Annotation:Skye Boat Song (The)

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X:1 T:Skye Boat Song M:6/8 L:1/8 R:Air S:Kerr – Merry Melodies, vol. 3, No. 410 (c. 1880’s) Z:AK/Fiddler’s Companion K:D D>ED G2G|A>BA d3|B>AB E2E|(D3 D2)D| D>ED G>GG|A>BA d3|B>AB E2E|(D3 D2)d| d>ed g2g|a>ba d'3|b>ab e2e|(d3 d2)d| d>ed g>gg|a>ba d'3|b>ab e2e|(d3 d2)z|| |:bgb b3|aea a3|geg g2g|(e3 e2)z:|]

SKYE BOAT SONG, THE. Scottish, Air (6/8 time). G Major. Standard tuning (fiddle). ABB. Words to the tune were written by Sir Harold Boulton to an air collected by Miss Annie MacLeod (Lady Wilson) in the 1870's. It seems that Miss MacLeod was on a trip to the isle of Skye and was being rowed over Loch Coruisk (Coire Uisg, the 'Cauldron of Waters') when the rowers broke out into the Gaelic rowing song "Cuchag nan Craobh" (The Cuckoo in the Grove). A talented composer and singer, MacLeod remembered fragments of the song and fashioned them into an air which she set down in notation with the intentions of using it later in a book she was to co-author with Boulton. Sir Harold joined Miss MacLeod at Roshven House, Invernesshire, soon after to work on their book, by which time the whole group at the residence was humming the "scrap of chanty" collected by her, and he too soon began to work the air around in his imagination. It was he that transformed the words the group had been singing:

Row us along, Ronald and John
Over the sea to Roshven


Over the sea to Skye

and it was he who wrote additional lyrics in a Jacobite mold, introducing the heroic figures of Bonny Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald. As a piece of modern romantic literature with traditional links it succeeded perhaps too well, for soon people began "remembering" they had learned the song in their childhood, and that the words were 'old Gaelic lines'. In 1893 a publisher, believing the tune to be an ancient traditional air, commissioned a Brechin teacher named Margaret Bean to compose another set of lyrics to it, which gained some popularity. The song begins:

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air,
Baffled our foes stand on the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward the sailors cry!
Carry the lad that is born to be king,
Over the sea to Skye!
While Bean's words go:
Waft him, ye winds, far o'er the sea,
Far from a traitor's eye,
Fly, little boat, that our Prince may be free
Over to loyal Skye.

Francis Collinson, in his Traditional and National Music of Scotland, says that "Among a sea going island people like those of the Hebrides, the iorram (pronounced-irram) or rowing songs must have been one of the most frequently heard songs." Many of the songs are written in ¾ or a slow 6/8 time. Stan Reeves remarks “Collinson was puzzled by this as rowing has an in and out movement. But he had obviously never rowed with long oars on the Minch. The 1st beat is very pronounced and corresponds with lifting the oars out and swinging them forward as you straighten your arms and lean forward. 2 and 3 are the pulling stroke. Imagining this when you are playing will give you the right tempo and a very primitive rhythmic chanted feel, rather than the twee parlour interpretations. Try it with ‘Fear a' Bhata!’ or the ‘Skye Boat Song’. These are just two of the many airs used as waltzes in the Western isles which clearly predate the introduction of the waltz.” See also note for "annotation:Castle of Dromore (The)."

Additional notes

Source for notated version: -

Printed sources : - Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 3), c. 1880’s; No. 410, p. 45. Silberberg (Fiddle Tunes I Learned at the Tractor Tavern), 2002; p. 145.

Recorded sources: -North Star RS0009, "The Wind in the Rigging: A New England Voyage" (1988).

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