The Appin Murder, Robert Louis Stevenson and Kidnapped

Background to The Stevenson Way

By Ian Nimmo

The Appin Murder remains the last great Scottish mystery. It was infamous even a century before the celebrated Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson turned it into his historical best-seller Kidnapped followed by its sequel Catriona.

Kidnapped has inspired films, there have been countless radio and stage versions and now it is to become one of the most fascinating long-haul walking routes in Europe across the greatest stage of all – Scotland’s most dramatic landscape.

The Appin Murder was the shooting in the back of government agent Colin Campbell of Glenure – the ‘Red Fox’ in Kidnapped. He was assassinated in a ruthless ambush by an unknown hand in the Wood of Lettermore near Ballachulish by the side of Loch Linnhe in Argyll.

The murder took place six years after Prince Charles Edward Stewart’s great adventure to restore the Stewarts to the throne ended in slaughter at Culloden. The clans were smashed and the bitter aftermath for the vanquished Highlanders was humiliation, grinding poverty and smouldering hate. In Appin, the Stewarts watched helplessly as their beloved lands were taken over by their centuries-old sworn enemies – the Campbells. Colin Campbell, laird of the small estate of Glenure, and on the victorious government side, was appointed to set and collect rents from the defeated Stewarts and the Camerons in Callart.  

On the afternoon of May 14, 1752, Campbell and three companions made their slow way along Loch Linnhe side. The following day evictions for non-payment of rent among some Stewart tenants were to take place. Appin seethed with resentment and anger. Glenure was the most reviled man in the area.

 As they passed through the Wood of Lettermore a single shot suddenly rang from the hillside. Immediately Campbell slumped in the saddle mortally wounded. “Oh, I am dead”, he shouted. “Take care of yourselves. He’s going to shoot you”. Or some such words.

Lawyer Mungo Campbell, Glenure’s nephew, and riding close to him, saw a figure on the hillside wearing a short, dark coat and carrying a gun. Yet his first thought was that the gunman was too far away to have fired the shot. One shot was fired, but two bullets had passed through Glenure’s body. And so from the first few seconds after the crime, the Appin mystery began to unfold . . .  

 That single shot therefore from the flank of Beinn a’ Bheithir, and the death of red-headed Glenure, immediately set in motion an extraordinary chain of events:

  • The King in London was informed. The Government was still jittery after being almost overthrown six years previously as Bonnie Prince Charlie marched on London in the Forty Five uprising. The government misread Glenure’s killing as perhaps the first shot of another Jacobite rebellion. The order was given from London and Edinburgh: stop it in its tracks, use whatever force or means necessary and make an example of the perpetrators by hanging them high.
  • That single shot sparked one of the biggest murder hunts in Scottish history. Even shipping in the River Forth was intercepted.
  • It resulted in the hanging of an innocent man – James Stewart of the Glen – after a shameful trial with a loaded jury.  Stewart was found guilty of complicity without a shred of evidence against him. Eleven of the fifteen jurors were Campbells and some historians believe that his hanging was judicial murder. It is one of the blackest marks on Scottish legal history.

And what makes it all so intriguing is that the name of the real Appin murderer has been handed down among gentry Stewarts, generation by generation, for almost 260 years to this day.

The whole episode has become an enthralling Scottish enigma, surrounding by secondary enigmas, capable of combusting all those old clan rivalries and enmities, with suspects by the fistful, dark deeds at the highest level, and set in some of the most spectacular landscape in Scotland.

Then just over a century after Colin Campbell’s assassination, along came writer Robert Louis Stevenson, just back from America and intent on writing a history of the Highlands. After a family holiday in Strathpeffer, the train journey was broken in Inverness, and while Stevenson strolled around the city, his father went browsing to a favourite second-hand bookshop. There he found a little, unpretentious, brown volume titled Trial of Stewart – so he bought it as background reading for his son’s history.

It was later placed into Stevenson’s hands and his imagination simply somersaulted. Here was the official record of the Appin Murder, the step-by-step account of the infamous trial, the witnesses’ statements, the hopeless attempt by James Stewart’s lawyer to find justice, the inevitable grim sentence. Not only was the presiding judge a Campbell, sitting as Lord Justice General, but he was also chief of the Campbell clan and the court sat in Inveraray, the Campbell’s capital. James Stewart didn’t have a chance.

It was out of that little book of Stewart’s trial that the whole of Kidnapped was born. As a trained advocate, and a life-long supporter of underdogs, Stevenson was dismayed that justice had been so callously discarded and that the innocent James, as the leading Stewart around, was a dead man from the moment the bullets entered Glenure’s back in the Wood of Lettermore. The prime suspect, Jacobite courier Allan Breck Stewart, simply vanished into the heather. In any event, in keeping with the twists and turns of the Appin saga, it is unlikely Allan Breck pulled the trigger.

Behind the pages of Trial of Stewart, Stevenson discovered a world of hate and political intrigue, clan feuds, harsh, pitiless government rule, legal skulduggery – yet also acts of enormous courage and clan loyalty in the face of terrible adversity.

So into the Appin cauldron, just before Colin Campbell’s assassination, Stevenson introduced his innocent, teenage hero David Balfour, from Ettrick in the Borders, in search of his family fortune. But how to get his young hero to the murder scene? I’ll have him kidnapped, thought Stevenson, and so bad old Uncle Ebenezer pays wily Captain Hoseason of the brig Covenant to have David spirited off  from the Hawes Inn at South Queensferry to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas.

The Covenant runs down a boat in thick fog in the Little Minch and one man, showing great agility and strength, manages to swing himself aboard. He wears fine clothes, bears an air of authority, a kind of dancing wildness is in his eyes, and there is a business-looking sword at his side. David Balfour has come face to face with the Jacobite Allan Breck Stewart. Out of this encounter, Stevenson created one of the most memorable characters in Scottish literature, and although perhaps far removed from the dark figure painted at James Stewart’s trial, the real Allan Breck nonetheless must have been a man of some calibre and guile. He was a trusted clan courier, capable of flitting in and out of Scotland without detection, noted for his bravery and loyalty, and he was decorated by the French military. The experienced, battle-hardened, swashbuckling Jacobite and the innocent young Whig David Balfour also strike up one of the most enduring literary friendships.

What is not always understood, however, is that all the main characters in Kidnapped were real people except for the young David Balfour. Stevenson wove his fiction into the locations and historical fact so seamlessly that it is not always easy to tell fact from fiction, yet throughout Kidnapped he remains true to the detail of the murder, the horrific consequences and Scottish history. Kidnapped is an accurate historical account of the state of Scotland after the Forty Five – from food and clothing, transport, weaponry, speech, to Hanoverian vengeance, the break-up of the clan system leading inevitably years later to the ethnic cleansing of The Clearances.   

The dramatic Scottish landscape is a major scene-stealer – from the barren islet of Erraid off the most westerly point of Mull, by the winding coastline of Morvern at the roots of the Ardgour mountains, by fair Appin and the bristling rock skyscrapers of Glencoe, out across the wilderness of Rannoch Moor, Britain’s largest, deserted badland, by the softer landscape around Stirling, along the Fife side of the Forth, and so into Edinburgh where David Balfour at last found his fortune.

All along the route, The Stevenson Way is punctuated by adventure, desperate deeds, murder, courage, loyalty, vivid history and magnificent wilderness. 

©Ian Nimmo, July 2011