Outlander Theme Tune: History of The Skye Boat Song

by JoHarrington

A haunting rendition of The Skye Boat Song is now the theme song for Outlander. This traditional Highland air tells the tale of English atrocities in post-Culloden Scotland.

'Outlander' opens every episode with an achingly beautiful reworking of an old Scottish air.

Bear McCreary created this new arrangement of 'The Skye Boat Song', adapting an alternate version of the lyrics, in order to match the circumstances of Claire Randall.

As sung with ghostly passion by Raya Yarbrough, the 'Outlander' theme talks of a lass losing everything. She embarks upon a journey 'merry of soul', but soon finds herself devoid of all that was good and fair, with her self-identity floundering too.

It's an air about an English woman slipping two hundred years into the past. Originally, 'The Skye Boat Song' was also about those times, but then tragedy and loss came at the hands of Cumberland's dragoons in the terrible wake of Culloden.

Reality and the Mythical Isle of Skye

Any one of us could take a boat to Skye right now, given enough time and money to get there. But you would be forgiven for thinking it a paradise from legend too.

I've been to Skye, an island off the Western coast of mainland Scotland. To report that the Hebridean isle abounds with majestic beauty is to understate both adjectives.

Your jaw will drop. You will blink, certain that a landscape this majestic cannot exist in reality. When it remains upon looking again with wide eyes, you will be half-convinced that you've fallen into Faery, or some other Eden.

Skye is an island of legend. Not only Scottish but Irish too.

It's to Skye that Cuchulain traveled, in Erin's epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, that he might be tutored by the champion warrior woman Scáthach. Through the distance of time, she seems as much Goddess, or fey, as she does human female.

Yet the ruins of her Dún Scáith (Shadow Fort) can still be seen on a mountain top overlooking the coastline; mixing mythology and history in glorious confusion.

Skye's Otherworldly aspect is hammered home when linked with Outlander. Here too is a strong, independent woman, who slips between realities in a great saga. In novels and television series alike, Claire wonders if those folktales, which tell of individuals disappearing for a while into Faery, mask the truth of time-travel journeys through the stones.

And that is the story recounted in this latest rendering of the Skye Boat Song, framed to fit Claire's tale by Bear McCreary:

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone,
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

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.

It's a perfect invocation, given Skye's propensity to appear both mythical and Earthly. Yet Claire learns only too well that this area of Inverness is a real place, and so is the ugliness which its sea and landscape has witnessed.

One of those horrific historical realities is what The Skye Boat Song usually recalls, and Outlander will too in time.

Outlander Title Theme Song (Skye Boat Song)

- Arranged and written by Bear McCreary, sung by Raya Yarbrough

Outlander Theme Mp3

Outlander OST Download

The Original Skye Boat Song: Lament of the Jacobites

It wasn't a lass who first sailed in flight and fright towards the sanctuary of Skye. It was Bonnie Prince Charlie in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden.

Outlander fans already know the history of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite Uprising. Those scenes were vividly recreated in the books, and eventually will be dramatized on our television screens too.

Let me tell it again for those out of the loop.

In 18th century Britain, there were two rival claims for the throne. James VII (or II of England) had been ousted due to his open avowal of his Catholicism, and the fact that his son and heir was being raised to be Catholic too.

For Britons made to convert into the Church of England, a generation or three before, this was not only undesirable but deemed treason against the nation itself.

William of Orange - a committed Protestant - wasn't greatly opposed when he invaded in the Glorious Revolution.

Thus began the reign of James's children. First Mary, along with her husband William of Orange, then Ann. But both died without heirs. Faced with an empty throne, the English Parliament invited Hanoverian King George to be their monarch.

When the Scottish protested, a series of events was kicked into being, which resulted in the country aggressively being forced into the United Kingdom. All the riots in Edinburgh, Glasgow and many other major towns and cities were ignored, and the Scots were told accept George or be destroyed.

It was at this point that many people remembered that a parallel royal line was being raised across the ocean. James VII/II was dead, but his son survived. The crowning of the erstwhile James VIII/III was the goal of the Jacobite movement.

History tends to recall that lazily as Scottish Jacobites versus English Hanoverians. It wasn't quite that simple, as the Jacobites included Scots, Irish, English, Welsh and many from other nations too. Nor were all of the armies raised in defense of the Georgian kings solely English.

