David Balfour tells us his father, Alexander Balfour, has died and his mother died before him. As he is 17, he decides it is time to seek his fortune. Before he leaves, his guardian, Mr Campbell reveals he has an uncle. This man is Ebenezer Balfour of the House of Shaws, meaning David is unexpectedly from a wealthy family. David decides to go to Cramond where his uncle lives to meet his wealthy relatives.
David first walks to Edinburgh and then finds his way to Cramond. As he asks about the House of Shaws, he discovers his uncle Ebenezer is unpopular in the community and lives alone. Despite learning this, David carries on to the House of Shaws. While Ebenezer gives him a cold welcome he does seem interested in the death of David's father. He seems suspicious of David, treating him like a thief, although David warms to him when Ebenezer gives him a gift of 40 pounds.
Ebenezer effectively tries to kill David by sending him to the tower next to the house which has no steps. David demands to know why his uncle did this, but he will not say.
The next day a cabin boy, Ransome, arrives at the house with a message for Ebenezer. This is from Captain Hoseason of the Covenant, a ship that deals with Ebenezer's business. The old man decides to go to Queensferry with Ransome. David wants to see the ships at the port, so he goes along too.
At first Hoseason is pleasant and warns David about Ebenezer. He then asks to speak to David on board. David goes with him because he is interested in seeing more of the ship. But once he is on board, the ship sets sail and David is knocked unconscious.
He awakes in the dark of the Covenant storage compartment. He drifts in and out of sleep and becomes ill. The ship's mate, Riach, demands that he be allowed to sleep in the upper deck of the ship with the other sailors. Hoseason reluctantly agrees to this. David recovers and he grows friendly with Riach and the sailors. When Ransome is then killed by Mr Shuan, David becomes the cabin boy.
After a few days, the Covenant hits another boat. The only survivor is a strange Highlander dressed as a French soldier. He tells the captain he is carrying rent money for his exiled chieftain. Hoseason agrees to drop him off at Loch Linnhe. But David overhears the officers plotting to murder the stranger and take his money belt. David tells the stranger about this threat to his life and agrees to fight by his side.
The stranger says his name is Alan Breck Stewart. He and David defend the roundhouse - a cabin on the ship - from the sailors. Alan kills several men and David two. Impressed by his courage, Alan gives David a silver button. After some negotiation, the captain agrees to drop Alan and David off at Loch Linnhe.
On the way, the ship hits the Torran Rocks and goes down. David escapes and finds himself on an island separated from a larger island by a river, which he cannot cross. A fisherman comes along and shows him he can cross over at low tide. David crosses easily to the Isle of Mull.