The story takes place in Scotland and the waters around it in the summer of 1751. David’s travels take him over much of the Scottish countryside, especially the Highlands. Most editions of the novel contain background explanations that clarify the historical situation. The 1700s saw two Scottish rebellions against England caused by the decision that the House of Hanover would rule both countries. The Scots wanted their own royal family, the Stuarts, to rule again; they fought bloody wars in the attempt to accomplish this goal. The last revolt, in 1745-1746, ended with defeat for Scotland. By 1751 many of the Highland chiefs were either in hiding or had escaped to the Continent, and their followers were still supporting them with money and assistance.
One of the principal conflicts in the text exists between the attitude of David, who represents the Whig Lowlander acceptance of the Hanoverian monarchy, and that of Alan Breck Stewart, who stands for the rebellious Highland resistance to British control and, in some cases, the hope that the Stuarts might again rule the British Isles. This issue causes considerable friction in the plot, as it did in history. Stevenson manages to achieve an admirable objectivity toward both sides of the controversy. Among the perennial historical lessons in the book lies the fact that armed rebellion, successful or not, never leads to absolute peace and serenity.