Back to Issue Two Contents


Cross-Channel Stevenson: David Balfour and the Problem of Scottish Return

Caroline McCracken-Flesher

PDF Version


From Bournemouth, Robert Louis Stevenson dedicated Kidnapped to his Edinburgh friend, Charles Baxter. ‘[The] past must echo in your memory!’ he wrote, ‘Let it not echo often without some kind thoughts of your friend, R. L. S’.[1] From even further-flung Samoa, he dedicated Catriona, too, to Baxter. He mused, ‘You are still ... in the venerable city which I must always think of as my home. And I have come so far; and the sights and thoughts of my youth pursue me’ (p.211).  Thanking Samuel Rutherford Crockett for dedicating a book to him, Stevenson made the issue clear: ‘Blows the wind today, and the sun and the rain are flying ....  / Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying, / My heart remembers how!’[2] His heart, we understand, remembered—from however far away. It was even dedicated to remembering Scotland, and to being remembered by his native land.

Stevenson’s claim to place through memory has contributed to a scholarship that rightly situates the author as Scottish. It has enabled Kidnapped to be recognised as the first ‘book of the city’ for Edinburgh as UNESCO ‘City of Literature’.[3] But is such scholarly and popular recognition itself mis-placed? Certainly, David Balfour’s wanderings across Scotland’s history and geography, and his commitment to reaching Edinburgh from the islands, the highlands, and eventually from the lowlands of Holland, echo the primary mode of Scottish literature and politics. David is emplotted within the discourse of ‘return’. As Lady Nairn encoded this dynamic for generations, Scots need to ‘come back again’.[4] But the more David turns toward home, the more Stevenson suggests that Scots will always be lost, especially at home. And perhaps it is better that way.

David spends his time trying to get home. His dead father has mapped his journey from the past into the present as a homecoming. ‘That is the place I came from’, he once said, ‘and it’s where it befits that my boy should return’ (p.2). David is a lad of parts, and should have no trouble getting there. His father considered him ‘a steady lad . . . and a canny goer’ (p.2).  Moreover, he carries the letters of introduction—first in Kidnapped, then in Catriona—that should allow him to be recognised and to complete the plots of his father’s generation, coming home once more.

But David’s first ‘return’ to Shaws doesn’t work out so well, and this points us to the problem at the heart of home. Freud explains that home is not that homely place we imagine it to be. Rather, it is the site of the uncanny. Because it is the place of our origins, home is the site of our earliest and deepest repressions. So home is what we need to leave, but cannot get away from. Moreover, while home clings to us, we are not who it thinks we are.[5]  This is where therapy comes in: it encourages us to become deliberately strange to our confining past, to negotiate a strategic and saving distance that allows us to end up in a different time and place.[6]

Robert Louis Stevenson undertakes the cure for Scotland. He asks who would want to go to such an uncanny home? Who can? Perhaps a stranger. In Kidnapped and Catriona, Stevenson puts David Balfour through what we might call the walking cure to reveal the stranger in ourselves and produce a different Scotland.

It is worth noting that the Stevenson who seems dedicated to place through the returns of memory himself resisted the drive to return. He spent long years making himself other than home could recognise, whether through the modes of modernism, a life as bohemian author, the distances of countries and then oceans, or his many assertively non-Scottish books. It should not be surprising, then, that in these two Scottish books, David is trying to get home to a place he has never been, that recognises him only problematically, and that he never learns to recognise himself. David Balfour works to make himself as strange as Robert Louis Stevenson.[7]

Kidnapped begins as a standard tale of exile. Yet the idyllic Essendean David sets out from is not the place he will struggle to get back to: his journey takes a gothic detour to the House of Shaws. Still, this doesn’t cause him much difficulty, for at Cramond, the usual oedipal anxieties of return are defused through the need to usurp only a wicked uncle. However David’s success serves to set up the real voyage of the book. The moment when David imagines he has gained control over his situation, the moment when he ‘[knows] what [he] wanted now’ (p.23), is also the moment that suggests we can’t come home, don’t belong there, and shouldn’t want to: the House of Shaws turns itself inside out to vomit up the indigestible David, ejecting him off its stairway and into a night filled with uncanny things.

