The central character and narrator is 17-year-old David Balfour. (Balfour is Stevenson’s mother’s maiden name.) David is naive but resourceful; his parents have recently died, and he is out to make his way in the world. He is given a letter by the minister of Essendean, Mr. Campbell, to be delivered to the House of Shaws in Cramond, where David’s uncle, Ebenezer Balfour, lives. On his journey, David asks many people where the House of Shaws is, and all of them speak of it darkly as a place of fear and evil.
David arrives at the ominous House of Shaws and is confronted by his paranoid Uncle Ebenezer, who is armed with a blunderbuss. His uncle is also miserly, living on “parritch” and small ale, and the House of Shaws itself is partially unfinished and somewhat ruinous. David is allowed to stay, and soon discovers evidence that his father may have been older than his uncle, thus making himself the rightful heir to the estate. Ebenezer asks David to get a chest from the top of a tower in the house but refuses to provide a lamp or candle. David is forced to scale the stairs in the dark and realizes that not only is the tower unfinished in some places, but the steps simply end abruptly and fall into an abyss. David concludes that his uncle intended for him to have an “accident” so as not to have to give over his inheritance.