The Skye Boat Song

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"The Skye Boat Song" is a modern Scottish song which has entered into the folk canon in recent times. It 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 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.[1] 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 fourteen editions.[1] 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.[2]

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.

Recording history and covers[edit]

It was extremely popular in its day, and from its first recording by Tom Bryce on April 29, 1899,[3] 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. It was performed to great acclaim and recorded by artist and social activist Paul Robeson in 1959 and 1960.[4]

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."[5]

Fans of Rangers FC in Glasgow used to sing a version of the song in praise of Danish player Kai Johansen (played 1965–70).

Among later renditions which became well known were Peter Nelson and The Castaways from New Zealand, who released a version in 1966, as did West Australian artist Glen Ingram. Both versions were in the Australian hit parade in 1966.

Esther & Abi Ofarim recorded the song in 1966 under the title "Bonnie Boat".[6]

Calum Kennedy included a version on Songs of Scotland and Ireland (Beltona 1971).

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.

This 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, 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 [fr] (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! / Travels With My Cello Volume 2.

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).

Scottish singer, Barbara Dickson, recorded this song in 2006.

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).

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

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

Sir Michael Tippett originally included "Over the Sea to Skye" in his arrangements of Four Songs from the British Isles for unaccompanied four-part chorus in 1957, in response to a commission from North West German Radio, Bremen, for a festival of European folk song. But the amateur choir for which they were intended found the songs too difficult, and the first performance took place only in July 1958, given by the London Bach Group, conducted by John Minchinton, at Royaumont in France. The recently published volume of Tippett’s Selected Letters, edited by Thomas Schuttenhelm, includes a progress report on the Four Songs to the composer’s German publisher, dated 28 July 1957, in which he says that he proposes to replace "Over the Sea to Skye" because it is “too strictly held by a publisher here”. It was only rediscovered after Tippett’s death in the offices of his London publishers Schott’s; it was published at the end of 2002, and first performed the following July in Dublin.

Marc Gunn recorded this song for the 2013 album Scottish Songs of Drinking & Rebellion.

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 fit the story.[7][8][1]

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).[9][10]

It can also be heard playing background instrumental in several episodes of the American serial killer television series Dexter.


Original lyrics[edit]

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,
Thunderclaps 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 in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Cullodens 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 1892 poem, which has been sung to the tune, has the following text:[11]

[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 versions[edit]

There has also been a hymn adaptation of the tune, known as "Spirit of God Unseen as the Wind"; some of the lyrics vary.[12][13]

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

A modified version of "The Skye Boat Song" is used as the theme music for the TV Series Outlander sung by Raya Yarbrough and arranged by Bear McCreary. Notably, the word "lad" used in the version by Robert Louis Stevenson is replaced by "lass" to reflect the story.


  1. ^ a b c "10 facts about Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites". History Extra. Immediate Media Company. May 12, 2016. Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  2. ^ Andrew Kuntz. The Fiddler's Companion: A Descriptive Index of North American and British Isles Music for the Folk Violin and Other Instruments.
  3. ^ "The Skye Boat Song by Paul Robeson". Second Hand songs. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
  4. ^ McColl, Norton. "Discography". Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration. University of Chicago. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
  5. ^ "Tom Jones – It's Not Unusual". Discogs. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  6. ^ "Esther Ofarim - Esther and Abi Ofarim - Esther & Abi Ofarim - Ofraim אסתר עופרים".
  7. ^ Conrad, Erin (July 2014). "Outlander: Opening Title Sequence – Wait, Is That It?". Retrieved September 1, 2014.
  8. ^ "Comic Con 2014 Highlights". July 29, 2014. Retrieved September 1, 2014.
  9. ^ Haisman, Mervyn. "The Web of Fear". Doctor Who. Retrieved 2 June 2016.
  10. ^ Smit, William. "Second Doctor plays recorder (Skye Boat Song)". YouTube. Retrieved 2 June 2016.
  11. ^ "Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone by Robert Louis Stevenson". Poetry Foundation. 24 May 2018.
  12. ^ "Spirit of God - HymnsWithoutWords".
  13. ^ "".

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