When David is ejected from a House of Shaws he labeled ‘strange’ before he even viewed it, it is he who shows to be the strangest one of all (p.6). David claims a difference between family and others. He declares: ‘I should be helped by my own blood, [not] strangers’ (p.17). The list of those he sees as different from himself mounts from Ransome, the pathetic cabin boy, through the crew to the Jacobite Alan until it peaks when he is castaway but ‘very different’ from those in ‘all the books I have read of’ (p.84). But strangeness is a two-sided term. If others are strange to David, he must be equally strange to them. Thus, at the moment when he is ejected from the House of Shaws, the shocked David announces the truth: ‘to set a stranger mounting [the unfinished stairway] in the darkness was to send him straight to his death’ (p.23). David himself is the stranger at home. And from this point, the episodes of the novel gather to make the case: David is strange to all who meet him; strange in the bill that advertises for his capture; especially strange in that ‘strange place’, Cluny’s Cage, with its ‘strange host’, where he has to acknowledge that because of his odditites, ‘if ever Cluny hated any man it was David Balfour’ (p.150; p.156).

Strangeness becomes a discourse in Catriona / David Balfour.[8] Here, though David has come home to place, position, and money, he recognises himself as the outsider in ‘a place where no stranger had a chance to find a friend’ (p.216). Sometimes, David’s strangeness is marked as ridiculous: he assures the Lord Advocate ‘I am not your lordship’s daughter’ (p.363). But more and more David asserts his strangeness, claiming kinship with Catriona though she belongs to the outcast MacGregors. He even cultivates it. Passing by a gibbet with two men hanged in chains, David ‘could scarce be done with examining it and drinking in discomfort’ (p.234). Ultimately, the obvious statement David makes of himself in Holland is a deep truth that applies to him wherever he goes: ‘[I] am a foreigner myself’ (p.427).

Numerous motifs and plot movements work across Stevenson’s two novels to sustain this point. David’s obsessive youthfulness separates him from adult plots.[9] His inability to hold onto money keeps him apart from conventional systems of valuation. And David himself is constantly getting lost. The young man who knew where he was going at the House of Shaws gets lost to sea, at sea, and across Scotland in Kidnapped. Then in Catriona he gets lost in and around Edinburgh, on the Bass rock, via Inverary, in Edinburgh again (after a detour to Glasgow), and in Holland—where he becomes lost in the plots of romance.

Indeed, no amount of help from others can dislodge David from his role as stranger in a strangely familiar land. Twelve surrogate fathers vie to parent him, but no one is adequate. And his real parents turn out to have been rather silly. So the many plots of parenthood—Jacobite and Whig, good and bad, romantic and real—in the end point not to the achievement of identity through patriarchy, but to the need to get yourself lost, and to stay that way. David’s many fathers each represent the plots of politics, of genre, of family, but no plot can command when there is a stranger in the house.

In fact, everyone is a stranger here, and together they show the strangeness within Scottish plots. David’s potential fathers are a sorry bunch. Hoseason, the brutal captain who is one man ashore, another on board, and yet a good son, sets the pattern. James of the Glen is no Jacobite hero, invoking personal desires against those of politics to save himself as ‘a man that has a family’ (p.123). Cluny’s romantic mountain dwelling is a metaphorical cage in which his high exploits have dwindled into card-sharping. Even Alan is not immune: his ostentatious dress advertises his incongruent presence in the landscape and, for all the romance of the way he tells it, he collaborates in the rack-renting of tenants. If Mr. Campbell with his lily water and Mr. Henderland with his snuff represent the comic side of the disconnection between Scots and their supposed historical and literary circumstances, it is much more disturbingly expressed through the despicable James More MacGregor. MacGregor insists on the community of Scots and thus undermines the very idea. When he claims ‘All we forfeited folk hang a little together’, David ‘could scarce refrain from shooting my tongue out at him’ (p.438). The Scotland of stereotypical personalities, predictable plots, and old alliances does not exist, and probably should not. The condition of Scotland is strangeness.

As for Scotland itself, it hardly exists. Stevenson’s Scotland is a land of island, mountain, and glen, but to David it is a desert. Viewed from his perspective, the rain cuts down the view and seeps into the shoes; the rocks are glimpsed in frantic moments as David leaps across them, or suffered as he lies atop them divorced from the world below and fried by the sun above. The city is no better: in Catriona it is a succession of waiting rooms that force disturbing meetings. The national landscape of Scotland falls into fragments in this Scotsman’s eye. It is only intermittently visible and consistently strange. Perhaps David wants no home to go to.

