Study Guide

Kidnapped Family

By Robert Louis Stevenson

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"Nay," said Mr. Campbell, "who can tell that for a surety? But the name of that family, Davie, boy, is the name you bear–Balfours of Shaws: an ancient, honest, reputable house, peradventure in these latter days decayed. (1.8)

Gentry, or nobility, is one of the major themes of this novel. Davie is the heir to the Shaws household (although he doesn't know it). How does Davie's status as a Lowland laird compare with Alan's place in the Stewart clan? Or Ardshiel's role as Stewart clan chief? How do definitions of nobility differ in the Lowlands and in the Highlands?

"Is this my house or yours?" said [Ebenezer], in his keen voice, and then all of a sudden broke off. "Na, na," said he, "I didnae mean that. What's mine is yours, Davie, my man, and what's yours is mine. Blood's thicker than water; and there's naebody but you and me that ought the name." And then on he rambled about the family, and its ancient greatness, and his father that began to enlarge the house, and himself that stopped the building as a sinful waste; and this put it in my head to give him Jennet Clouston's message. (3.45)

First of all, Ebenezer commits a major slip of the tongue there in that first line, since the house is in fact Davie's and not his. But it's also interesting that Ebenezer spends so much time preaching about blood, since in the next sentence, he admits that his father "began to enlarge the house" but he "stopped the building as a sinful waste." Perhaps the on-again-off-again expansion of the Shaws house could also work as a metaphor for the Shaws family in general: Ebenezer's father tried to enlarge and strengthen the family with his two sons, but by quarreling with Alexander, Ebenezer stopped the family's growth in its tracks.

"Uncle Ebenezer," I said, "I can make nothing out of this. You use me like a thief; you hate to have me in this house; you let me see it, every word and every minute: it's not possible that you can like me; and as for me, I've spoken to you as I never thought to speak to any man. Why do you seek to keep me, then? Let me gang back–let me gang back to the friends I have, and that like me!" (3.54)

Ebenezer may be observing the letter of the law by having his kin come to live with him, but he's breaking the rules of affection that are supposed to bind relatives together. Do we see much affection between Highland clansmen like Alan Breck Stewart and James Stewart? What role do feelings and emotion play in family in this novel?

Well," says he, "ye ken very well that I am an Appin Stewart, and the Campbells have long harried and wasted those of my name; ay, and got lands of us by treachery–but never with the sword," he cried loudly, and with the word brought down his fist upon the table. (12.9)

Alan's hatred for Colin Roy of Glenure arises from the traditional Appin Stewart family rivalry with the Campbells. Would he have taken Colin's treatment of Ardshiel's tenants so hard if Colin had been a Maclaren or a Cameron?

"As for you, Alan, it was no more than your bounden duty," [Mrs. Stewart] said. "But for this lad that has come here and seen us at our worst, and seen the goodman fleeching like a suitor, him that by rights should give his commands like any king–as for you, my lad," she says, "my heart is wae not to have your name, but I have your face; and as long as my heart beats under my bosom, I will keep it, and think of it, and bless it." (19.41)

Alan and Davie are both putting themselves in danger for James Stewart's sake – Alan even more so, in fact, since his name is going out on the wanted poster. But Mrs. Stewart takes Alan's actions as a matter of course while Davie's are special. The expectations the Highlanders have for their families' mutual self-sacrifice seem extremely high!

At the door of the first house we came to, Alan knocked, which was of no very safe enterprise in such a part of the Highlands as the Braes of Balquhidder. No great clan held rule there; it was filled and disputed by small septs, and broken remnants, and what they call "chiefless folk," driven into the wild country about the springs of Forth and Teith by the advance of the Campbells. (25.1)

Balquhidder is the only part of the Highlands Alan and Davie visit that isn't under the jurisdiction of a single family. What kinds of dangers might this lack of clan governance pose to Alan and Davie? What are the possible benefits of hiding out in a country that isn't dominated by one clan?

However, majora canamus–the two lads fell in love, and that with the same lady. Mr. Ebenezer, who was the admired and the beloved, and the spoiled one, made, no doubt, mighty certain of the victory; and when he found he had deceived himself, screamed like a peacock. [. . .] Your father, Mr. David, was a kind gentleman; but he was weak, dolefully weak; took all this folly with a long countenance; and one day–by your leave!–resigned the lady. She was no such fool, however; it's from her you must inherit your excellent good sense; and she refused to be bandied from one to another. (28.5)

This is how Rankeillor explains the love triangle between Ebenezer, Alexander, and Davie's mother. Are you surprised that Alexander, Davie's father, would be willing to "resign" the lady in Ebenezer's favor? Why might he think it appropriate to hand over the woman he loves to his brother? Is this taking family loyalty a little too far?

"The estate is yours beyond a doubt," replied the lawyer. "It matters nothing what your father signed, you are the heir of entail. But your uncle is a man to fight the indefensible; and it would be likely your identity that he would call in question. A lawsuit is always expensive, and a family lawsuit always scandalous; besides which, if any of your doings with your friend Mr. Thomson were to come out, we might find that we had burned our fingers. The kidnapping, to be sure, would be a court card upon our side, if we could only prove it. But it may be difficult to prove; and my advice (upon the whole) is to make a very easy bargain with your uncle, perhaps even leaving him at Shaws where he has taken root for a quarter of a century, and contenting yourself in the meanwhile with a fair provision." (28.11)

Here, Rankeillor is suggesting that, to protect both Davie's own reputation as a member of the house of Shaws and to avoid bringing "Mr. Thomson" (Alan) into the law courts, Davie should settle his family business with Ebenezer directly. This is pretty much the only example in the book of a conflict within a family rather than between families. Is this a comment on Lowland versus Highland family values?

My uncle cleared his throat. "I'm no very caring," says he. "[Davie] wasnae a good lad at the best of it, and I've nae call to interfere." (29.16-17)

Ebenezer responds to the (fake) news that Davie is being held captive by Highlanders by washing his hands of him. But he does draw the line at having Davie killed. We guess that's something, at least. Again, we don't see this kind of family betrayal among the Highland families Stevenson portrays. What accounts for this difference between Highland and Lowland families?

"Mr. Thomson," says [Rankeillor], "is one thing, Mr. Thomson's kinsman quite another. I know little of the facts, but I gather that a great noble (whom we will call, if you like, the D. of A.) has some concern and is even supposed to feel some animosity in the matter." (30.3)

It's interesting: family bonds seem to mean that you have to help your family's associates, like when Alan brings Davie to his kinsman, James Stewart, for aid. But friendship doesn't go that far, according to Rankeillor. Help your friends, yes, but you can draw the line at their families. But Davie doesn't agree. He wants to save James Stewart, a man he knows to be innocent, even though he's got no direct connection to the man.

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