I absolutely adore the music of the Outlander theme song, and, after a little research, discovered that it’s an old Scottish tune — sometimes a “rowing song,” sometimes a lullaby — with original lyrics by Sir Harold Boulton (first published in 1884) about Bonnie Prince Charlie after the failure to restore him to the Scottish throne.
The Skye Boat Song
(traditional Scottish melody,
lyrics by Sir Boulton, 1884 )
[Chorus] Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclouds rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.
Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.
Many’s the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.
Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.
Flora, in verse 3, is Flora MacDonald, who supposedly rescued Prince Charles Edward Stuart from the British troops, and helped him escape, disguised as a woman (though I don’t see that detail in the song), via Skye — also known as the Isle of Skye — the largest and most northerly island of the Scottish Inner Hebrides. The Claymore in verse 4 — for all you non-military experts, like me — is an Anglicization of the Scottish Gaelic claidheamh-mòr, the two-handed “great sword.”
In 1892, the original lyrics of The Skye Boat Song were adapted into a poem “Sing Me a Song of a Lad Who is Gone” by author Robert Louis Stevenson, with the “lad” being Bonnie Prince Charlie. I’m not sure why Stevenson felt he had to adapt the original lyrics, which I prefer to Stevenson’s poem, but for whatever reason, he rewrote them.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1892) Poem
“Sing Me a Song of a Lad that is Gone”
(adaptation of “The Skye Boat Song”)
[Chorus] Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.
Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?
Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!
Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
Stevenson’s poetic adaptation was further adapted by Bear McCreary to serve as the theme for the Starz show (only the lyrics were slightly changed from Stevenson’s poem, not the melody itself).
As the original lyrics of The Skye Boat Song were written for a traditional Scottish melody to tell the story of how Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped in a small boat after the defeat of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, and as this is one of the major themes of Outlander, the original lyrics fit the show just as well as any of the adaptations.
The song — a traditional expression of the 1745 Jacobite uprising/rebellion — and its story has entered Scotland’s history as a national legend. The song itself is sometimes heard as a traditional waltz, a rowing song, or a lullaby. This version of The Skye Boat Song is done by The Corries.
Although, as the Theme Song for the show Outlander, Stevenson’s lyrics are hardly changed, the music, of course, is still lovely.
The only music in Outlander that I like better than “The Skye Song” is McCreary’s music for the Dance of the Druids, as it’s called, which is hauntingly beautiful. I haven’t been able to determine if that’s original or based on a traditional tune, but either way, I love it.
Outlander: Season 1 Part 2
Outlander: Season 1 Part 1