The story takes place at the time of the ''Fifteen Jacobite Rising. The plot has been criticized as disjointed; the end especially is hurried.
Frank Osbaldistone, the narrator, quarrels with his father and is sent to stay with an uncle, Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone, in Northumberland. Frank falls in love with Diana Vernon, Sir Hildebrand''s niece, whose father has been forced to go into hiding because of his Jacobite sympathies. Frank''s cousin, Rashleigh, steals important documents vital to the honour of Frank''s father, William, and Frank pursues Rashleigh to Scotland. There he meets Robert Roy MacGregor, an associate of Diana''s father. When Rashleigh attacks Frank, Rob Roy kills Rashleigh. All Sir Hildebrand''s other sons are killed in the Jacobite rebellion, and Frank inherits Sir Hildebrand''s property and marries Diana.
The novel is a brutally realistic depiction of the social conditions in Highland and Lowland Scotland in the early 18th Century. The Highlanders were compared with American Indians, as regards to their primitive, isolated lifestyle.