Preface to Kidnapped from the Biographical Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson 1905-12 (reprinted in the Penguin Classics revised edition of Kidnapped, 2007)
Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson, explains how Stevenson came to write Kidnapped. While researching a play that she intended to write, Fanny received a package of books, one of which described the trial of James Stewart for the so-called Appin murder. This was the murder in the Scottish Highlands of Colin Campbell of Glenure, known as the “Red Fox,” who was the agent (“factor”) of King George II of England. Historically, the murder took place in 1752, though Stevenson changed the date slightly for his novel.
Fanny notes that Stevenson had always been interested in this period of Scottish history, and had intended to write a story that turned on the Appin murder. He planned his novel with a protagonist, David Balfour, who was supposed to be Stevenson’s ancestor.
The book about the trial noted that the accused, James Stewart, named a distant relative, Alan Breck Stewart, as having been seen in the vicinity of the murder. James Stewart suggested that Alan, an outspoken enemy of the Campbells, was the likely culprit.
Fanny ends her account by recounting a visit that she and Stevenson made to the Appin area in the Scottish Highlands. Over a hundred years after the murder, she writes, feelings between the Campbell and Stewart clans still ran as high as if “the tragedy had taken place the day before.”
Historical background to Kidnapped
The historical background to Kidnapped is as follows. As the King George II’s factor, Colin Campbell’s job was to collect taxes for the king from clan leaders on estates that had been confiscated from pro-Jacobite clans. The Jacobites were supporters of the Stewart (or Stuart, as it is usually spelled outside of Scotland) claim to the English throne.
The last Stuart king, and the last Catholic monarch, to occupy the English throne was James VII of Scotland and II of England, who was King of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1685 to 1688. James II made himself unpopular in Protestant England by his pro-Catholic policies and autocratic nature. He was deposed in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when a group of prominent English politicians invited his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary II and William III, Prince of Orange, to invade from the Netherlands and take the English throne, which they did in 1689. William and Mary at the same time became the rulers of Scotland and Ireland. They were part of the Hanoverian line of Protestant monarchs, as opposed to the Stuart line of Catholic monarchs favored by the Jacobites.
In 1707 the Act of Union united England and Scotland under the name Great Britain. This lent official sanction to the rule of Scotland from the British government’s base in London, England, under the Hanoverian monarchs.
From 1688 to 1746 a series of uprisings took place in Britain, and mostly in Scotland, to try to restore James II and his Stuart descendants to the English throne. These are known as the Jacobite Risings or the Jacobite Rebellion. On 21 September 1745 the Stuart claimant Charles Edward Stuart, known to the Scots as Bonnie Prince Charlie, defeated the only British government army in Scotland at the Battle of Prestonpans (in Kidnapped, Alan Breck Stewart fought in this battle on the side of the British). The Jacobite Risings culminated in the Battle of Culloden (1746), which saw the decisive defeat of the Jacobite army by the forces of the Hanoverian King George II. As punishment for siding with the Jacobites, much Stewart land was confiscated and given to the Campbell clan, who had sided with the British government.
Six years later on May 14, 1752, Colin Campbell of Glenure went on one of his regular missions on government business to the Stewarts of Appin, who had recently suffered evictions on Campbell’s orders. As he rode through Lettermore wood, south of Ballachulish, Argyll, he was fatally shot in the back by a sniper.
The main suspect, Alan Breck Stewart, had fled, so James Stewart (also known as James of the Glen), who had organized resistance to the Appin evictions, was arrested and tried for the murder. It became clear at the trial that James was not directly involved in the assassination, but he was found guilty as an accessory by a jury packed with Campbells and presided over by the chief of the Campbell clan, Archibald Campbell, Third Duke of Argyll. James was hanged on November 8, 1752 at Ballachulish. He died protesting his innocence, but his body was left to rot on the gibbet as a warning to his fellow Jacobite sympathizers.
The mystery of the true culprit of the Appin murder continues to be discussed. Lee Holcombe, a former professor of history at the University of South Carolina, in her book Ancient Animosity: The Appin Murder and the End of Scottish Rebellion (AuthorHouse, 2004), names Donald Stewart, nephew of the laird of Ballachulish, as the killer.
Some popular misconceptions have arisen about the Jacobite Risings. One is that it was a war between Highlanders and Lowlanders. While the Lowlands were indeed more influenced by the English Protestant Hanoverian culture and the Highlands were a Catholic and Stuart stronghold, the dividing line was not so clear. Many Highland clans - not just the Campbells - supported the British government; and the Jacobite army, for its part, contained a large contingent of Lowland troops as well as English, French, and Irish soldiers, who fought alongside the Highlanders.
Much of the English-influenced Lowland society aligned itself with the Whigs, a political party in the English government that believed in the constitutional monarchy, exemplified by the Hanoverian monarchy, and the supremacy of parliament over the monarch. These ideas were opposed to absolute monarchy, exemplified by the Stuart monarchy, where all power resided with the king or queen. In Kidnapped, Alan Breck Stewart teases David Balfour about his Whig sympathies; Alan’s loyalties lay with the Stewart claimants to the throne and to the Jacobite clans, whereas David’s was brought up to be loyal to the Hanoverian monarch and to the legal and economic institutions put in place by the London-based government. The clans were extended families united by kinship and descent, headed by a clan chief to whom all the clan members owed allegiance. A person’s clan defined their loyalties and the geographical area they claimed as their own. Clan chiefs settled disputes among clan members and gave them protection; in return, they could command clan members to fight alongside them in battle.
In the Dedication of Kidnapped to his friend Charles Baxter, Stevenson cautions that his novel is not completely historically accurate. He has moved the Appin murder from 1752 to 1751; he has changed some geographical distances; and he has given his protagonist, David Balfour, a role in the Appin murder when there is no mention of a person with this name in the records of the historical trial. He believes that there is historical justification for his making Alan Breck Stewart innocent of the murder, and notes that the identification of the real killer is still a closely guarded secret in the Highlands. Stevenson defends his historical inaccuracies by writing that the purpose of his story is to entertain children.