15-year-old Colin Campbell has grown up on his parents' farm, Ramore, on the beautiful Holy Loch; and soon he will be attending Glasgow University to study for the ministry. By chance he saves the life of a young man, Harry, the son of Sir Thomas Frankland. The two boys do not like each other, but the result is that Colin is occasionally invited to the Castle and falls in love with a witty, flirtatious girl, Matty, whose place in the social order is far above his.
We follow him through his adventures at University, and as a summer tutor at a great house, where once again he is thrown into Matty's company. Throughout this novel are long, metaphysical discussions between Colin and his even more serious friend Lauderdale regarding Christianity and the Kirk of Scotland. Later he makes a foolish decision in the hope of being near Matty.
Volume 2 changes both locale and characters when Colin must travel to Italy for his health, accompanied by Lauderdale. The second volume is almost a separate novel, a sequel to the first. While travelling, Colin and his friend find themselves emotionally caught up with a dying man and his sister, the Merediths, and set up house with them at Frascati near Rome. Again Colin will make a hasty decision which may affect his whole life.
This novel is not entirely successful, but as always in Oliphant novels there is much of interest in the settings and characters.
Biographical and other notes
The house in Frascati to which the dying man retreats is based on a real house in Frascati, with its wonderful views of the Campagna and St Peter's, to which Margaret Oliphant and her family went in June 1859. Her husband Francis Oliphant was clearly dying by then, as is the man in the story, though Francis actually died after they returned to Rome, on 20 October 1859.
The Holy Loch and other nearby Lochs such as the Gareloch make up the western gateway to the Highlands. A year or two after the death of her husband, Margaret Oliphant began forming new friendships, many for life; and several of these friendships grew while she was staying at Rosneath on the Gareloch.
The farm of "Ramore" in this novel was based on the real-life farm of Mamore on the Gareloch; and the farmer and his lovely wife were based on the real-life Campbells of Mamore who were not quite gentry and yet were closely related to the Duke of Argyll (Campbell clan chief). The nearby castle described in the novel is based on Rosneath Castle, a seat of the Duke of Argyll, though his principal seat was Inverary Castle on Loch Fyne (described in Mrs Oliphant's novel Kirsteen). Two sketches of Rosneath Castle (a.k.a. Rosneath House) are on the page for The Railway Man and His Children.