The novel's hero is a young man named Darsie Latimer. Early in the novel he is kidnapped by Hugh Redgauntlet, and taken to a village in Dumfries. Darsie's friend Alan Fairford sets out to rescue him. After much intrigue Darsie discovers that Redgauntlet is his uncle, and he is also reunited with his sister. He also discovers that a number of prominent Jacobites, and Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie or the Young Pretender) himself are staying in the village. Redgauntlet has summoned them all to start a new Jacobite rebellion, and he wants Darsie to join them. However, the Prince is still reeling from the French naval defeats at Quiberon Bay and Lagos, which represented Charles's last realistic chance to recover the British throne for the Stuart dynasty. Furthermore, Redgauntlet discovers that his fellow Jacobites are not as committed as he, and their stated objection is that they suspect the Prince's mistress, Clementina Walkinshaw, of being a spy. During these discussions, General Campbell arrives amongst them to announce that he and the government know what the conspirators are up to. The Prince is allowed to go into exile, and his followers peacefully disperse. Redgauntlet, seeing that the Jacobite cause is now lost, joins the Prince in exile. Darsie is set free having always remained loyal to the current king, and Alan marries Darsie's sister.
Darsie had been Alan Fairford's favourite schoolfellow, and, to please his son, Mr Fairford had consented that Darsie, who received an ample allowance on the understanding that he was to make no inquiries respecting his family until he completed his twenty-fifth year, should live with them. Alan was studying for the law, but his companion had started for his first country ramble, and the story commences with a long correspondence between them. As he returned from fishing in the Solway Firth, with Benjie as his instructor, Darsie was overtaken by the tide, and carried by Mr Herries, dressed as a fisherman, on horseback to a cottage, where his niece Lilias said grace at supper-time; and next morning he was placed under the guidance of Joshua Geddes. The Quaker, who was part owner of some fishing nets in the river, invited him to spend a few days at his house; and while there he heard from Alan that a young lady had called to warn him that his friend was in considerable danger, and to urge that he should at once return to Edinburgh. A letter, however, from old Mr Fairford determined him not to do so; and having made acquaintance with the blind fiddler, who told him a tale of the Redgauntlet family, Darsie went with him to a fishers' merry-making, where he danced with Lilias, who reproached him for leading an idle life, and begged him to leave the neighbourhood.
Mr Fairford had arranged that Peter Peebles, an eccentric plaintiff, should be his son's first client, and Alan was pleading the cause before the Lords Ordinary when his father, by mistake, handed him a letter from Mr Crosbie, announcing that Darsie had mysteriously disappeared. Alan instantly rushed out of court, and started in search of his friend, who had accompanied the Quaker to await an attack on his fishing station, and been made prisoner by the rioters, of whom Mr Herries was the leader. After being nearly drowned, and recovering from a fever, he awoke in a strange room, to which he was confined for several days, when he was visited by his captor, and conducted by him to an interview with Squire Foxley, who, acting as a magistrate, declined to interfere with Mr Herries' guardianship. As the squire was leaving, however, Mr Peebles arrived to apply for a warrant against Alan for throwing up his brief, and startled Mr Herries by recognising him as a Redgauntlet and an unpardoned Jacobite. Darsie obtained a partial explanation from him, and was told to prepare for a journey disguised as a woman. Meanwhile, Alan had applied to the provost, and, having obtained from his wife's relation, Mr Maxwell, a letter to Herries, he started for Annan, where, under the guidance of Trumbull, he took ship for Cumberland. On landing at Crakenthorp's inn, he was transported by Nanty Ewart, and a gang of smugglers, to Fair-ladies' House, where he was nursed through a fever, and introduced to a mysterious Father Buonaventure. After being closely questioned and detained for a few days, he was allowed to return with a guide to the inn.
