Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the texts selected by the SQA as a Scottish text for the new National 5 English exam. I thought it might be a good idea to read it so I could pass on my comments, for what they’re worth, about the novel and its suitability for the new course and the chances of it interesting the 21st century’s Scottish teenager and, probably just as important, stimulating the 21st century’s Scottish teacher.
The first thing I think it is important to say is that Kidnapped is a good book. It is well written with interesting and divergent characters, locations and a series of good plot twists. It has the fundamentals for an entertaining read for a wide audience – particularly a Scottish one, as it includes the Borders, the East coast, the North of the country, the West, the Highlands, Stirlingshire and the Lothians. Geographically, it covers a wide expanse that many would be familiar and, thanks to the descriptions, many would wish to become familiar with. The characters are easily accessible. The first person narration of David Balfour allows us to know him pretty readily, and Alan Stewart, his Jacobite companion, is very extrovert and vocal on his feelings and ideas. The book lends itself to good work on characterisation. Even some detailed work, as Stevenson shows some of the psychological insight that becomes more evident in his later work, making his characters a little bit more ambiguous than first appear.
The other characters serve their function, but initially appear little more than caricature – the slaver and corrupt sea captain Hoseason, his corrupted First Mate Ransome, the murderous and twisted uncle and the haughty but loyal ‘Hieland’ chief Cluny Further examination reveals a little bit more depth, however, they perform they provide ample fuel for discussion and, importantly, are representatives of a very interesting period of Scottish history and society.
This, for me, is where the true riches of the novel lie. Kidnapped is a novel that requires a great deal of preparation to make it as meaningful as it can be. It is an adventure story at worst: it is a meditation on a society being radically changed by ‘pirate’ capitalism, imperialism, cultural repression and raises questions of justice, honour and duty. Yet this can only be fully explored if background resources are supplied.
The Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and the subsequent repression of the clans by the British state, including other Scots among its soldiery, is important historical knowledge for this novel as are the following facts: the use of the North American colonies as prisons and slave plantations for poor whites also, the division between clans, the nature of clan loyalty and leadership, the richness and poverty of Highland life and the beginning of a more legalistic, capitalistic Scotland. These probably do not need to be covered in-depth but some covering of these points would be necessary for the novel to make sense.
And this is the opportunity and drawback of Kidnapped for National 5 English: it has the potential to really enrich students with a sense of Scottish culture and history, alternately, to do it well could be demanding a lot in a year which, as many teachers know, is going to have the element of a sprint to it, especially in the first few years as the new English National 5 course beds in. I hope it can be done and that a sizeable number of classes will gain exposure to this good Scottish text.