Culloden and the Bonnie Prince

Lately everyone knows the song linked here.

It’s called The Skye Boat Song, revised and shortened so as to be an appropriate theme for the runaway hit show Outlander, of which I am an admitted fan, largely because James Fraser is “The Perfect Man”. Ruddy and kilted and educated and strong and… ahem. I digress.

Yes, the song has been revised and shortened from its original form. Revised, you say? Yes, because the original was written by Robert Lewis Stevenson and goes like this: “Sing me a song of a lad that is gone…” If you also are an Outlander fan, you know the song sings of a “lass,” rather than a lad. Read the full poem below but I warn you, it is heart-rending and infuriating. Why, you ask? I will try to answer that question and a few other “why’s” in the few short paragraphs that follow.

First of all, why is it about a lad, not a lass? Because the lad was Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart, the Would-Be Scottish monarch, who in the vain hope of becoming the Catholic king for all of England, led his Jacobite followers to spill their blood on Culloden Moor in 1746. 1500 lost lives, 1000 of them fighting on the side of the Jacobites, all for the Bonnie Prince who wasn’t worth a gram of the lavender that covers the beautiful moors of Scotland. Pardon me if you are one of the thousands of people who admire him; I don’t share that view, and you shouldn’t either! If you watch Outlander, the portrayal of the young Pretender is spot on in terms of historical records, in spite of the mythic admiration that persists for the man.

Image result for bonnie prince charlie
Why, then, is the legend that surrounds the Bonnie Prince wrong? Born in Rome to a family in exile, he was brought up in ways that are anything but Scottish, and possessed none of the Highland fortitude that marked those who would die for him twenty-six years later. He was known to take to his bed sick when he didn’t get his way, even as an adult! In spite of a highly cultured upbringing and known talents for music and art, some historical accounts reveal him as a spoiled brat who later in life became a drunken wife-beater with multiple mistresses, although the account I read was of a book from the publishing house of the (Protestant) Church of Scotland and thus, perhaps stained by a certain bias.

Nevertheless, it is certain that the Young Pretender to the throne led a small army of malnourished and poorly equipped men against an army of well-fed and heavily-equipped professional soldiers in an ill-timed battle for a throne he may have been entitled to, but for which he wasn’t destined, nor which he deserved, in spite of his birthright. Why did he do it? Against the advice of all his military advisors, he went ahead to battle. Whatever possessed him to think he could win?

Young Charlie, bonnie as he was, wasn’t apparently very clever. Or maybe his pride overcame his intellect. In any event, he refused to concede even when he was advised, again and again, that his men were hungry and exhausted and needed to restore themselves; many, in fact, had already returned home for a needed break, knowing it was an unwinnable battle. The Outlander writers didn’t show this as strongly as they should have, in my opinion. Why not? I’m glad you asked…

First, promised supplies had not been delivered. Although the army possessed sufficient and advanced weaponry, much of it was still in Inverness. Further, needed support from the French had been intercepted and never arrived, devastating the Jacobites. The soldiers were weakened by cold, wet weather and by hunger. Even without Claire’s foreknowledge of the future, the prince’s able military advisors warned him to turn the army back and regroup. When the prince refused to heed this advice, the leaders of the battle groups decided to try to surprise the redcoats as they slept. For whatever reason, they miscalculated the time it would take them to arrive, and when they realized they were not going to make it to the British campsite before morning’s light, they turned back, hoping to rest and take whatever meager nourishment they possessed before the battle. Instead, the Young Pretender’s exhausted army faced the rested, advancing English, after having hiked 20 miles the night before and not having eaten in at least two days.


The ensuing battle cost the lives of over a thousand men, and as a result, the Bonnie Prince spent five months on the run, a hunted man, trying to escape certain hanging at the hands of the British government. And that leads us to my final why: Why is the Stevenson poem both sad and maddening?

The poem is the story of the Bonnie Prince’s escape to Skye, a fleeing figure whose legacy was not one of royalty but rather of ruin. Ruined lives, false hopes, families whose fathers and brothers and sons were lost. More poignant and stirring than the poem are the quotes at the museum at Culloden, which I visited a few weeks ago, just before the 272nd anniversary of the battle.


Displayed at Culloden.

culloden names

The museum is a moving timeline seen through the eyes of the British and the Scots, and it is rich in artifacts, media, and history. I had wanted to visit more for the battlefield itself, where the many bodies are interred, but the museum inspired me as well. My traveling companion had warned me that it was probably “just a field,” but I had seen a video about the site and was certain it was more than that. Obviously it was much more. I shot this video while there. Turn up the sound, as I was trying to be quietly respectful of the site.

Sing me a Song of a Lad that 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.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

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.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s 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.

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.


The most important reference was the museum itself; by all means visit if you can.

Online sources:


About Sunny

I'm an American with a Spanish heart, and one foot in France. But both feet are in Belgium, along with the rest of me.
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2 Responses to Culloden and the Bonnie Prince

  1. annakachina says:

    This article is good. I learned a lot !!!
    Me too I’m a fan of Outlander 😉

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