Study Guide

Kidnapped Contrasting Regions

By Robert Louis Stevenson

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Contrasting Regions

I sat me down and stared at the house of Shaws. The more I looked, the pleasanter that country-side appeared; being all set with hawthorn bushes full of flowers; the fields dotted with sheep; a fine flight of rooks in the sky; and every sign of a kind soil and climate; and yet the barrack in the midst of it went sore against my fancy. (2.20)

That "barrack" in the middle would be the ugly, unfinished house of Shaws. But of more interest to us right now is the words Davie is using to describe the Lowland countryside: "kind soil and climate," "bushes full of flowers," loads of little sheep. Sounds pretty delightful, right? Let's remember this when we get to the Highland part of the story.

[An old man living on the island of Mull] then asked me how I had fared, and I told him my tale. A south-country man would certainly have laughed; but this old gentleman (I call him so because of his manners, for his clothes were dropping off his back) heard me all through with nothing but gravity and pity. When I had done, he took me by the hand, led me into his hut (it was no better) and presented me before his wife, as if she had been the Queen and I a duke. (15.10)

Davie is pleasantly surprised reaction to this Highland couple may strike us as a little offensive. What, did he expect them to be savage jerks? Why is it so remarkable that an old man on the island of Mull should be a nice guy?

I not only started late, but I must have wandered nearly half the time. True, I met plenty of people, grubbing in little miserable fields that would not keep a cat, or herding little kine about the bigness of asses. The Highland dress being forbidden by law since the rebellion, and the people condemned to the Lowland habit, which they much disliked, it was strange to see the variety of their array. Some went bare, only for a hanging cloak or great-coat, and carried their trousers on their backs like a useless burthen: some had made an imitation of the tartan with little parti-coloured stripes patched together like an old wife's quilt; others, again, still wore the Highland philabeg, but by putting a few stitches between the legs transformed it into a pair of trousers like a Dutchman's. All those makeshifts were condemned and punished, for the law was harshly applied, in hopes to break up the clan spirit; but in that out-of-the-way, sea-bound isle, there were few to make remarks and fewer to tell tales. (15.14)

Following the Bonnie Prince Charlie uprisings, the English really started trying to break down the Highland clan structure. But these people only bend and twist the rules to make it look like they're obeying. Is Stevenson trying to make a point about the Highland character during this period in history? What kind of tone is he using to describe the people in this passage? Is he being sympathetic? Critical? Disinterested?

This I found to be another catechist, but of a different order from the blind man of Mull: being indeed one of those sent out by the Edinburgh Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, to evangelise the more savage places of the Highlands. His name was Henderland; he spoke with the broad south-country tongue, which I was beginning to weary for the sound of. (16.17)

As a Lowland boy, no matter how attractive Davie finds certain parts of the Highlands (the Heugh of Corrynakiegh springs to mind), he'll always think of the south as home. In this case, the south is embodied in a person, an Anglican missionary who speaks with a "broad south-country tongue." But this makes us wonder: does Davie's preference for the lush countryside of the south bias his observations of the Highlands?

This frightened me a little, I confess, and would have frightened me more if I had known how nearly exact were Alan's predictions; indeed it was but in one point that he exaggerated, there being but eleven Campbells on the jury; though as the other four were equally in the Duke's dependence, it mattered less than might appear. Still, I cried out that he was unjust to the Duke of Argyle, who (for all he was a Whig) was yet a wise and honest nobleman.

"Hoot!" said Alan, "the man's a Whig, nae doubt; but I would never deny he was a good chieftain to his clan. And what would the clan think if there was a Campbell shot, and naebody hanged, and their own chief the Justice General? But I have often observed," says Alan, "that you Low-country bodies have no clear idea of what's right and wrong." (18.35-36)

This passage represents a nice comparison between the Lowland and Highland legal systems. Davie initially assumes that if he and Alan appear in front of a jury, they'll be acquitted of the murder of Colin Roy (since they are, in fact, innocent). Alan points out that this is the Highlands – it doesn't work that way. If the Duke of Argyle (the head of the Campbell clan) can't get a conviction for the murder of his kinsman in his own court, well, "what would the clan think?" Highland justice appears to be more about family loyalty than truth.

