The Skye Boat Song

Before I got hooked on the Netflix series Outlander, I don’t remember ever hearing of the Battle of Culloden. It turns out it was rather an important event in British history, maybe along the lines of the battle of Gettysburg in this country. It was part of a war not unlike our Civil War.

When Queen Anne, the last monarch of the House of Stuart, died in 1714, the crown was passed to her second cousin, George I of the House of Hanover under the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement. Many, and particularly the Scots and Irish, supported the claim to the throne by Anne’s half-brother James. Under the Act of Settlement, James was excluded from succession by his Roman Catholic religion.

On 23 July 1745, James’s son Charles Edward Stuart landed in Scotland in an attempt to reclaim the throne for his father. Mostly supported by Scottish highlanders, he launched a rebellion a month later. His Jacobite army (Jacob being the Latin translation of James) entered Edinburgh on 17 September and James was proclaimed King of Scotland the next day. The initial success attracted new recruits and additional battle victories followed. The Scots favored consolidating their position, but Charles chose to push on to go after the English crown. He argued that with James sitting on the English throne, an independent Scotland as guaranteed. The Jacobite army entered England on 8 November. After several minor victories, an advancing larger English force sent the Jacobites into retreat back into Scotland. The English army advanced along the coast and entered Aberdeen on 27 February. Unfavorable weather prevented either side from advancing, until the English left Aberdeen on 8 April. Charles and his staff agreed to engage the English in battle as their best option. The two armies met on 16 April 1746 at Culloden Moor, on terrain that gave the larger and better supplied English army the advantage. The battle lasted only an hour, with the Jacobites suffering a bloody defeat. The victorious English showed no mercy to the defeated Jacobites, but those who managed to escape dispersed into the countryside. Charles escaped by boat, eventually sailing to the Isle of Skye.

“The Skye Boat Song” is a late 19th century Scottish song telling of Prince Charles escape following the Battle of Culloden, ultimately sailing to exile on the Isle of Skye. The original lyrics, which I sing on this CD, were written by Sir Harold Boulton to a tune collected by Anne Campbelle MacLeod in the 1870s. Another set of lyrics was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, probably in 1885. After he heard the Jacobite lyrics, he felt they were “unworthy” and wrote his own verses. The Stevenson lyrics were used for the Outlander TV theme. I chose to use the original Boulton lyrics as they better told the story of the battle and aftermath.

My original plan was to include this song on my next CD. I already had the 12 songs tracked with 11 mixed and ready to record. I was waiting on one vocal track from my friend Laura Aho Parsons when the coronavirus lockdown kept her out of my studio. So I put that song on hold and decided to start working on songs for my next CD. I was immediately fascinated by The Skye Boat Song. As I worked up an arrangement, I decided this song, with the original lyrics, was a perfect story song. So, I pulled the other song from Storyteller to be included on the next CD, and worked up The Skye Boat Song for Storyteller.

Listen to a 1 minute preview of this track here: