, David stops at another house and offers the poor man who lives there five shillings to let him stay the night and to guide David the following morning to Torosay. The man agrees, and after some delays caused by exchanging one of David’s few remaining guineas for the smaller currency of shillings, they set off toward Torosay. The guide takes David part of the way, but demands more money to complete the journey. David agrees at first, but when the guide stops and asks for more money a second time, the two argue and the guide pulls a knife from his sleeve. David disarms the man and steals his knife and his shoes, and then continues on his way alone.
David soon encounters another traveler, a blind man who claims to be a man of religion. David is impressed by his ability to describe the nearby landmarks despite his lack of sight; as they walk, David realizes that the man carries a pistol and is acting suspiciously, and David threatens to shoot the man if he doesn’t leave him alone. Upon arriving in Torosay, David discovers from a local innkeeper that the blind man is Duncan Mackiegh, known for being able to shoot accurately simply by sound, and also suspected of robbery and murder.
David takes the ferry from Torosay to Kinlochaline on the mainland. David shows the captain of the ferry, Neil Roy Macrob, his silver button from Alan’s coat, and Neil delivers a message outlining the route David should take to reach the home of James of the Glens in Appin, where Alan will wait in safety among his clan. David spends the night at the inn at Kinlochaline, which he calls ‘‘the most beggarly vile place that pigs were ever styed in, full of smoke, vermin, and silent Highlanders.’’
The next morning, he sets out along the course Alan provided. He meets Henderland, a teacher of religion far more genuine than his traveling companions on Mull. Henderland provides David an evenhanded account of the history of conflict between the Campbells and the other clans in the area. The man also provides David with a meal, a sermon, and a very small amount of money to help him on his journey.
David receives transport from a fisherman across the loch to Appin, Alan Breck’s homeland. While resting on the roadside, the Red Fox himself— Colin Roy Campbell—approaches on horseback with some trusted cohorts and a group of redcoats marching behind. David stops the man and asks him for directions to the home of James of the Glens. As the two converse, Campbell is shot dead. Campbell’s associates accuse David of being an accomplice who stopped the group so that Campbell could be killed. David runs away, and runs into Alan Breck hiding nearby. After the two escape the king’s agents and soldiers, David accuses Alan of being the murderer. Alan denies it, and David acknowledges seeing another man flee from the area after the shooting. However, Alan refuses to identify the shooter, and argues that it is better for the two of them to be suspected as the killers, since this would draw the soldiers away from the guilty man—who is surely a member of Alan’s clan. Although David disagrees with his reasoning, he goes with Alan to the home of James of the Glens in an attempt to effect an escape for both Alan and himself.
James is greatly distressed by the killing of Campbell, since he knows the blame will be put upon his people and his own family. He informs Alan that while he will help the two escape, he must also put out papers offering a reward for their capture. David is given a change of clothes so that his description will not match the one known to the king’s men, and David and Alan set off for safer lands to the east of Appin.
The two fugitives head eastward at a relentless pace, crossing mountains, rivers, and forests in an attempt to outrun the king’s soldiers. At one point, they find themselves in the same open valley as a camp of redcoats, but the pair ultimately manages to escape unseen. They reach relative safety in a place called Corrynakiegh, and Alan uses the silver button he gave David to send a message to a friend who lives there, John Breck Maccoll. Maccoll relays a message to James of the Glens, and brings back to Alan and David a small amount of money, a copy of the paper describing them as fugitives, and news that James himself has been taken prisoner by the king’s men.
The pair continues eastward until they reach the moors, a flat, open area where it is nearly impossible to hide from soldiers. They spy a group of soldiers on horseback headed their way from the east, and change course to the north to reach Ben Alder, a mountain that can provide cover. As they approach Ben Alder, they encounter the clansmen of Cluny Macpherson, a rebel against the king and fugitive himself. David and Alan are invited to stay with Cluny in his hideout.
David, exhausted from their travels, falls ill for two days as Alan spends time playing cards with Cluny. Alan wakes David at one point and borrows the boy’s small amount of remaining money. When David fully recovers from his illness and the pair prepare to head southward, he discovers that Alan has lost all of their money— both his own and David’s—playing cards. Cluny is kind enough to return David’s portion of the money, leaving very little for both men to spend during their travels.
Alan apologizes to David for the incident, but David refuses to accept his apology. This leads to a quarrel that nearly ends in a sword fight, but Alan refuses to fight. David, growing ever weaker, finally tells Alan that he cannot continue onward without his friend’s help, and with that, their friendship is restored.
David and Alan make their way southeast across Balquidder, a region filled with as many potential enemies as friends. Luckily, they arrive first at a home where Alan is known by name and well regarded, and the family—of the Maclaren clan—allows David to recover there for nearly a month. During that time, David is visited by Robin Oig, outlaw son of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy Macgregor. Robin and Alan clash when they meet, and almost draw swords before the host of the house, Duncan Dhu, suggests that they instead resolve their conflict by playing pipes. Alan plays impressively, but Robin is a master piper, and clearly wins the contest. All ill feeling disappears when Alan admits, ‘‘It would go against my heart to haggle a man that can blow the pipes as you can!’’
When David and Alan finally leave Balquidder, it is near the end of August. They continue southeast toward the Firth of Forth, the body of water where David had been kidnapped two months before. The town of Queensferry and the home of the lawyer, Mr. Rankeillor, who David hopes will help him reclaim his rightful inheritance, both lie just across the water. However, David and Alan are unable to cross by bridge, where they would encounter soldiers. Instead, they reach Limekilns and gain the sympathies of a local innkeeper’s daughter. She agrees to help, and under cover of night she steals a neighbor’s boat and rows them across the water. Before they even have a chance to thank her, she rows away.
The next day, David finds Mr. Rankeillor and tells the man his story. Although David’s tale is difficult to believe, the story fits with the small amount of information Mr. Rankeillor has received. Between them, the two devise a plan to get Ebenezer to confess his part in the kidnapping. They enlist Alan to help, and he tricks Ebenezer into admitting that he paid Captain Hoseason twenty pounds to take David away to the Carolinas to be sold into slavery. Mr. Rankeillor, his assistant Torrance, and David reveal themselves as witnesses to the admission, and Ebenezer agrees to pay David two-thirds of the yearly family income as his rightful inheritance.
With David’s future secure, he and Alan head toward Edinburgh, where David plans to find a lawyer descended from the Appin Stewarts—and therefore trustworthy—to help Alan find a way out of the country. The two part ways, and Alan remains in hiding, awaiting David’s further assistance. The story ends with David standing before his bank in Edinburgh, and concludes with an assurance from the author that from that point on, ‘‘whatever befell them, it was not dishonor, and whatever failed them, they were not found wanting to themselves.’’
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010