"The Skye Boat Song" is a late 19th-century Scottish song recalling the journey of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye as he evaded capture by government troops after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet composed the lyrics to an air collected by Anne Campbelle MacLeod in the 1870s, and the line "Over the Sea to Skye" is now a cornerstone of the tourism industry on the Isle of Skye.
Alternative lyrics to the tune were written by Robert Louis Stevenson, probably in 1885. After hearing the Jacobite airs sung by a visitor, he judged the words of this song to be "unworthy", so made a new set of verses "more in harmony with the plaintive tune".
It is often played as a slow lullaby or waltz, and entered into the modern folk canon in the twentieth century with versions by Paul Robeson, Tom Jones, Rod Stewart, Roger Whittaker, Tori Amos, and many others.
The text of the song gives an account of how Bonnie Prince Charlie, disguised as a serving maid, escaped in a small boat after the defeat of his Jacobite rising of 1745, with the aid of Flora MacDonald. The song draws on the motifs of Jacobitism although it was composed nearly a century and a half after the episode it describes. It is often supposed that it describes Charles's flight from the mainland, but this is unhistorical. The only time Charles was in Skye was when he left Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides to avoid the increasingly thorough government searches.
The lyrics were written by Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet, to an air collected in the 1870s by Anne Campbelle MacLeod (1855–1921), who became Lady Wilson by marriage to Sir James Wilson, KSCI (1853–1926), in 1888. The song was first published in Songs of the North by Boulton and MacLeod, London, 1884, a book that went into at least twenty editions. In later editions MacLeod's name was dropped and the ascription "Old Highland rowing measure arranged by Malcolm Lawson" was substituted. It was quickly taken up by other compilers, such as Laura Alexandrine Smith's Music of the Waters (published 1888). Lawson was the elder brother of artist Cecil Gordon Lawson.
According to Andrew Kuntz, a collector of folk music lore, MacLeod was on a trip to the isle of Skye and was being rowed over Loch Coruisk (Coire Uisg, the "Cauldron of Waters") when the rowers broke into a Gaelic rowing song "Cuachag nan Craobh" ("The Cuckoo in the Grove"). MacLeod set down what she remembered of the air, with the intention of using it later in a book she was to co-author with Boulton, who later added the section with the Jacobite associations. "As a piece of modern romantic literature with traditional links it succeeded perhaps too well, for soon people began 'remembering' they had learned the song in their childhood, and that the words were 'old Gaelic lines'," Andrew Kuntz has observed.
Recording history and covers
It was extremely popular in its day, and from its first recording by Tom Bryce on April 29, 1899, became a standard among Scottish folk and dance musicians. It was even more widely known from the 1960s onwards and has remained popular in mainstream music genres.
Alfred Deller recorded a version for his album Western Wind in 1958, together with Desmond Dupré on guitar and John Sothcott on recorder. It was performed to great acclaim and recorded by artist and social activist Paul Robeson in 1959 and 1960.
Welshman Tom Jones recorded a version, which was arranged by Lee Lawson and Harold Boulton, on his debut album Along Came Jones in 1965. The same album, released in the U.S. as It's Not Unusual (and carrying only 12 of the original 16 tracks), did not give attribution for the arrangement but did characterise the song as "Trad.—2:57." Esther & Abi Ofarim recorded the song in 1966 under the title "Bonnie Boat".
Rangers FC and Doctor Who
Fans of Rangers FC in Glasgow used to sing a version of the song in praise of Danish player Kai Johansen (played 1965–70). Patrick Troughton, as the second Doctor on the British science-fiction television series Doctor Who, played the song repeatedly on his recorder in episode 6, scene 10 of "The Web of Fear" (broadcast 9 March 1968).
Hits Down Under
Calum Kennedy included a version on Songs of Scotland and Ireland (Beltona 1971), and Rod Stewart recorded two versions of the song with The Atlantic Crossing Drum & Pipe Band during the sessions for Atlantic Crossing between 1974 and 1975. They were given an official release on the deluxe re-release of the album in 2009.
"The Skye Boat Song" can be heard at the beginning of "Who Stole the Bagpipes", the second episode in season one of the early 1980s British cartoon Dangermouse. Roger Whittaker's duet version with Des O'Connor, released in 1986, made the UK top 10; it combined O'Connor's vocals with Whittaker's whistling version, a part of his repertoire since at least the mid-1970s. The track was recorded at London's Holland Park Lansdowne Studios (now a high-end residential underground property) with session drummer Peter Boita along with all the high-profile studio session players of the day. The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber recorded an instrumental version of the song in 1986 on the album Encore!.
The Shadows played an instrumental version of the song on their 1987 album Simply Shadows. Singer Tori Amos covered the song as part of a song trilogy entitled "Etienne Trilogy" on her debut album Y Kant Tori Read (1988). James Galway and The Chieftains recorded an instrumental version (which was used as background music for a Johnnie Walker commercial) in February 1990 at Studios 301, Sydney, Australia, released on the album Over the Sea to Skye - The Celtic Connection. There is also a version on The Corries In Concert / Scottish Love Songs album (track 19). Galway plays the instrumental version on episode 1957 of Sesame Street, originally aired in 1984.
The music can be heard in an episode of Sex and the City entitled "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". The music can be heard before the first wedding of Charlotte York to Trey McDougal in Series 3.
Bear McCreary adapted the song as the opening titles of the 2014 TV series Outlander, sung by Raya Yarbrough, changing the text of Robert Louis Stevenson's poem "Sing Me a Song of a Lad That Is Gone" (1892) to "Lass" to fit the story.
It can also be heard as background instrumental music in several episodes of the American serial killer television series Dexter. Peter Hollens recorded an a capella cover of the song for the 2018 album Legendary Folk songs.
Lyrics and melody
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.
1. Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.
2. Many's the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden's field.
3. 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.
4. Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.
[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.
1. Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?
2. 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!
3. 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.
- Mrs R. L. Stevenson. "Prefatory Note". In Robert Louis Stevenson. Poems. Volume I. p. 58. London: Heinemann, 1924. The visitor was Elizabeth Anne Ferrier who stayed with Stevenson in June 1885 (Robert Louis Stevenson. Letters, Volume V. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995).
- "10 facts about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites". History Extra. Immediate Media Company. May 12, 2016. Retrieved July 17, 2016.. Songs of the North (20th edition: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP).
- Andrew Kuntz. The Fiddler's Companion: A Descriptive Index of North American and British Isles Music for the Folk Violin and Other Instruments.
- "The Skye Boat Song by Paul Robeson". Second Hand songs. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
- McColl, Norton. "Discography". Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration. University of Chicago. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
- Tom Jones – It's Not Unusual at Discogs
- "Esther Ofarim - Esther and Abi Ofarim - Esther & Abi Ofarim - Ofraim אסתר עופרים". esther-ofarim.de.[failed verification][better source needed]
- Haisman, Mervyn. "The Web of Fear". Doctor Who. Retrieved 2 June 2016.
- on YouTube
- Various Artists - The New Guinea Scene at Discogs
- Conrad, Erin (July 2014). "Outlander: Opening Title Sequence – Wait, Is That It?". ThreeIfBySpace.net. Retrieved September 1, 2014.
- "Comic Con 2014 Highlights". BearMcCreary.com. July 29, 2014. Retrieved September 1, 2014.
- Legendary Folk Songs - Peter Hollens at AllMusic
- "Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone by Robert Louis Stevenson". Poetry Foundation. 24 May 2018.
- "Spirit of God". hymnswithoutwords.com.
- "Spirit of God". billysloan.co.uk.