Sing me a song of a lass that is gone
Say, could that lass be I?
The first time I saw the opening lyrics to Outlander’s theme song posted on a friend’s Facebook post, I thought it sounded ridiculous, way too on-the-nose to start every episode by acknowledging the series’ premise. YES WE GET IT CLAIRE YOU DISAPPEARED.
That was before I actually listened to it, and watched the title sequence—and then, like Claire at Craigh na Dun, I fell hard. Now, I forbid my husband from fast-forwarding through the credits every time we watch… and considering that we binged a season at a time to get caught up in a matter of weeks, that means I’ve got it well memorized. But why do I find this particular TV opening so compelling?
The answer, I think, is that it presses all of my nerd buttons: it’s a remix of a mashup, with an excellent invocation of Rule 63. It is the platonic ideal of a TV theme song.
Spoilers for Outlander seasons 1 through 5, with speculation for season 6.
I knew that Bear McCreary is behind so many excellent modern scores, from Battlestar Galactica to 10 Cloverfield Lane, but I did not truly appreciate his expertise until I traced the origins of the Outlander theme. Because first he started off with the tune of the 1884 folk song “The Skye Boat Song,” which is not just any random Scottish ditty, but which chronicles the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie (!) during the Battle of Culloden (!!) at the heart of the Jacobite uprising. Already, amazing season 2 synergy before the damn pilot has even started:
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.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclouds rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.
And so forth. But, as Bear explained in his wonderfully detailed Behind the Music-esque blog posts, he wasn’t connecting with the original lyrics by Sir H. Boulton. It was Raya Yarbrough, the voice behind every iteration of the Outlander theme, who suggested swapping them out for Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1892 poem (same subject matter) “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?
And on. Except that the tiresome fop Prince Charlie, the worst character from season 2 (I said it), doesn’t deserve to narrate the opening credits. And really, Outlander isn’t about any of the men—not him, not Frank, not Black Jack, not even dear Jamie. So then Bear conjured his inner fangirl and genderswapped RSL’s poem, so instead of Bonnie Prince Charlie talking, it’s Claire. And, let’s be honest, this stanza from the poem sounds more like her than any man anyway:
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.
And it all comes together like a brilliantly remixed fanfic, or an unexpectedly inventive dish on Chopped:
UGH it’s SO GOOD. When the drums pick up after all that was me is gone and she takes off through the forest? /chefskiss
In the words of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, that could be enough. BUT THEN. It’s not enough to have achieved this remix excellence and just float on your laurels for at least six seasons. Then the brilliant minds behind these credits tapped into my favorite part of golden age of TV-era openings and changed it up for every season. Just as I still have a soft spot for appointment television, I earnestly miss TV show openings that change up the footage every season. It was always a treat to start up the new season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and gawk at all of the moments to look forward to (two Xanders?? a roving monster hand? and of course, the inevitable badass Buffy pose) over the next 22 episodes. Just imagine if every season of Game of Thrones had fleeting shots of Rob Stark getting stabbed, Joffrey purple and spluttering, Cersei’s dragonfire lighting shit up…
To be fair, the Game of Thrones theme is its own work of art, and fits the show: Westeros is so massive, of course we need to see the entire world from the point of view of scholars and military strategists. Also, the twists in A Song of Ice and Fire are so big that to give even a hint of them would ruin many viewers’ experiences. Outlander had to show not so much where physically Claire would wind up, but where in time—to contrast the magic of the Dance of the Druids at the standing stones with the equal magic of turning a radio dial.
