Robert Louis Stevenson knew about guerrilla warfare

  • Themes: War

Skullduggery, tension and thrilling chases - Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson is both one of the great Scottish novels and a compelling account of unconventional warfare.

A scene from the novel Kidnapped, illustration by Robert Louis Stevenson.
A scene from the novel Kidnapped, illustration by Robert Louis Stevenson. Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts / Alamy Stock Photo

It is a stiflingly hot, cloudless day in early July on Rannoch Moor in Scotland. Dawn begins at 3:30am and dusk ends at 11:15pm, leaving only four hours of darkness. The moor is ‘a piece of low, broken, desert land,’ without trees, shade or water save for that in the peat. You have no money or food, the water in the brandy bottle is gone, and the king’s men are after you. Nearby Glencoe is heavily guarded. There are two options: head to the territory of an enemy clan, or cross the moor. What do you do?

Kidnappeds narrator, David Balfour, and his companion Alan Breck Stewart, are on the run from King George’s redcoats, wanted for the assassination of the government factor, Colin Campbell of Glenure. Their ‘Flight in the Heather’ can be easily imagined by anyone who has had to cross Rannoch Moor, or even part of it, on foot on a high summer’s day. Nothing has changed since 1751. The blazing sun and lack of relief quickly create a longing for water and shade. Ground that should be mire crunches underfoot. The steep slopes of Glencoe are brown, the sun is vertical overhead, nothing moves in the swathes of bog myrtle and rusty seedheads of bog asphodel. David says: ‘At last, about two, it was beyond men’s bearing.’

I returned to this book recently and was struck by the vivid description of their persecution by the sun, reminded of the unnatural summer of 2022 which left many northern-dwellers longing for clouds. But it is also striking to read with our contemporary backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which must make us all reflect on what it would be like to have a war in our own land, to have to relearn our own landscape, where it hides, where it helps us, and where we cannot cross. There are some wonderful descriptions of the silence and exposure, the risk that a loose step on the scree will cause a rolling pebble to echo around the glen as it falls. Alan asks David: ‘Out on yon bald, naked, flat place, where can a body turn to? Let the redcoats come over a hill, they can spy you miles away; and the sorrow’s in their horses’ heels, they would soon ride you down. It’s no good place, David; and I’m free to say, it’s worse by daylight than by dark.’ We recognise these characters and this land — it is familiar to us as a place of refreshment and recreation — but we suddenly see it through the eyes of fugitives; we realise how quickly a safe place can become a hazardous one in which you must fight to survive.

Things do soon get worse for the pair. At noon they lie down in thick heather to sleep and take turns with the watch. But David has ‘the taste of sleep in my throat,’ and the hot smell of the heather and the drone of wild bees overcomes him. When he wakes it is much later, and ‘a body of horse-soldiers had come down during my sleep, and were drawing near to us from the south-east, spread out in the shape of a fan and riding their horses to and fro in the deep parts of the heather.’ As the troops beat the land, David and Alan are hunted like hares.

The adventure of their escape is about alliances and betrayals, old feuds and revenge. It is, after all, a rollicking story. It is also a reminder of the discontent and division in post-1745 Scotland, following the Jacobite Rising, when trust within communities was not easy (and not sensible). It begins when seventeen-year-old David Balfour sets out to find the House of Shaws, the ancestral home of the Balfours, after his father’s death. The house is decaying and inhabited by his clearly evil Uncle Ebenezer who tricks him into a trip to Queensferry, west of Edinburgh, ostensibly to see a lawyer. Once there he is lured on board The Covenant, a ship about to depart for the Carolinas, trading tobacco, skins, mocking birds and cardinals. Captain Hoseason, who turns out to be in league with his uncle, has him knocked out, bound, and kept in the hold. He is destined for forced labour on tobacco plantations.

Of course they do not get to America. The Covenant  leaves the Firth of Forth and travels into head winds around the north coast of Scotland, pushed to within sight of Cape Wrath where, in thick fog, they run down a small boat. The only survivor is Alan Breck Stewart, a Jacobite on his way to France. Alan is ‘small and nimble as a goat … his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming.’ He carried a pair of fine silver-mounted pistols and was dressed in a greatcoat, a hat with feathers, a red waistcoat, black plush breeches and a blue coat with silver buttons and silver lace — giveaway French clothes. The captain, a ‘true-blue Protestant,’ nonetheless takes 60 guineas to land Alan at Loch Linnhe. But he tells David that ‘yon wild Hielandman is a danger to the ship, besides being a rank foe to King George.’ We know the captain is not going to keep his word.

And so begins the key relationship of the book, between David the Lowlander and Alan the Highlander, with a conversation about political difference: ‘And so you’re a Jacobite?’ David asks him. Alan replies ‘And you, by your long face, should be a Whig?’ David is indeed a Whig, but for fear of offence answers ‘Betwixt and between,’ to which Alan replies: ‘And that’s naething’. In terms of allegiance, David has to choose: the murderous ship captain or the Jacobite? His choice of Alan cements a non-political alliance and together they take on and defeat the ship’s crew through a battle in the roundhouse. Alan situates that micro-battle within a grander one when he asks the captain: ‘I bear a king’s name … Do you see my sword? It has slashed the heads of mair Whigamores than you have toes upon your feet.’

