Born Robert Michael Ballantyne in Edinburgh, Scotland he was part of a famous family of printers and publishers. At the age of sixteen, he went to Canada and was for six years in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. He returned to Scotland in 1847, and next year published his first book, Hudson's Bay: or, Life in the Wilds of North America. For some time he was employed by Messrs Constable, the publishers, but in 1856 he gave up business for the profession of literature, and began the series of excellent stories of adventure for the young with which his name is popularly associated.
The Young Fur-Traders (1856), The Coral Island (1857), The World of Ice (1859), Ungava: a Tale of Eskimo Land (1857), The Dog Crusoe (1860), The Lighthouse (1865), Deep Down (1868), The Pirate City (1874), Erling the Bold (1869), The Settler and the Savage (1877), and other books, to the number of upwards of a hundred, followed in regular succession, his rule being in every case to write as far as possible from personal knowledge of the scenes he described.
His stories had the merit of being thoroughly healthy in tone and possessed considerable graphic force. Ballantyne was also no mean artist, and exhibited some of his water-colours at the Royal Scottish Academy. He lived in later years at Harrow, and died at Rome, Italy, where he had gone to attempt to shake off the results of overwork. He wrote a volume of Personal Reminiscences of Book-making (1893).