Outlander theme tune: The fascinating story of how the Skye Boat Song came to be on the hit show

It’s a tune that will be instantly recognisable to any true fan of one of the world’s most popular TV shows.

But just how did the showrunners come to choose the Skye Boat Song for the theme to Outlander?

One of Scotland’s most famous traditional songs, the story of how it came to be chosen by showrunner Ronald D. Moore is no less fascinating than that of the flamboyant historical character it was originally written about.

The history of the Skye Boat song

The original lyrics were written by Englishman Sir Harold Boulton in 1870 to a song collected by Scottish trad musician Anne Campbelle MacLeod.

The words tell the tale of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s journey as he fled the field of Culloden in 1746 where his Jacobite army had just been routed by Government forces – another story Outlander fans will be familiar with.

It reveals how the ‘Bonnie Prince’, now dressed as a serving maid, escaped from the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides to Skye with the help of the heroine Flora MacDonald.

And from there onto France, where he hoped to appeal to the French King for more support for his cause.

Hugely popular at the time, the lyrics were changed again when they were re-written by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

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The Skye Boat Song Lyrics

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone
Say, could that lad 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

“Sing me a song of a lad that is gone
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.”

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How it came to the Outlander theme

Fans already can't wait to see what will happen in Outlander's season 6
The Skye Boat Song is now synonymous with Outlander

The Skye Boat Song not only became the theme for Outlander but was also the reason that the show’s composer Bear McCreary believes he got the job.

After working together on Battlestar Galactica, Bear said that Ronald D. Moore reached out to him about a new show he was working on.

When he explained that it was about Jacobites, Bear joked that he was delighted as he’d studied Jacobite music all through High School.

After sending Ron an instrumental of the Skye Boat Song as a kind of audition, Ron quipped that he may even have found the show’s opening song.

Bear also joked that Ron was delighted to have found one other person in the US (other than author Diana Gabaldon of course) who knew what a Jacobite even was.

A lyric change

A portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, painted in 1737.
A rediscovered portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, painted in 1737 by Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera

Speaking on a panel together, Bear added that after he’d recruited his wife Raya Yarbrough to sing the song, showrunner Ron still wanted to tinker with it to try to make it even more perfect.

When asked about the lyrics, Bear said that he had felt nervous about changing any of them but that Ron himself had no such fear.

Speaking in a panel at the Emmy’s in 2016, the experienced showrunner revealed that he decided to make a minor change, he said: “We changed the line to ‘lass who is gone’ (instead of ‘lad’) because that just felt that it tied it into the story of Claire and her disappearance.

“‘Sing me a song of a lass who is gone’ – well that’s our show.”

Caitriona Balfe, who plays Claire on the show, agreed that it is evocative of Claire’s journey and the emotion of that whole story and that she thought it fits the show perfectly.

Speaking about the now-iconic theme, Sam Heughan has spoken about how clever Bear and Ron were in choosing this song, as in Scotland, Bonnie Prince Charlie has become a very romanticised figure but what Outlander has done, is to strip away that romanticism, and reveal the truth of who he was and what the consequences of his actions were for Scotland.

The final version

Bear believed that having a female voice sing the theme song would help connect the song once again to Claire.

Choosing his wife Raya, who was eight months pregnant at the time, to sing it, Bear was surprised to learn she already knew the lyrics as she’d learned the song as a child.

The experienced composer added that they made the decision to change the theme song with every series due to following the narrative of the journey the story takes, from Scotland to France and then onto America.

Choosing Raya to sing each time, the second season saw her sing it in French, while Bear’s personal favourite is the bluegrass version in season four.

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