A Highland Odyssey

January 13, 2009

Kidnapped (1886)
Robert Louis Stevenson (Everyman, 1994)
340 p.  First reading.

The literature of Scotland has been mostly a closed book to me. I have laboured from time to time over David Hume, and have had the misfortune (thwarted, it sometimes has seemed, by an Invisible Hand) to miss out on Adam Smith. I once passed over all fifty-odd volumes of Walter Scott’s Waverley novels offered at an absurdly low price — and each time I change lodgings I am grateful that I did.  Yet I am very fond of Scotland, and would like to know her history and her stories better than I do.  With Stevenson’s books, first Treasure Island and now Kidnapped, I am beginning to lift the veil.

The book is called Kidnapped, and sure enough there is a kidnapping that initiates the story, but I’d have called it something else: There and Back Again, perhaps, in the manner of Mr. Baggins, for it really does have the arc of a boomerang; or A Highland Odyssey, for it is a story of an arduous journey and a homecoming and a dispensing of justice, though admittedly young David Balfour cleaves more closely to the rule of civilized law than did Homer’s hero.

There are many memorable episodes in the story — the defence of the Roundhouse, the wreck of the Lady Jane and David’s survival on the isle of Erraid, the flight across the heather pursued by soldiers, and the eventual entrapment of David’s wicked uncle — but what looms largest in my mind at book’s end is the friendship of David and his travelling companion, Alan Breck.  Stories that put a friendship — a mutual admiration and a common purpose — at their center are not very common in our literature.  There are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, of course, but surprisingly few others.  Stevenson’s duo join them, which is remarkable considering the unlikelihood of the match: David Balfour a young, rather naive man just making his way in the world when disaster befalls him, and Breck a middle-aged political radical passionate for his country and its freedom.  Yet it is a genuine friendship, grounded in respect and affection of each for the other, and rendered by Stevenson with great psychological acuity — think especially of their first meeting on board Lady Jane, or their quarrel on the heather.  One doesn’t normally find such a nuanced portrait in a “tale for boys”.

My own appreciation of the book was heightened by its backdrop: the Scottish Highlands. I have myself walked the Highlands, and the course of our heroes crossed my own path more than once: David went aground at Erraid, from which he could see across the bay the isle of Iona, which I have visited; and later he and Breck passed by Glencoe and crossed Rannoch Moor, which I have also crossed.  The primary differences between their journey and mine were simply that they ate dry biscuits and faced execution if captured, while I enjoyed a fine Scottish breakfast each morning and walked without fear of death — not immediate death, anyway.  The memories of those landscapes brought the book to life for me in an especially vivid way.

Yours Truly on Rannoch Moor, 2006.

Yours Truly on Rannoch Moor, 2006.

3 Responses to “A Highland Odyssey”

  1. Yehudit Says:

    I found your blog by searching on google images for photos of the sculpture of David and Alan, on the site in Edinburgh where they met for the last time before going their separate ways. After re-reading the novel after many years.

    I don’t see that photo here so don’t know why your blog turned up, but I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Kidnapped, but I was moved to comment by an error, which is that the brig was called the Covenant. (It occurs to me now someone could probably write a thesis on the symbolism of that name.)

  2. Yehudit Says:

    If you ever go back ……

    http://www.stevensonway.org.uk/

    (I’ve never made it to Scotland, although I love British Isles music, but that would be a fun hike if I had a free month.)

  3. cburrell Says:

    Thank you for the correction, Yehudit. I wonder where I got the Lady Jane from? And thank you also for the link to Stevenson’s Way; that’s a terrific idea.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: