After watching Outlander 1x02, I started binge-listening to versions of The Skye Boat Song, and then it occurred to me that many people don’t know or understand the history of the song. So here’s a bit of Scottish history, which includes the original subject of The Skye Boat Song - Bonnie Prince Charlie.
As watchers/readers of Outlander know, Claire lands in 1743 Scotland, smack in the middle of Scottish uprisings against the English. Scotland had only recently become part of Great Britain (via the Acts of Union in 1707), against the popular sentiment of its people, and the English still snubbed their nose at the Scottish. This is before the Enlightenment, with Scots like David Hume, Adam Smith, and James Watt making huge strides in the public (European) eye of what Scotland was capable of, scientifically and culturally. In 1743, England considered Scotland a backwater, and while some Scots tried to coin themselves as British to embrace the new national identity, you wouldn’t find many English people doing the same.
The Jacobite rebellions (or uprisings, depending on who tells the story) came out of this sentiment. Many Scots wanted to return to an independent Scotland (more specifically, rule by a Scottish king), and they found their hero in Charles Edward Stuart (later known as Bonnie Prince Charlie). Bonnie Prince Charlie was heir to the Scottish throne, such that it was. His ancestor was James I of England/James VI of Scotland, who had inherited both the English and Scottish thrones after Queen Elizabeth died without any children. James II of England was run off the throne in the Glorious Rebellion of 1688, and the family had been living in exile ever since.
Charles was named Prince Regent in December 1743, and 18 months later led the rebellion of 1745 to reclaim the Scottish and English thrones. The rebellion ended in 1746 with the Battle of Culloden, a stunning and heartbreaking defeat, which left the Scottish firmly under the heel of the English and Bonnie Prince Charlie on the run. With a price on his head of £30,000, still no Scots turned him in, and he was eventually smuggled out of the country via Skye to a French ship. As everyone knows, the French hated the English.
(Another tidbit - he was smuggled out with the help of Flora MacDonald, who got a dance named after her.)
While The Skye Boat Song is a lament for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the defeat of the Jacobite rebellions, it is important to note that the prince never thanked those who smuggled him out of the country (risking their lives, I need dare say), and never looked back. He and his descendants stayed in exile for several generations, while the English imposed prohibitions on many Scottish cultural activities, including possessing any weapons, the wearing of kilts, playing of bagpipes, and Scottish dancing (all considered war activities).
Now, Outlander has taken the Skye Boat Song, about an exiled prince, and changed the pronouns to make it about Claire. In my opinion, this reinvigorates the song - Bonnie Prince Charlie never looked back on the devastation he caused, and fled back to exile. Claire, meanwhile, is also in exile - but as hard as she tries to get home, for now, she is going to help those around her (and certainly not make their situation worse than when she arrived).
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.
Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.