The Haunting Truth Behind the Outlander Song

Stone circles in the Scottish Highlands

You can’t help but sing along with the haunting lyrics of the Outlander Song, right?

But the truth behind those lyrics is just as haunting as the melody. Here is what you need to know about “the Outlander song” as you prepare to binge-watch Outlander.

Those Words You Hear in the Outlander Song are Not the Original Lyrics

Just as the popular Starz television series called Outlander is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series by the same name, the Outlander theme song is an adaptation of the real song.

If you are already up to the just-released season 5 of the television series, then you are familiar with the chorus that goes like this:

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

It makes sense to sing here about a “lass” since our main character in Outlander is a lass who stumbled through the stone circles of time, landing 200 years in the past and in a world where Bonnie Prince Charlie (Edward Stuart) was stoking support among the Scottish Highlanders to take part in his failed bid for the thrown.

The original chorus is about that bonnie prince as he flees the Highlands in 1746, abandoning the Jacobites and the failed uprising. Here is that original chorus:

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

The Skye of the Outlander Song is an island in the Scottish Highlands

It’s not over the sea to sky, but o’er the sea to Skye. The Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands is where Bonnie Prince Charlie was first smuggled after the disastrous failed battle at Culloden.

Kilt Rock in the Scottish Highlands
The “Highlands & Islands” they call it. This sea cliff in the Highlands is called Kilt Rock because it looks like a kilt.

A Highlander named Flora MacDonald rowed the fleeing Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety on the Isle of Skye. The fugitive prince disguised himself as a maid. It is this flight that inspired the original lyrics of the Outlander theme song.

While that flight would help the prince keep his life, the Jacobites who managed to survive the massacre at Culloden were ruthlessly rounded up and slaughtered.

Culloden Battlefield
Culloden Battlefield where the Highlanders were massacred, bringing an end to the Second Jacobite Uprising

And that is why the song sounds so mournful.

Many’s the lad fought on that day
Well the claymore did wield
When the night came
Silently lain
Dead on Culloden Field

Watch as the real chorus is sung in a pub in the Highland town of Inverness:

“The Outlander Song” performed in the Scottish Highlands with the original lyrics

The Original Outlander Song Carries Hope that the Prince Would Return

The singer above is Davy Holt who has a special gift for telling the history of the Highlands through song. It is Davy who taught me over a night of Scottish Whisky and storytelling about the Outlander song and how – in the original lyrics – one can find hope from the Highlanders that their prince will return to save them:

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

A band in Inverness plays the Outlander Song
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But Bonnie Prince Charlie never returned and the Highlanders paid the dearest of prices. Men were rounded up and shot at Old High Church in Inverness where you can still see the musket ball marks on the tower wall.

The Outlander Theme Song recalls the slaughter here at Old High Church in Inverness
The gravestone at the forefront of the photo was used to steady rifles as the British troops under the Duke of Cumberland executed the Jacobites following the loss at Culloden.

Jacobites were hunted for years and the Highland lifestyle itself was ruthlessly suppressed: no kilts, no Gaelic, no culture.

So “The Skye Boat Song,” the original version of the Outlander theme song, mourns the loss of lives and the loss of a way of life in the Scottish Highlands that the Outlander’s Jamie Fraser called home.

It makes sense then that the song is haunting and beautiful and that it sticks with us even today as the Outlander theme song fills our living rooms.

The Outlander theme song is closely adapted from a re-write of the original lyrics that took place sometime around 1885. The mournful tune itself, though, remains the same throughout history and regardless of the rewritten and repurposed lyrics.

Original Lyrics:

Now you will know the story behind the Outlander song when you sit down to watch the series (or, better yet, read the book)!

The Original Lyrics to the Outlander Song
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If you liked this tale, you might also like:

An in-depth story about my tour of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, including the Whisky Experience with singer Davy Holt.

Follow Davy Holt @davyholt and don’t miss his singing and storytelling in Inverness when we all start traveling again after social distancing. In Inverness, you can also find a statue of Flora MacDonald and the Old High Church.

Also, while we talked about the TV series here…don’t forget to read the Outlander series: 7 Reasons You Need to Read Outlander While Social Distancing.

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