A land divided: songs and politics in Kidnapped

More thoughts of Scottish history remembered in song again this time. One of my favourite rainy day books (and today is a very rainy day) is Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). It’s set in 1751, in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite uprising and the defeat of the Jacobite army at Culloden in 1746. As the subtitle tells it,

‘Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751:

How he was kidnapped and cast away; his sufferings on a desert isle; his journey in the west highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called; written by himself and now set forth


Robert Louis Stevenson’

Kidnapped is also a story of a nation, one divided by religion, by politics and by geography, in the aftermath of war. David never leaves Scotland but he is very much a stranger in a strange land where other loyalties hold sway. The reason I love the book so much is its other hero, that notorious highland Jacobite Alan Breck Stewart, a proud fiery man who bears a king’s name and who is the exact opposite and perfect counterpart to David. David is a Whig and loyal to the Hanoverian King George I whilst Alan fought at Culloden for Prince Charles Edward Stuart. If you’ve not read it, you’ve a treat in store. And, if you don’t like spoilers, you might want to read it before you read the rest of this post!

You’ve been warned.

Right, carrying on!

Since this is a folk music blog, why am I babbling on about Kidnapped? Well, music features several times in the plot. Alan’s near as skilled with his pipes as with his sword, taking on Robin Oig himself to settle a quarrel between them (and his reaction to Robin’s playing shows the very best of his character). But, pipes aside, a couple of songs that are still part of the folk tradition are mentioned in the book. Both songs are linked to the Jacobite cause and so doubtless Stevenson chose them to underscore the differences between his characters.

The main event of Kidnapped is the murder (‘the Appin murder‘, which actually took place in 1752) of Colin Roy Campbell, the red fox, for which David and Alan are pursued across the Highlands. The Campbells supported the Hanoverians in the ’45 and were responsible for tax collection and the imposition of government rule and proscriptions on the Highlanders. Towards the end of the book, Alan and David reach Limekilns on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. They need to reach Edinburgh, where David can clear his name. For Jacobite Alan, Edinburgh is perhaps the most dangerous place to be heading – he has a price on his head and a noose waiting for him. David is weak and sick by this point, done in by unaccustomed hardship. So what does Alan do? He catches the eye of a pretty barmaid and whistles Charlie is my darling, a song tied tightly to the Jacobite cause as any could be. And tells her that David is a Jacobite rebel on the run. David is outraged at this slur upon his character and even in his weakened state insists that he is a loyal servant of King George.

The song gives a cheery, positive view of Charles Edward Stuart. I think though that there’s an anachronism in its inclusion in Kidnapped as the original words are attributed to Baroness Nairne (1766-1845). The most commonly sung version of Charlie is my darling these days is that of Robert Burns. This version is bawdier than the other, concentrating on other aspects of the prince’s, erm,  swordplay. Typical of Burns. Since Alan only whistles the tune there’s no way of knowing which version Stevenson was thinking of. Here’s Eddi Reader singing Charlie is my darling.

Later, in Edinburgh, a signal is needed to let Alan know it’s safe to leave his hiding place. Davie suggests The Bonnie House of Airlie (Child Ballad no. 199), telling Alan it’s ‘a favourite of mine’. I think he did this to pay Alan back in his own coin, and to point out the Jacobites had lost the battle and the cause. The castle of Airlie was sacked in 1640, long before the Jacobite uprisings, in an attack led by the Duke of Argyll, the chief of the Campbell clan. Although the destruction of Airlie predates the politics of Kidnapped, the song has become (and had probably become by the time Stevenson was writing) a Jacobite song and its later verses refer to Prince Charles Edward; moreover, as Alan would have known, the Ogilvies of Airlie took part in the Jacobite risings of both 1715 and 1745. Certainly, Alan is unwilling to use the song as a signal, though to be fair, he doesn’t cite politics or history in his refusal, merely that it is too well known.

This entry was posted in Appin Murder, Highland politics, Jacobite uprising, Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, Scotland and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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