We learn a little about Alan: that his father had served King George in the Black Watch, and that Alan himself had fought in the English army until he deserted at Prestonpans. Now he is in the service of the French king and has come to raise money from rents in Appin in the west Highlands for the clan chief in exile in France, and to recruit Highlanders for France. He boasts that he has returned from France to Scotland every year since 1746 because ‘France is a braw place, nae doubt, but I weary for the heather and the deer.’ Through him we see the organisation of the underground movement, where ‘everywhere there are friends’ houses and friends’ byres and haystacks,’ and how resistance is possible despite repression: ‘with never a gun or a sword left from Cantyre to Cape Wrath, but what tenty [careful] folk have hidden in their thatch!’ But this is not just about the endlessly unhappy triumvirate of Scotland, England and France; the need to choose sides has made local clan loyalties and feuds even fiercer — it is never a given that all Highlanders are on the same side. Alan says of the Campbell clan: ‘I know nothing I would help a Campbell to, unless it was a leaden bullet’.

Kidnapped is a work of fiction and romance, but it is deeply rooted in fact. It was published in 1886 but Stevenson had a keen interest in Scottish history and this earlier period in particular. Alan Breck Stewart did actually exist (of which more later). For me, the most thought-provoking geopolitical dimension in the novel is not the French connection, but the American one. Highlanders travelled to the new southern states of America throughout the 1730s and 40s – indeed General James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, was from an English Jacobite family and took Highlanders because they were tough, and would survive and work. In 1735 the Georgia Trustees recruited 170 Highlanders to guard the colony’s frontier with Spanish Florida. One such character was John Mòr McIntosh, a clan chief from Badenoch, who in 1736 founded New Inverness, on the southern Georgia coast. In 1770 his son Lachlan McIntosh was an influential businessman with land, and a leader of the independence movement. He argued that decisions that affected Georgia should be taken locally in Savannah, not in London. When the War of Independence began, Lachlan McIntosh became the commander of Georgia’s Battalion and repelled British assaults from the coast. By 1778 the British had assembled an army of over 3,000 British regulars, German mercenaries, and American loyalists who sailed from New York to recapture Savannah, under the command of Lt Colonel Archibald Campbell. The British entry into Savannah was virtually uncontested; but the following year the-then General McIntosh fought with 6,000 French soldiers, twenty French ships and eleven French frigates to retake the city (they did not succeed — the British held Savannah until 1782). General Lachlan McIntosh’s house still stands in one of Savannah’s garden squares.

But back to our story. The Covenant had drifted in thick fog down the Little Minch and round the coast of Skye. Since Alan is intent on being dropped in Loch Linnhe, they head for the southern coast of Mull. The journey is best enjoyed with the help of the diverting sketch maps Stevenson insisted must accompany the text. Under a full moon and in a westerly swell The Covenant is wrecked on reefs off Mull, the land of the Campbells, Alan’s enemies. David is cast into the sea and finds himself alone on the small Isle of Erraid where he finds no shelter from the endless rain, and no food but shellfish, before some fishermen point out that he can walk to Mull at low tide. Taken in by the wild Highlanders who help him at the sight of a silver button belonging to Alan, he makes for Appin, on the shore of Loch Linnhe and the approach to Glencoe.

While sitting in a birchwood tree on the steep craggy lochside, considering his options (‘troubled by a cloud of stinging midges’), David encounters by chance Colin Campbell of Glenure, the deeply unpopular king’s factor known as the Red Fox. David asks directions, and while they stop a shot rings out from the hill and hits its target. The Red Fox is dead. David immediately scrambles up and into the trees looking for the murderer. This moment is the turning point of the book: redcoats run immediately to the scene, David is assumed to have been an accomplice, the soldiers fan out and start firing at David in the birches. He is suddenly grabbed by Alan Breck Stewart, who just happens to be hiding nearby, and they set off running along the side of the mountain towards Ballachulish, pursued by the redcoats.

Thus the flight through the heather; the slow inching through the chokepoint of Glencoe, crawling with soldiers, while settlements across Appin are being searched, arms being found, poor people being arrested and held as accomplices for the murder, covering for the real culprit as he gets away. The chilling aspect of this tale has its basis in fact: Colin Campbell of Glenure was the king’s factor in Appin and was indeed shot by a marksman. A man called James Stewart of Appin, who features in Kidnapped as ‘James of the Glens,’ was arrested and tried for murder. We witness James and his household taking the guns and swords out to hide in the moss; we witness his wife sitting by the fire and weeping because she knows of the punishment that is certain to come; we witness James Stewart giving David and Alan a sword and pistols, some ammunition, a bag of oatmeal, an iron pan and a bottle of French brandy. ‘If it falls on you,’ he says to Alan, ‘it falls on me that I am your near kinsman and harboured ye while ye were in the country.’ During his real-life trial, a letter from James Stewart used in evidence described the visit of Alan Stewart, a distant friend of the clan chief’s, who was in French service, was known to have been in the area at the time and who had since disappeared (Stevenson took his description of the character precisely from that letter). James Stewart alleged that the now-disappeared Alan was the murderer, but to no avail. The presiding judge at the trial was a Campbell and the fifteen-man jury contained Campbell clansmen. James Stewart was hanged in 1752 above the narrows at the village of Ballachulish; he died protesting his innocence.

And how does it end? The adventure, of course, concludes satisfactorily if abruptly. Although our sympathies lie with David and Alan, this story is not simply a sentimental tract about Highlanders, and they don’t all come out of it well by any means. We see the madness and sadness that comes from taking sides. But the taste the novel leaves behind is of the heather and the birchwoods and that blisteringly hot day on the peat moor. ‘By what I have read in the books, I think few that have held a pen were ever really wearied, or they would write of it more strongly,’ reflects David. Stevenson evokes not only the unique sensations of the Scottish wilderness but also the dislocation and fear caused by conflict. He was clearly writing from the heart.


Suzanne Raine