In Kidnapped and Catriona, then, Stevenson bids farewell to the standard plots of Scottishness. He foregrounds Jacobitism and romance only to expose the difference and disjunction that their plotting as history and novel strives to contain. Scots can’t come home through either of them. Stevenson accomplishes this even in the recuperative plot of marriage between Jacobite and Whig. Although Catriona seems to settle into domesticity—when David admires his strapping lass’s ‘little shoes’, for instance—Catriona has always talked about her manly ways (p.443). And even David notes that Catriona’s compliance in marriage is a function of ‘early days’ (p.473). For the Stevenson who married Fanny VandeGrift/Osborne (1880), and published Virginibus Puerisque (1881), marriage is no ordinary state but, just like home, the site of much strangeness. Thus, Stevenson’s books of return are really about ending up somewhere else. Their internal fractures, episodic plots, and strange characters reflect the modes of Scottishness outside romance. Yet the state of Scottishness is not necessarily lamentable.

This may be what Edinburgh recognises in claiming Kidnapped as the book of the city. If Stevenson’s heart remembered Scotland, his feet didn’t follow. Once in Samoa, he never did go home again. But whatever inadequacies Stevenson sees in Scotland, he understands their productivity. In both Kidnapped and Catriona, David feels new and uncomfortable everywhere he goes. And that is the point. Stevenson shows how to make Edinburgh new by not belonging to it; his Scotland is anxious, and alive. Through David, Edinburgh becomes a desert where Scots will always be too young. Whereas the modernist tradition Stevenson anticipates focuses on the difficulty of situating the self, Stevenson suggests that Scots should refuse to situate themselves. Memory can only operate to dissociate us: it cannot get us there from here, and our failure only shows us how far we do not fit into its conventions. From Bournemouth and Samoa, as from Earraid and Holland, there is no way home. Yet as Stevenson suggests in the end of his dedication to Catriona, failing to fit, we may be ‘cast ... out in the end, as by a sudden freshet, on these ultimate islands’ (p.211).

Perhaps, for an old country made new, Stevenson’s strategy is best: remembering the past, yet refusing to fit it, Scotland may get to the somewhere else that is today.



[1] Since the Edinburgh University Press series of Stevenson’s works has not yet reached Kidnapped or Catriona, I cite the easily accessible combined volume, edited and introduced by Emma Letley: Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped and Catriona (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). See p.xlii.

[2] Roger C. Lewis, The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), p.201.

[3] John Corbett details the UNESCO and ECOL (Edinburgh City of Literature) projects in ‘Press-ganging Scottish Literature: Kidnapped and the City Of Literature’s One Book, One Edinburgh project’ in this issue of IJSL.

[4] The song’s chorus, addressed to ‘Bonnie Charlie’, runs: ‘Will ye no come back again? / Will ye no come back again? / Better lo’ed ye canna be, / Will ye no come back again’. Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne (1766-1845) published as ‘Mrs. Bogan of Bogan’.

[5] Sigmund Freud ‘The Uncanny’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey et al., vol. 17 (London: Hogarth, 1955), pp.219-52.

[6] These ideas are helpfully elucidated in David Simpson Situatedness, or, Why We Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From (Durham, N. Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002) and Julia Kristeva Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

[7] I explore Stevenson’s strangeness in ‘“One City” of Fragments: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Second (Person) City Through David Daiches’s Personal Eye’ in William Baker, ed. David Daiches: A Celebration of his Life and Work (Sussex Academic Press, forthcoming 2007).

[8] The novel was published as David Balfour in serial and in its American book form. In Britain, the publisher preferred Catriona. For the book’s complicated publishing history, see Roger Swearingen The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1980) and Barry Menikoff ‘Toward the Production of a Text: Time, Space, and David Balfour’ in Studies in the Novel 27.3 (1995), pp. 351-63.

[9] Alan Sandison has noted David’s obsession with his youth, and the ‘inhibited maturation process’ that implies: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Appearance of Modernism: A Future Feeling (Houndsmills: Macmillan Press, 1996), p.193.