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Origins: The Skye Boat Song

An incident in the rebellion of 1746; David Morier

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! The sailors cry;
Carry the bairn that is 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 bairn fought on that day,
Well the claymore could wield.
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden’s field.

Burnned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet e’er the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

There are a lot of nursery rhymes and traditional childrens’ songs that legend would have you believe have their origins in the goings on of the British and Scottish monarchies. Usually I delight in shattering those myths, but today I can’t. The traditional lullaby ‘The Skye Boat Song’ really is about the regal drama of the Jacobite Rebellions.

‘The Skye Boat Song’ commemorates the escape of the second Jacobite Pretender following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in the spring of 1746. The battle was swift an brutal, with Charlie side suffering at least 1500 casualties and deaths to the British governments 300. The rebellion collapsed and Charles faced serious consequences.

Instead of facing the music, the ‘bairn that was born to be king’ abandoned his troops and supporters and fled. Dressed as a maid and calling himself Betty Burke, he accompanied the formidable Flora MacDonald, whose clan was sympathetic to the Jacobite cause,  across the water from Uist to the Isle of Skye. For her actions, Flora was imprisoned at the Tower of London until the Act of Indemnity secured her release the following year.

Charles would spend the rest of his life in exile in France and Italy, drinking heavily and indiscriminately fathering bastards. He died in 1788.

The lyric, with its stirring conclusion that ‘Charlie will come again’ suggests authorship contemporary to the events described, but that may only be true for part of the song. The song first appears in it’s current form in Songs of the North vol.1 in 1885. It seems (though this is disputed) that the melody is traditional and the lyric part traditional and part Victorian addition, variously credited to Sir Harold Boulton and Anne Campbell MacLeod. The Fiddler’s Companion says that

…it seems that Miss 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 out into the Gaelic rowing song “Cuchag nan Craobh” (The Cuckoo in the Grove). A talented composer and singer, MacLeod remembered fragments of the song and fashioned them into an air which she set down in notation with the intentions of using it later in a book she was to co-author with Boulton.

Of course, it’s difficult to verify this anecdote. What can be verified is that in 1893 a teacher named Margaret Bean added her own verse to the chorus:

Waft him, ye winds, far o’er the sea,
Far from a traitor’s eye,
Fly, little boat, that our Prince may be free
Over to loyal Skye.

This version does not appear to have caught on, especially when compared to Robert Louis Stevenson’s  alternative lyric published in 1896. Today the lyrics seem interchangable, with Stevenson’s words sitting aside Boulton/MacLeod’s and most people picking and choosing to suit their own tastes.


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