The story is mostly set at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745 & the aftermath but the Preface is set in the late 19th century when a manuscript, telling the story of the Durrisdeers is discovered & a lawyer, Mr Thomson, shows it to an old friend (Stevenson) staying with him. The manuscript was written by Ephraim Mackellar, an old retainer of the family & describes the events leading up to a great tragedy that befell the family in the years after the Rebellion.
The Durie family have lived on their land for many years. Old Lord Durrisdeer has two sons. James, known as the Master of Ballantrae, is the elder. Handsome, blessed with winning manners but feckless & spoilt, James is forgiven his many misdeeds by his father & the local people.
Younger brother Henry is plain, quiet, dour & with none of the winning ways of his brother. His father openly favours James & plans to marry him to his ward, the heiress Alison Graeme. Alison is in love with James but his feelings for her are more offhand.
When the Rebellion breaks out with the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland to claim his father’s throne, the Duries do as many other families of the time did. The old Lord decides that one son will go to the prince & the other will fight for King George, hedging their bets &
ensuring that their estates will be safe no matter who wins. James wins the toss of the coin & goes to join the Jacobites. Henry, with a bad grace, stays at home & declares for King George.
James sets off with many of the local tenants with him. Word comes back from the sole survivor that all were killed at Culloden. The old Laird is reluctant to lose Alison’s inheritance, so necessary for the upkeep of the property & encourages Henry to marry her. Both are reluctant. Alison because she loves James & Henry because he loves Alison but knows she doesn’t return his feelings. The locals, meanwhile, have forgotten all the Master’s wicked ways & turn against Henry, blaming him for staying at home while his brave brother.
The Master’s return begins a period of misery for Henry. The Master is now known as Mr Bally because, as an exiled Jacobite, he could be arrested & tried for treason if he’s caught by the King’s men. Henry is compelled to provide his brother with money that he can ill afford to take out of the estate & the economies he is forced to make get him a reputation as a miser because he will not tell his father & Alison the truth. The Master persecutes Henry in other ways, by being pleasant & kindly in company & cutting & dismissive when he & Henry are alone which make Henry look surly & ungracious when the whole family are together.
He had laid aside even his cutting English accent, and spoke with the kindly Scots tongue, that set a value on affectionate words; and though his manners had a graceful elegance mighty foreign to our ways at Durrisdeer, it was still a homely courtliness, that did not shame but flattered us. All that he did throughout the meal, indeed, drinking wine with me with a notable respect, turning about for a pleasant word with John, fondling his father’s hand, breaking into little merry tales of his adventures … that I could scarce wonder if my lord and Mrs Henry sat about the board with radiant faces, or if John waited behind with dropping tears.
The Master also ingratiates himself with Alison & little Katherine, Henry & Alison’s daughter. The old Lord can, of course, see no wrong in his eldest son. Mackellar is often a witness to this because Henry has had to take him into his confidence. Mackellar hates the Master & makes a formidable enemy of him when he refuses to drive off Jessie Broun, the young woman who has borne the Master’s child & hangs around Durrisdeer wanting to speak to him.
Henry & Alison’s estrangement grows & they barely see or speak to each other except at meals. Mackellar begins to suspect that the Master is not in such danger as he asserts & Henry discovers that Mr Bally is, in fact, in no danger at all & is a Government spy to boot. However, even after Henry exposes him to their father as a liar, the old man makes excuses for his favourite & rejoices that he is in no danger rather than reproach him for the lies.
The ill feeling between the brothers comes to a head on the night of February 27th 1757. As they play at cards late at night, the Master taunts Henry with his influence over Alison & says that she has always loved him & loves him still. Henry strikes his brother & this leads to a duel which takes place in the long shrubbery behind the house. The Master tries to grab Henry’s sword (against the rules of the duel) & is stabbed as a result. Henry & Mackellar think him dead & return to the house. When Mackellar goes back to the shrubbery to retrieve the body, the Master has disappeared.
Henry falls very ill & Mackellar & Alison nurse him through a desperate fever. Henry recovers from his illness but he is marked by it. He is devastated by the thought that he killed his brother & even when Mackellar tells him of the Master’s disappearance, he is not really comforted as he knows that they will meet again. Even as Henry recovers, his father sickens & dies of a brain fever. Some months later, a son, Alexander, is born, & Henry begins to revive as he makes plans for the boy’s future.
Chevalier Burke meets up with the Master again in India & is rejected by him when he needs help. The Master returns to Durrisdeer with his Indian servant, Secundra Dass & tries to ingratiate himself with the family again although with less success this time. The family escape to New York, leaving Mackellar to keep an eye on the Master. It doesn’t take him long to discover where the family have gone & he follows them, forcing one final confrontation in the wilderness between the brothers.
The Master of Ballantrae is a novel full of adventure & excitement. James Durie is one of the most malevolent characters in fiction, able to inspire complete loyalty in his dependants but also inspiring fear, envy & hatred in others. His subtle undermining of Henry & attempts to seduce Alison & young Alexander are almost impossible to expose. Henry isn’t a completely sympathetic character which makes the tragedy more realistic. He’s sulky, resentful, stubborn &, after his illness, just as misguided as his own father in favouring one of his children over another. The Master is the incubus that haunts the family but he’s always very much a real man rather than a supernatural being although his end evokes all the reader’s fears of the uncanny.
Mackellar is a fascinating narrator. He begins by being completely on Henry’s side but his loyalties waver on the voyage to New York as the Master sets out to charm him as he has charmed so many others. The structure of the novel with several narrators telling the story & the role of a servant as witness reminded me of Wuthering Heights. Mackellar is like Nelly Dean; he’s our guide but he has his own prejudices & is just as interfering as Nelly ever was. The story is more than just a battle between good & evil but Mackellar’s dour narration is full of foreboding from the beginning as he tells his story from many years after the events.