The Skye Boat Song

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An adaptation for bagpipes played by the Clan Stewart Pipe Band.

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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, 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 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.[1]

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. Peter Nelson and The castaways from New Zealand released a version in 1966 as did Western Australian artist Glen Ingram Both versions were in the Australian hit parade in 1966

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. 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).

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 characterize the song as "Trad.--2:57."[2]

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.

Bear McCreary adapted the song as the opening titles of the 2014 Outlander TV series, sung by Raya Yarbrough, changing the text of Robert Louis Stevenson's poem Sing Me a Song of a Lad That Is Gone to fit the story.[3][4]

Marc Gunn recorded this song for album Scottish Songs of Drinking & Rebellion. The album topped the charts on Amazon.

Stellan Skarsgard's character plays this song on the cello in the 1992 film Wind.

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.

Fans of Rangers FC in Glasgow, used to sing a version of the song in praise of Danish player Kai Johansen

Canadian Punk band, covered this song on their debut album from 1995, also called The Real McKenzies.


Original lyrics[edit]

[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.

Stevenson's poem[edit]

Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, which has been sung to the tune, has the following text:[5]

[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, Rùm 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.

Other lyrics[edit]

There has also been a hymn adaptation of the tune, known as "Spirit of God as Strong as the Wind"; some of the lyrics vary.[6][7]

A modified version of Stevenson's poem by Bear McCreary serves as the theme song to the television series Outlander.

"The Skye Boat Song" has been parodied in song by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders on their comedy series French and Saunders.


External links[edit]