The novel tells the story of Archie Weir, a youth born into an upper-class Edinburgh family. Because of his Romantic sensibilities and sensitivity, Archie is estranged from his father, who is depicted as the coarse and cruel judge of a criminal court. By mutual consent, Archie is banished from his family of origin and sent to live as the local laird on a family property in the vicinity of Hermiston (now on Edinburgh's outskirts, and occupied by Heriot-Watt University, but then out in the countryside).
While serving as the laird, Archie meets and falls in love with Kirstie (Christina). As the two are deepening their relationship, the book breaks off. Confusingly, there are two characters in the novel called Christina.