Darsie was also travelling thither with Herries and his followers, when he discovered that Lilias, who accompanied them, was his sister, and learnt from her his own real name and rank. He was also urged by his uncle to join a rising in favour of the Pretender; and, having hesitated to do so, was detained in custody when they reached their destination, where Alan, as well as other visitors and several of the neighbouring gentry, had already arrived. He was then introduced to a conference of Charles Edward Stuart's adherents, and afterwards to the prince himself, who refused to agree to their conditions, and decided to abandon the contemplated attempt in his favour. Ewart was, accordingly, ordered to have his brig in readiness, when Nixon suggested that he should turn traitor, upon which they fought and killed each other. Sir Arthur now learned that Fairford and Geddes were in the house; but, before he was allowed to see them, they had been shown into the room where Lilias was waiting, when Alan became aware that his fair visitor at Edinburgh was his friend's sister, and heard from her lips all the particulars of her brother's history. Their conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Benjie, in whose pocket a paper was found indicating that Nixon had communicated with the Government; and, during the confusion which ensued, the Hanoverian General Campbell arrived, unarmed and unaccompanied, and after explaining that the Jacobites had been betrayed weeks before, announced that he was sufficiently supported with cavalry and infantry. The Rebellion was over before it could begin. His instructions, however, from King George were to allow all concerned in the plot to disperse, and he intimated that as many as wished might embark in the vessel which was in waiting.
The Pretender was, accordingly, led by the Laird of Redgauntlet to the beach, and Lilias offered to accompany her uncle in his voluntary exile. This, however, he would not permit, and, after an exchange of courtesies with the general, the prince departed amidst the tears and sobs of the last supporters of his cause, and henceforward the term Jacobite ceased to be a party name. Lilias, of course, married Alan, and Herries, who had asked his nephew's pardon for attempting to make a rebel of him, threw away his sword, and became the prior of a monastery.Mr Darsie Latimer, afterwards Sir Arthur Darsie Redgauntlet
Mr Saunders Fairford, a Writer to the Signet
Alan Fairford, his son, an advocate
Mr Herries of Birrenswork, the assumed name of Sir Edward, the Laird of Redgauntlet
Lilias, his niece
Cristal Nixon and Mabel Moffat, their servants
Jack Hadaway, a village lad
Benjie, a village lad
Joshua Geddes, of Mount Sharon, a Quaker tacksman
Rachel Geddes, his sister
Willie Steenson, a blind fiddler
Peter Peebles, Alan's first client
Mr William Crosbie, Provost of Dumfries
Squire Foxley, of Foxley Hall, Cumberland
Master Nicholas Faggot, his clerk
Mr Peter Maxwell, of Summertrees, alias Pate-in-Peril
Tam Trumbull, of Annan, a contraband trader
Nanty Ewart, captain of the Jumping Jenny
Father Crackenthorp, a Cumberland innkeeper and smuggler
The Sisters Arthuret, of Fairladies' House
Father Buonaventure, afterwards The Young Pretender
Clementina Walkinshaw - mistress to The Young Pretender, named in Scott's introduction
General Colin Campbell, an English officer
In the introduction to the novel, Scott discussed the position of the former Jacobites:
Most Scottish readers who can count the number of sixty years, must recollect many respected acquaintances of their youth, who, as the established phrase gently worded it, out in the Forty-Five. ... Jacobites were looked on in society as men who had proved their sincerity by sacrificing their interests to their principles; and in well-regulated companies, it was held a piece of ill-breeding to injure their feelings...
Magnus Magnusson wrote:
Its two young heroes, Alan Fairford and Darsie Latimer (Redgauntlet's nephew), between them reflect the duality of Scott's own character. Fairford, an Edinburgh advocate, is the son of a strict, ultra-conservative Edinburgh lawyer; Latimer ... is the young adventurer seeking to discover the secret of his parentage in the wilds of Dumfriesshire. Alan Fairford is Scott's Edinburgh self; Darsie Latimer is his Borders self. Between them ... they discover an ultimate commitment to the Hanoverian peace.
David Daiches wrote:
The picture of the slow disintegration of the meeting, of the embarrassment of the Jacobites when faced with the problem of reconciling their fierce protestations of loyalty to the House of Stuart with the realities of their present situation, is brilliantly done. The scene is one of the finest in Scott. The two worlds are finally brought together, and the romantic one disintegrates.
The early parts of the novel are in epistolary form consisting of letters between Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford, or between Darsie and Saunders Fairford (Alan's father). It changes to third person narration from the court case where Alan represents Peter Peebles. The remainder of the novel is mostly third person, with some extracts from the journal of Darsie Latimer.
One of the major highlights of the novel is "Wandering Willie's Tale", which occurs in the epistolary section. Wandering Willie is a wandering musician and the narrator of the tale. It is a ghost story with the climax being an encounter between Willie's grandfather, Steenie Steenson and the ghost of his landlord Robert Redgauntlet (Hugh's grandfather). All of the supernatural events have rational explanations which Willie mentions but vehemently denies.