Over the sea to Skye

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

There are many folk songs that we are convinced are authentically “traditional”, composed in the days gone by an unknown hand and passed down to us by word of mouth and then, perhaps, by broadsheets and handbills, rustic kitchens and Victorian parlours, until finally pressed into vinyl during the mid-twentieth century folk revival. And yet many such songs were indeed written by poets and songwriters of variable fame. One such is The Skye Boat Song. 

This famous song is one of many inspired by the Scottish Jacobite Rising against Protestant England’s rule in 1745. It recalls the journey of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonny Prince Charlie”, from Benbecula to the Isle of Skye as he evaded capture by government troops after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Jacobite Rebellion was sparked by many political, cultural and economic factors. but essentially, it was a dynastic civil war. 

He was aided in his flight by minor aristocrat Flora MacDonald who was subsequently arrested for her role and consigned to the Tower of London, but later amnestied. She married an army captain also named McDonald, and they later emigrated to the American colonies. Her captain served with the British forces during the American War of Independence, and as a result, their property was confiscated. They relocated to Canada and soon, after, returned to Scotland.

Flora and Charlie

Songwriter and philanthropist Sir Harold Boulton, 2nd Baronet composed the lyrics to an air collected by Anne Campbelle MacLeod in the 1870s. 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.

It was first published in 1884 Around 1885 the famed author Robert Louis Stevenson, considering Boulton’s lyrics words “ unworthy”, composed verses “more in harmony with the plaintive tune”. Purged of Jacobite content, these mentioned neither Charlie nor Culloden.

Boulton’s is the one that endured, along with the sentimental perspective Bonny Prince Charlie

Charles Stuart was the “Young Pretender” to the Protestant Hanoverian English throne that once belonged to the Roman Catholic Stuart clan, who after the bloody failure of the ’45 rebellion, fled into exile in France. And that’s where he remained, although his last resting place is in the crypt of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome – an ironic ending for this could’ve been champion of Catholic hopes.

He had many romantic and rousing songs written about him. But in reality he wasn’t the dashing, gallant leader that the songs portrayed and that the Scots and their Celtic Irish allies yearned for. He was an indecisive and vacillating leader, who thought himself much cleverer and popular than he actually was, and when the going got rough, he got going – and left the the Scots and Irish who supported him with blood and treasure to the tender mercies of the Sassenach foe.

But historical fact has never dimmed the popularity of the song. It is often played as a slow lullaby or waltz in many and varied contexts including soundtracks (including Highlander), pipe bands and weddings. It entered into the modern folk canon in the twentieth century with renderings by singers as diverse and indeed betimes idiosyncratic as Paul RobesonTom Jones, Rod Stewart,  Esther & Abi OfarimThe Corries and Tori Amos. James Galway and The Chieftains recorded an instrumental version, as did The Shadows, whilst Roger Whittaker whistled it as comedic crooner Des O’Connor sang.

We much prefer the version presnted below sung by the Choral Scholars of University College, Dublin, an amateur, mostly acapella bunch of Irish students. These young folk formally audition for a scholarship with the ensemble. There is little glamour or artifice, no fireworks or vocal gymnastics. Plainly dressed, they look like folk you would pass on the streets of Dublin or Galway.

Below that is a link to British film-maker Peter Watkins’ acclaimed film  Culloden (1964).

See also in In That Howling Infinite, a discussion about another famous Jacobite song:  Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. This song is presented below.

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.

Many’s the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.

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.

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

 

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