"Bonnie Charlie", also commonly known as "Will ye no come back again?", is a Scots poem by Carolina Oliphant (Lady Nairne), set to a traditional Scottish folk tune. As in several of the author's poems (she was known for "saccharine imitations of Jacobite song") its theme is the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745, which ended at the Battle of Culloden. Written well after the events it commemorates, it is not a genuine Jacobite song, like many other songs that were "composed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but ... passed off as contemporary products of the Jacobite risings."
Lady Nairne came from a Jacobite family, and Prince Charles had stopped to dine at Nairne House on 4 September 1745, during the march to Edinburgh. Her father was exiled the year after, but the family "hoarded" a number of objects "supposedly given to him by Prince Charles."
The song, especially its melody, is widely and traditionally used as a song of farewell – often in association with Auld Lang Syne, and generally with no particular Jacobite or other political intent.
The "Bonnie Charlie" of the song is "Bonnie Prince Charlie" or the Young Pretender, the last serious Stuart claimant to the British throne. After Culloden, he escaped to the continent with the help of Flora MacDonald, and other loyal followers. The song expresses joy in Bonnie Charlie's escape from capture and possible execution, and celebrates the loyalty of his followers and their longing for his return.
The song has been described as evoking a type of nostalgic idealism: "Who that hears "Bonnie Charlie" sung...but is touched by that longing for the unattainable which is the blessing and the despair of the idealist?"
The song has long been a "time honored Scottish farewell." In this function, it is generally sung (like Auld Lang Syne) as a "first verse and chorus". Also like Auld Lang Syne, the song has acquired a more general use: it was sung by Canadians, for instance, in honour of George VI in 1939; by Australians as a farewell to then-Princess Elizabeth in 1946; and by Elizabeth II's "Scottish subjects" in 1953. It was sung by an Australian choir to the departing athletes at the closing ceremonies of the Melbourne Summer Olympic Games in 1956, as seen in the 'Olympiad' documentary series by Bud Greenspan. American golfer, Bobby Jones, was serenaded out of St Andrews' Younger Hall to the tune, after being made an honorary freeman of the Borough of St Andrews, Scotland in October 1958.
With the rise of the Scottish nationalist movement it has become common to sing several verses of the song, especially the strongly "Jacobite" ones, apparently as an expression of desire for Scottish independence.
Different versions of the lyrics exist. These words seem to be Lady Nairne's own: they are taken from an 1869 edition of her songs, which cites five stanzas (alternating with the "Will ye no' come back again" chorus), of which the middle three are explicitly Jacobite. Some versions cite only two (the first and the last) stanzas, while others add several more that seem not to have been part of the original. For instance, in a 1901 anthology by James Welldon, two additional stanzas are found, and the poem is credited to "Anonymous." Variant wordings for some of the lyrics (especially our second verse) are also given by some sources. Our verse two rhymes, at least in Lady Nairn's Scots.
- Bonnie Charlie's noo awa
- Safely o'er the friendly main;
- He'rts will a'most break in twa
- Should he no' come back again.
- Will ye no' come back again?
- Will ye no' come back again?
- Better lo'ed ye canna be
- Will ye no' come back again?
- Ye trusted in your Hieland men
- They trusted you, dear Charlie;
- They kent you hiding in the glen,
- Your cleadin' was but barely.*
- English bribes were a' in vain
- An' e'en tho puirer we may be
- Siller canna buy the heart
- That beats aye for thine and thee.
- We watch'd thee in the gloamin' hour
- We watch'd thee in the mornin' grey
- Tho' thirty thousand pound they'd gi'e
- Oh, there is nane that wad betray.
- Sweet's the laverock's note and lang,
- Liltin' wildly up the glen,
- But aye to me he sings ane sang,
- Will ye no come back again?
- *The line is a little obscure. Cleading is cognate with standard English "clad", in the sense of "covered" or "dressed" – probably a reference to Prince Charles being "barely concealed" is intended, although it could also refer to a lack of suitable clothing.
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