But overwhelmingly the sides ultimately arrayed at Culloden were Highland Scots under the command of Prince Charles - son of uncrowned James VIII - versus a Hanoverian army mostly made up of men from the English East Midlands, led by William, Duke of Cumberland.

What followed was a massacre.  A mixture of Scottish tactical errors, and superior fireman strategies by Cumberland's troops, led to thousands of Highlanders dead or desperately injured on Drumossie Moor. It would be the last pitched battle on British soil, but also one of its most dreadful and dishonorably staged.

That dire accolade came not so much with the battle itself, but its immediate aftermath. Cumberland's army rode roughshod over centuries worth of tradition and normal etiquette of war. None were allowed to carry their dead and injured from the field. Next morning, those who'd survived the night were systematically slaughtered in cold blood where they lay.

Scots who hadn't even been there - nor necessarily shared Jacobite sympathies - were nonetheless hunted down in homes, streets and fields. Homesteads were rifled for valuables, then set alight. Crops were destroyed where they grew; stockpiles and storage barns too. Women were sexually abused, and children treated like mini-Jacobite warriors.

Random Highlanders were executed, deported or locked up for years in prison. A series of highly punitive laws were passed in Westminster, rendering illegal much of the ancient Scottish culture. It sounded a death knoll for the clan system, which had been in place for countless centuries.

Even today, over two and a half centuries later, the memory of Culloden not only holds fast, but invokes much emotion in Britain. It goes without saying that this sentiment is most keenly felt in Scotland, especially in the ravaged Highlands.

So what does all this have to do with The Skye Boat Song? Everything.

As Cumberland's Dragoons hunted, slashed, burned and slaughtered their way across the Highlands in 1746, their biggest prize was the person of Bonnie Prince Charlie himself.  The Jacobite heir apparent was smuggled across the country, often dodging the searching English in hair-raising near misses.

Finally he reached the shoreline on the very west of Scotland, where he was disguised as a woman and climbed into a boat with Flora MacDonald. He crossed from Benbecula to Skye pretending to be her Irish maid-servant Betty Burke.

The legend - born of Flora's reminisces - state that they set sail at 8pm, on the night of June 28th 1746. It had been a very clear night, but halfway across a bad storm tossed the boat, so they sang songs to keep their spirits up.

Once entrenched upon Skye in relative safety (with a strong emphasis on the word 'relative'), a message could be sent to a French frigate named L'Heureux.  Six months after Culloden, Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in France and spent the rest of his life in exile.

Those months fleeing, hiding and always just escaping from the dragoons is the story told in The Skye Boat Song. As the title of the song suggests, this Highland air culminates in that final treacherous passage across the sea to the isle.

The Skye Boat Song - Original Jacobite Lyrics


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.

Original Skye Boat Song

These lyrics were penned by Sir Harold Edwin Boulton, 2nd Baronet, circa 1884. He set them to a tune written down from memory by Annie MacLeod. She'd first heard it as a rowing song - Cuachag nan Craobh (Cuckoo in the Grove) - during the 1870s.

The Skye Boat Song - Original Lyric Versions

This has been recorded over and over again by many artists for over a century. There are a lot of renditions out there!
On May Day 1707, a group of politicians huddled in secret to sign the Act of Union, while rioting Scots sought desperately to stop them. Thus Great Britain was born.
On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.

Different Lyrics for the 'Traditional' Skye Boat Song

It was first presented to the public as being much older than it actually was, which implied carte blanche for others to rework the lyrics.

Often it is assumed that The Skye Boat Song dates from the Jacobite Uprising. That it was probably penned by Flora MacDonald halfway across the South Uist sea, or by someone watching from either shore back in 1746.

It wasn't. At the very earliest, the air was created in the mid-1870s, appearing in print for the first time in 1884, as part of the Songs of the North collection by Henry Boulton and Annie MacLeod.

They had composed it, but not wholesale.

Annie later stated that she'd taken a boat sailing around Loch Coruisk, aka Coire Uisg (Cauldron of Water). During that sight-seeing passage, the men rowing her boat had started singing a song called Cuachag nan Craobh (Cuckoo in the Grove). Being a musician and a collector of traditional songs, she'd memorized it as best she could.

