The Skye Boat Song
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"The Skye Boat Song" is a Scottish folk song, which can be played as a waltz, recalling the escape of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) from Uist to the Isle of Skye after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The song tells how Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped in a small boat (after the defeat of his Jacobite rising of 1745), with the aid of Flora MacDonald, disguised as a serving maid. The song is a traditional expression of Jacobitism and its story has also entered Scotland as a national legend.
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 fourteen 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"). Miss 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.
The song was not in any older books of Scottish songs, though it is in most miscellanies like The Fireside Book of Folk Songs. It is often sung as a lullaby, in a slow rocking 6/8 time. In addition to being extremely popular in its day, and becoming a standard among Scottish folk and dance musicians, it has become more widely known in the modern mainstream popular music genre. Among the modern renditions which became well known were Glen Ingram's Australian pop rendition in the late 1960s where it became a big hit in that country, Roger Whittaker's duet version with Des O'Connor released in 1986, which combined O'Connor's vocals with Whittaker's whistling version, which was 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 supremo Peter Boita along with all the high profile studio session players of the day. Calum Kennedy also included a version on Songs of Scotland and Ireland (Beltona 1971). The cellist Julian Lloyd Webber recorded an instrumental version of the song on the album Encore! / Travels With My Cello Volume 2. James Galway and The Chieftains recorded an instrumental version (which was used as background music for a Johnny Walker commercial) in February 1990 at Studios 301, Sydney, Australia. It's 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).
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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, so 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 in 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.
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.
Speed bonny boat like a bird on a wing,
Onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad that's born to be King,
Over the sea to Skye.
- *Andrew Kuntz, The Fiddler's Companion: A Descriptive Index of North American and British Isles Music for the Folk Violin and Other Instruments: authentic origins of the "Skye Boat Song"
- Pop Archives: Covers of "The Skye Boat Song"
- "The Skye Boat Song", by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in the collection "Songs of Travel and Other Verses" at Project Gutenberg
- Spirit of God - lyrics
- Spirit of God - alternative lyrics
- Roger Whittaker performs Skye Boat Song live in German