By general agreement, this and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston rank as the best of Stevenson's Scottish novels. Returning to the conflicts of mid-eighteenth-century post-Jacobite Scotland that had been used so effectively in Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantraesimilarly explores the dualities of the Scottish cultural revolution. Like much of Stevenson's later work, it was first serialized in Scribner's magazine, in twelve parts, November 1888-October 1889. Its composition involved Stevenson in original historical research, not only on Scottish history, but on the pre-Revolution period in North America. Much of the novel was actually written at Saranac Lake, New York, where Stevenson was nursing a recurring lung ailment. It was immediately recognized as a turn from his earlier adventure stories to a darker, more complex psychological fiction, "more akin," wrote Andrew Lang in the Daily News, "to the temper of M. Zola than of Scott."
Henry James, in his article on Stevenson in 1888, had complained that Kidnapped stopped "without ending." This sequel was first serialized under the titleDavid Balfour in Atalanta in ten installments, December 1892-September 1893. The title changed for British book-publication that same year, but American editors maintained the periodical title. As the title-change indicates, the book not only recounts David's later adventures, but also introduces a fully developed female character for the first time in Stevenson's adventure stories. As Edward Burne-Jones commented to Stevenson's friend Sidney Colvin: "I am right glad he has made a woman at last, and why did he delay?"
This last of Stevenson's Scottish novels remained unfinished at his death. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that it "has all the air of being the complete, the unanswerably great Scottish novel." Stevenson's portrait of an eighteenth-century "hanging judge," Lord Weir, was based on John MacQueen, Lord Braxfield, but the conflict between Weir and his son reflects also Stevenson's struggle with his father and his father's culture. Like Catriona, Weir of Hermiston gives much fuller pictures of women than in Stevenson's early fiction and makes a more confident use of vernacular Scots language. Having settled on Samoa, Stevenson wrote to the Scottish novelist S. R. Crockett, "I shall never see Auld Reekie [Edinburgh]. I shall never set my foot again upon the heather. Here I am until I die, and here I will be buried." Stevenson's words proved prophetic; he died a year-and-a-half later in Samoa having never returned to Scotland.
At his death, Stevenson left several unfinished manuscripts in addition to Weir of Hermiston. This novel had been left off just short of its conclusion; it appeared as a serial in 1897 with chapters 31-36 written by the critic Arthur Quiller-Couch ("Q"). Stevenson considered this story about a French prisoner's escape from Edinburgh Castle "unintellectual, and except as an adventure novel, dull."
This posthumous collection of Stevenson's poetry closes with these two poems about R. L. S.'s exile from Scotland and imminent death. This particular copy is signed on the half-title page by Stevenson's mother who gave it as a gift.