The Master of Ballantrae begins in 1745 and is narrated by Mackellar, the loyal, often meddling steward to the respected Durie of Durisdeer family. The family consists of the old Lord and his two sons, James (the eldest son and Master of Ballantrae) and Lord Henry. Miss Alison Graeme, a relative, and heir to a great fortune, also lives with the family.
In order to keep her wealth in the family, Alison is pledged to be the Master’s wife. The Master himself is a drinker, a gambler, and a womanizer. Although he is manipulative and insinuating, he is his father’s and Alison’s favorite. Despite Henry’s best attempts, he always falls short in the eyes of his family, his only champions Mackellar and an old servant Macconochie.
The Jacobite Rising of 1745 proves an anxious time for the Durie family. To be on the safe side they decide to support both parties: one son will go and fight for the Jacobites, while the other will stay home to keep favour with King George.
As the eldest, the Master should stay at home. He refuses, and finally demands that he and Henry toss a coin for it. The Master wins and rides out, but the family later hear he has been killed at the Battle of Culloden. Tam Macmorland, who fought alongside the Master, now falsely alleges that Henry had betrayed the Master and his men to the King.
Tam’s lies make Henry extremely unpopular in the community. Out of pity for his treatment, Alison marries him and gives birth to a little girl, Lady Katharine. Although Henry dotes on his wife, she does not love him, and he is an indifferent father to Katharine.
One day, Colonel Francis Burke arrives bearing letters from the Master, explaining that he is actually alive and well in Paris. Burke tells the family that he and the Master had many adventures, including meeting Alan Breck Stewart (see Kidnapped), capturing a vast pirate treasure, and navigating the wilderness of New York state.
Meanwhile, Henry, unbeknownst to the old Lord and Alison, has been sending money to the Master. While this financially cripples the Durie estate, the family only see Henry as tight-fisted. Unable to support this injustice, Mackellar tells them the truth. Later, Burke sends a letter warning that the Master had just been released from jail and is seeking funds for an adventure in India.
The Master returns and insinuates he has been cheated out of his title, his estate and his wife. Bitterly bent on taking revenge, the Master now does all he can to make life unbearable for Henry. For example, he courts Alison, and befriends Katharine so that she will prefer him to her own father. While he is charming with the rest of the family, he insults and riles Henry.
The Master also tells the family he is under threat from the Government because he fought for the Jacobites. Even when Henry tells the family he has been lying and is in fact a government spy, he cannot shake their faith in the Master. Wishing to rid himself of the Master by whatever means, Henry sells off part of the estate to raise the funds for the Master’s venture in the French Indies. Nevertheless, the Master lingers on.
One night, the Master pushes Henry too far, claiming that Alison still loves him. The men duel and Henry runs the Master through. Half mad with grief and terror for what he’s done, Henry never fully recovers.
Meanwhile, Mackellar tells both Alison and the old Lord what has happened, for the first time speaking candidly about the Master’s wickedness. When he and the old Lord return for the body, however, they find it gone, taken by the free-traders. The old Lord dies not long after, overcome by the night’s events.
For some time, the family find happiness. Alison gives birth to a son, Alexander, who Henry loves deeply. However, he shows such favoritism as the boy grows that Mackellar warns him not to repeat the mistakes of his own father and his treatment of the Master.
Meanwhile, Mackellar learns that the Master is still alive and in India. The Master returns, bringing with him his Indian servant Secundra Dass. Henry’s health and sanity are so threatened by seeing the Master again that he and his family flee secretly to New York.
Mackellar stays to watch over the Master, refusing to tell him where the family has gone. However, the Master soon finds out and he and Secundra set sail for New York. Vowing to help Henry if he can, Mackellar joins them.
On board the ship, Mackellar cannot overcome his repulsion for the Master. He tries and fails to push him overboard. The Master does not resent him, but admires his loyalty to Henry and the two form an uneasy truce.
When they arrive in New York, Henry is waiting and publicly humiliates the Master. The Master sets up shop as a tailor, and Secundra as a goldsmith, and every day the increasingly unhinged Henry takes pleasure in visiting the shop.
One day the Master asks Henry for money. He reveals he had buried the pirate treasure from his adventures with Burke and wishes to retrieve it. Henry refuses, but Mackellar, anxious to rid Henry of the Master’s evil influence, offers the Master his own money. The Master will not take it, out of a strange liking for Mackellar. Instead, he joins with the infamous Captain Harris to find the treasure.
Meanwhile, after reading a pamphlet which falsely accuses Henry of being as bad as the Master, Henry loses his last shred of sanity. He arranges for Harris to deceive the Master and to retrieve the treasure for himself. Anxious to be close to the scene of action, Henry and Mackellar join Sir William Johnson’s diplomatic errand in the woods near where the treasure is buried.
Mountain, a trader and one of Harris’s men, now runs terrified out of the woods. He explains that the Master and Secundra knew the men were plotting against them. The Master escaped and was found and at last promised to show them the treasure. Instead, he fell gravely ill and died. The party were then pursued by Indian braves, who each night scalped one of them until only Mountain and Secundra were left.
Deciding they must pursue the matter of the scalpings, Johnson takes his men to the place where the Master is buried. They find Secundra digging up the grave, insisting the Master was not dead: he had taught him how to swallow his tongue so that Secundra could revive him later. Mackellar is horrified:
When he sees this, Henry falls down dead, and when Secundra is unable to revive him fully, the Master also dies. Mackellar buries them side by side, and engraves an enigmatic tombstone for the brothers, which suggests greater admiration for the Master after all.
“I thought I could myself perceive a change upon the icy countenance of the unburied. The next moment I beheld his eyelids flutter; the next they rose entirely, and the week-old corpse looked me for a moment in the face” (p. 251).
Quotations from The Master of Ballantrae, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol xii (London: Chatto and Windus, 1911).
Image from RLS, The Master of Ballantrae, illus. by Walter Paget (1911).