However, she didn't write the tune down immediately upon returning home. Later, she was to cobble together as much as she could recall, and this became the basis for The Skye Boat Song.

MacLeod had only recalled the music, not the lyrics, so when she collaborated with Sir Henry Boulton on their book Songs of the North, he took it upon himself to add words to her tune. Hence the original Skye Boat Song lyrics.

However, its inclusion amidst the rest - all genuinely traditional airs - meant that readers assumed this too was at least a century and a half old. Its subject matter proscribed any older antiquity. Boulton and MacLeod were bemused, and not a bit startled, to suddenly become inundated by letters and public approaches from people convinced that they'd known The Skye Boat Song in childhood!

One hallmark of traditional folksongs is the plethora of alternative lyrics. Poets, bards and composers can update them with impunity, as the mood takes them or in order to reflect the times in which they live, because a) there's no copyright and b) it may be presumed that people could easily pick up a song to sing with altered lyrics, if they already know the tune.

Robert Louis Stevenson was one such reader who immediately penned his own verses, upon reading the apparently older (and out-dated) lyrics in Songs of the North. As a famous poet of the times, many people heard or read his words before the other, hence these have stuck as a commonly sung alternative version.

They became the inspiration for the words sung for the Outlander theme tune.

Alternative Skye Boat Song

The Skye Boat Song - Robert Louis Stevenson Lyrics


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.

The Skye Boat Song - Lyrics by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is much more rarely recorded, but some versions do exist out there.

Scottish Nationalist Undertones in The Skye Boat Song

Culloden blurred the distinction between Jacobites and Scots. For many, the Skye Boat Song is a Scottish tune, not a call to arms for latter day Jacobeans.

It is a mistake to assume that everyone singing the original lyrics are secretly anti-English.  Nor that those choosing Robert Louis Stevenson's alternative are striking a blow for Anglo-Scottish unity and/or English supremacy.

In truth, most people today assume that The Skye Boat Song is a traditional air, and they pick the nearest lyrics to hand.

However, there are plenty of performers who know precisely what they're singing, and they'll pick their version with care. The vast majority will opt for the original, telling the semi-romantic story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, in stirring terms of heroic failure.

But most will omit the last verse, with some skipping the penultimate one too. Those are the most overtly political ones, reminding listeners of the carnage caused at Culloden and by Cumberland's dragoons in the aftermath.

Without those, The Skye Boat Song becomes a tale about a thwarted king with hints of a love affair with Flora. It's sentimental, appealing to national pride, but missing out the truly ugly scenes.

Those two verses, particularly the last one, tend to get left in by singers intending it as a rebel song, or wishing to score political points. But again not exclusively.

Robert Louis Stevenson's version is chosen by those more interested in the personal emotion than the historical legend. It was written from the point of view of Bonnie Prince Charlie, though that's not at all obvious. It could be any lad sailing away there or, as Outlander has shown, lass.

This one isn't about heroic failure. It's about an individual realizing that they've lost everything, including their own innocence. It's a feeling which anyone, at a moment of great change in their lives, might invoke. There's something downright human about the sentiment, in all its pathos and poignancy.

Whether we end on Charlie will come again or All that was me is gone is ultimately the difference between our choices for The Skye Boat Song. Perhaps that changes throughout our lives, depending upon what those evocative words mean to us at any given moment in time.

Bear McCreary Music from Outlander - Comic Con 2014

This live performance includes an extended version of The Skye Boat Song, as heard in the Outlander opening credits.

Discover More about the Context for The Skye Boat Song

Which incidentally is also the context for Jamie Fraser and the world in which Claire finds herself in 'Outlander'.

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Updated: 10/15/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Asia on 06/09/2015

What about the revolution song ? They are all incredible songs.

JoHarrington on 10/17/2014

Glad to have been of service. It's a beautiful song and entirely fitting to the story. I never fast forward it. :)

Ember on 10/17/2014

This is such a pretty song. It get's stuck in my head for a bit after every episode I watch. My mom skips it every time she watches an episode. Nuuuuu.

Anyways, I had started to wonder where they got the song, or if it'd been written just for the show. It's neat to learn some of the history behind it. :)

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