The Skye Boat Song is a music that stays with you – eminently singable and hummable. It tells the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s journey from the Uist to Skye. The song carries the optimism and hope of the Jacobites – men who believed in an independent Scotland.
A lot of people know the chorus of the Skye Boat Song:
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.
Though the chorus stays in public memory, few people know all of the words of the Skye Boat Song. The chorus carries hope and longing for a new future; the full song tells of the tragedy that was Culloden, and the hope that left that battlefield with the Scots’ fleeing Prince – Charles Edward Stuart, also known as the Young Pretender by those who did not believe he had a right to the throne.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air.
Baffled our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.
The first verse (above) talks of a dark seascape yet is full of optimism. Scots may brave stormy seas and foul weather; the sea is part of their heritage and they know the tides, the winds, the secrets of navigating Scotland’s islands. This level of seamanship is not matched by the victorious English, and because of this they will not cross waters in pursuit of their prey.
After each verse the chorus repeats. The words of the next verse may help explain why this song is sometimes used as a lullaby:
Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep Flora will keep
Watch o’er your weary head.
Flora MacDonald risked her life to help Bonnie Prince Charlie across the sea to Skye, disguising him as a woman to help avoid capture. The words soft shall ye sleep/ocean’s a royal bed could be seen as a reference to death – both the deaths at Culloden and the grave danger of death faced by the Prince and his island helper. Another take on the words could be that, actually, this story was something of a death for Bonnie Prince Charlie; he escaped to France a hero, yet never again brought his people together as he had done before Culloden.
The third verse laments the deaths of the Highland men who died in a battle that lasted barely an hour on that fateful day in 1746 near Inverness.
Many’s the lad fought on that day
Well the claymore could wield
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Culloden’s field.
A claymore is a long sword; tradition has it that at Culloden the Scots (sometimes portrayed as primitive/barbarian) had swords, the English guns and cannons. Yet some of the English fighting force were Scots whose allegiance was not to their own nation. It is believed more than 1,000 Scots men died in the battle.
Burned are our homes, exile and death,
Scattered the loyal men.
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath,
Charlie will come again.
This closing verse (followed by a final chorus) hints at the devastation left in the wake of Culloden. Jacobite sympathisers were hunted down, it became illegal to wear kilts or tartan, weapons were confiscated and lands lost. Charlie did not come again (the words have an echo of resurrection in them), and surviving Scottish nationalists suffered harshly for their beliefs and ideals.
Should you wish to hear a version of the song sung by a Scot I have put a link below to an MP3 version of the song by Glasgow born Marion Martin.