Heir to a noble Scottish house in the mid 18th century, the Master is a charming, clever, and resourceful villain whose daring but ill-advised schemes first alienate his patrimony and at last cost him his life. His younger brother, sweet-tempered and good but dull and unpopular, suffers at the Master's hands until his patience and courage win him limited ascendancy, but he is at last consumed with hatred and driven to madness and death by the strain of his many sufferings. The story is told from the point of view of a loyal servant with the occasional insertion of documents in the words of other eye-witnesses. The episodic plot, although exciting, serves mainly as a structure on which to hang superb character studies. The Master, whom one both admires and hates, bears comparison with Long John Silver, not to mention Milton's Satan, to whom the narrator explicitly likens him. The secondary characters—narrator, father, and wife—are deftly characterized, and (with the exception of the two children) even the minor characters are vivid and memorable.
Except for a few highly dialectal passages whose spelling insists on a Scottish burr, the reading eschews any false accent. (T. A. Copeland)