Kidnapped: In the shadow of genius


This year marks the 130th anniversary of Kidnapped – the classic historical adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Kidnapped, which was first published in 1886, is one of the Scottish author’s greatest works, ranking alongside his other literary triumphs such as Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Kidnapped cover

In many respects, my novel Slave to Fortune is an ‘homage’ or tribute to Stevenson’s book and purposefully contains many parallels in its characters, plot and style.

(If you’ve read both novels then I wonder if you spotted any of these parallels? If you haven’t read Slave to Fortune yet then you might want to ‘look away now’ as the following contains a number of plot spoilers!)

Both novels are purportedly the autobiographical memoirs of their central characters. In Kidnapped, the central character is a 17-year-old named David Balfour; in Slave to Fortune it is 14-year-old Tom Cheke.

Kidnapped Frontispiece

Kidnapped frontispiece

Both novels mix real history and geography – actual places, people and events – with fictional plots and characters. In Kidnapped the protagonists are caught up in the famous real-life Appin Murder. In Slave to Fortune, the main characters become embroiled in the notorious assassination of the Duke of Buckingham.

Both novels feature ‘there and back again’ plots, involving voyages by sea that mirror the boys’ journey from youth into adulthood.

At the beginning of their adventures, both David and Tom are kidnapped at the behest of gentlemen in whom they have misplaced their trust. In David’s case it is his Uncle Ebenezer; in Tom’s case it is Robert Dillington – a friend of the family. Both men are misers who have orchestrated the ruin of each boy’s father and denied them their rightful inheritance – for David, the House of the Shaws near Edinburgh and, for Tom, Mottistone Manor on the Isle of Wight.

As their adventures progress, both boys are pursued by men seeking to capture or kill them. They both fall ill and are nursed back to health. Both appear to lose everything, only to work their way back to better fortune. And at the end of each boy’s adventure there is a dramatic disclosure of the truth and a (partial) setting of the world to rights.

In each book, the swashbuckling heroes – Alan Breck Stewart in Kidnapped and Edward Hamilton in Slave to Fortune – arrive dramatically from another ship in the midst of the boys’ voyage and take them under their wing for the rest of their adventures.

Statue of Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour on Corstorphine Hill, Edinburgh.

Statue of Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour on Corstorphine Hill, Edinburgh.

These heroes are both roguish Scottish fighters, who have endured exile and now find themselves on the wrong side of the Scottish establishment. Both novels feature friendship and loyalty spanning traditional divides: between David – a protestant lowlander – and Alan Breck – a Jacobite highlander – in Kidnapped, and between Tom and first his Islamic master and then Edward Hamilton in Slave to Fortune.

Other characters in the two novels are also parallels. For example, Elias Hoseason is the disreputable captain of the Covenant who agrees to kidnap David and sell him into slavery. Murat Reis is the captain of the Sword who similarly does a deal to kidnap Tom and sells him as a slave. In Kidnapped, Colin Roy Campbell – the victim in the Appin Murder – is a much despised agent of the king. In Slave to Fortune, the unpopular Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, is the king’s favourite and the victim of an assassination.

So why did I write a novel with such strong parallels to Stevenson’s novel? I offer three reasons.

Firstly, I was attracted to the challenge of framing Slave to Fortune around elements of a classic such as Kidnapped to produce something that is at once new and original and at the same time familiar and established. It is a reworking of Stevenson’s novel but set even further back in time.

Secondly, there are strong local connections. Like me, Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Edinburgh. I regularly encounter traces of him in the city. For example, I pass his mother’s ancestral home – Pilrig House – on my way to work, and I live close to the Alan Breck Lounge pub in Leith, which commemorates the hero of Kidnapped. These local connections made the book a natural choice.

Thirdly, and quite simply, Kidnapped is a great story with enduring appeal written by a literary genius. That made it something well worth seeking to emulate.


The Alan Breck Lounge, Leith.

The Alan Breck Lounge, Leith.


Pilrig House, Edinburgh

Pilrig House, Edinburgh