Then I saw why we had come there; for the two rocks, being both somewhat hollow on the top and sloping one to the other, made a kind of dish or saucer, where as many as three or four men might have lain hidden. (20.9-10)

Beginning with Davie's marooning in Earraid and continuing through Alan and Davie's stay at the Heugh of Corrynakiegh, we often get images of the Highlands like this one, in which the apparently barren countryside is full of nooks and crannies for men to hide in. The land itself has a secret geography, much as the people are being forced to hide their clan affiliations by English law. But there appears to be a stubbornness to both the land and the clans that continues to shelter Highland culture against the edicts of the English state.

We slept in the cave, making our bed of heather bushes which we cut for that purpose, and covering ourselves with Alan's great-coat. There was a low concealed place, in a turning of the glen, where we were so bold as to make fire: so that we could warm ourselves when the clouds set in, and cook hot porridge, and grill the little trouts that we caught with our hands under the stones and overhanging banks of the burn. (21.3)

Speaking of the Heugh of Corrynakiegh, here we are, sheltering with Alan and Davie in a cave and eating freshly caught fish. This seems positively luxurious compared to the limpets and periwinkles of Davie's Earraid adventure: where would he be without Alan around to introduce him to the secrets of the Highland landscape?

For though I had changed my clothes, I could not change my age or person; and Lowland boys of eighteen were not so rife in these parts of the world, and above all about that time, that they could fail to put one thing with another, and connect me with the bill. So it was, at least. Other folk keep a secret among two or three near friends, and somehow it leaks out; but among these clansmen, it is told to a whole countryside, and they will keep it for a century. (25.4)

Davie knows that everyone around him is aware that he is wanted by the English. But no one turns him in. Again, there's this overwhelming sense that the Highlands are filled with silence: the land's got its nooks and crannies, and the people will keep their secrets "for a century." What impression of the Highlands do you get from these Stevenson descriptions? Do you feel like Stevenson is portraying Highland customs positively or negatively? Or both? Or neither?

You are to remember that I knew no more of my descent than any cadger's dog; my uncle, to be sure, had prated of some of our high connections, but nothing to the present purpose; and there was nothing left me but that bitter disgrace of owning that I could not tell.

Robin told me shortly he was sorry he had put himself about, turned his back upon me without a sign of salutation, and as he went towards the door, I could hear him telling Duncan that I was "only some kinless loon that didn't know his own father." Angry as I was at these words, and ashamed of my own ignorance, I could scarce keep from smiling that a man who was under the lash of the law (and was indeed hanged some three years later) should be so nice as to the descent of his acquaintances. (25.12-13)

Robin Oig, son of famous outlaw Rob Roy, is as class-conscious in his own way as any lord or lady in a society novel. How do Stevenson's portrayals of Highland noblemen compare to your understanding of the English nobility? What kind of ranks and connections between nobility do these Highlanders have?

All night, then, we walked through the north side of the Carse under the high line of the Ochil mountains; and by Alloa and Clackmannan and Culross, all of which we avoided: and about ten in the morning, mighty hungry and tired, came to the little clachan of Limekilns. This is a place that sits near in by the water-side, and looks across the Hope to the town of the Queensferry. Smoke went up from both of these, and from other villages and farms upon all hands. The fields were being reaped; two ships lay anchored, and boats were coming and going on the Hope. It was altogether a right pleasant sight to me; and I could not take my fill of gazing at these comfortable, green, cultivated hills and the busy people both of the field and sea. (26.32)

This passage strikes us because of two things: first, once again, check out how obsessive Stevenson is about naming his geographical areas. Why is he so concerned with realism in a clearly fictional adventure novel? Second, we can see the glaring contrast between the Highlands ("the high line of the [. . .] mountains") and the bounty of the southern fields, with their "comfortable, green, cultivated hills." Davie is not exactly an objective narrator here.

As [Rankeillor] thus moralised on my adventures, he looked upon me with so much humour and benignity that I could scarce contain my satisfaction. I had been so long wandering with lawless people, and making my bed upon the hills and under the bare sky, that to sit once more in a clean, covered house, and to talk amicably with a gentleman in broadcloth, seemed mighty elevations. (27.48)

So after all of this time spent relying on the kindness of men like Cluny Macpherson and Alan Breck, here's Davie's summary of the Highlanders: "lawless people." He is so glad to return to conversation "with a gentleman in broadcloth." Davie's adventures in the Highlands may have been interesting, but the countryside remains remote, exotic, and foreign to both him and the reader, even after all of this time.

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