That said, the series still very much leans in to its predilection for choosing a new country (sometimes a new continent) for each season. To wit, season 2 saw the Frasers going to France—so Bear and co. replaced the Scottish fiddle and drums with a baroque viola de gambe and even translated a verse into French:
But France was short-lived, with Jamie and Claire returning to Scotland and the fated Battle of Culloden in the latter half of the season. The folks behind the credits could have just washed their hands of it and kept to the Frenchified titles. But do you think they were content with that? OF COURSE NOT. This is war, and the military Scottish snare drums, bagpipes, and shots of shirtless Highlanders versus musket-wielding British soldiers needed to reflect that:
By the time I got to season 3, it was clear that changing the main titles every season has become an Outlander tradition. At first, the changes appear a bit subtler, but there: the radio is replaced by a flickering television, broken chains carry incredible significance, and while many of the Scottish elements remain, they’re more somber, more retrospective. Then, instead of adding or replacing something, Bear strips out the bagpipes—signifying the crushing defeat at Culloden. Seriously, every detail, every choice, is so delightfully deliberate:
Thankfully, we do not linger on sadness for long. While the first half of season 2 was very classy and baroque, the latter half of season 3 is shaped by McCreary’s most out-there choice yet: “I cannot imagine any project other than Outlander that would allow me to set a soaring bagpipe melody over blistering congas!” Not unlike Hamilton’s Act 1 ending number “Non-Stop” (one of my favorites in the show), the next iteration of Outlander titles utilized congas and other Afro-Cuban influences to impressive dramatic effect. Pack your bags, kiddos, we’re going to the Caribbean:
Then season 4’s credits seemed like the biggest departure for the series, as the Afro-Cuban percussion was replaced with the sounds of frontier life in America: the fiddle, perhaps (thanks to a sharp-eared commenter) some banjo and mandolin as well to evoke the kind of bluegrass tradition that came in part out of the music that Scottish immigrants brought to the New World. And, most intriguingly, more than one voice. There’s a chills-inducing moment where Brianna touches the stones on all that was me is gone, and then the chorus is suddenly a literal chorus of voices harmonizing Sing me a song of a lass that is gone / Say could that lass be I—stretching the “I” out so that what originally was one woman singing about her own disappearance becomes many women each telling the same tale with their own personal variations.
Seriously, this show never fails to surprise me:
But then season 5 said, Hold my 18th-century beer. In 2020, McCreary did away with all of the instrumentation, replacing it with an a cappella choral rendition. While season 4 layered in more voices, in what I took to be a representation of Brianna literally following her mother’s footsteps through the stones, here there are too many voices to count, all raised up in some mix of hymn and folk song. It represented a challenge for McCreary, who instead of drawing inspiration from a foreign land had to explore what other forms of American music existed beyond the bluegrass that dominated season 4. “I can tease that there’s going to be a continuation of the philosophy that music moves to the forefront of the journey,” he told Express at the time. “As our story continues in Colonial America, you will hear some near even more bold musical moments.”
Bold here might mean polarizing; early fan response was less swayed by this rendition, nor was it my favorite. There is something lost in replacing one voice with many—Claire used to seem a singular time traveler, only for us to learn that she is but one of many who have stumbled their way back and forth across time. As time goes on, how she made it to Jamie becomes less special; instead, what becomes more important is how she stays alive. It’s a difficult adjustment to make.
It would seem that this updated arrangement intentionally leaned into that dissonance; as Nerdeek Life’s Andee Galeno pointed out in her analysis, the soprano voices are singing an octave higher than the others. This sharpness (the best word I could come up with) in the repetition of Sing me a song of a lass that is gone and Over the sea to Skye could be meant to highlight those lines, just as the only images from the original credits that remain are the Dance of the Druids and Claire’s running feet. If the point is that the Frasers and MacKenzies are still finding their footing in America at least through this season and the next, then acknowledging and embracing that friction is part of the song itself.
That footing, McCreary detailed in his season 5 retrospective, is about putting down roots: Rather than adjust the theme to match location, their goal was to explore how the song changes when Clan Fraser is growing in one place. As McCreary noted, “All these versions retained a huge instrumental crescendo at the return to the chorus, the final emotional swell that builds into the title card. This new version would be distinct not because of what was added, but what was removed. Just like the characters in the show, this Main Title Theme was not exploring a new frontier, but instead building something more sophisticated on the foundation we’d already laid down.”
Yet they didn’t want to entirely lose the effect of Yarbrough’s voice, so they rerecorded the original theme song, a capella, to play after the harrowing season 5 finale. It’s a fitting choice to revisit the iconic start to the theme song, in stripped-down form, as Claire is returning to herself following the violence and violation of her rape and recommitting to her decision to stay in the past.
McCreary also told Express that future iterations of the theme song may change in different fashions than before: “I think that will be my challenge moving forward, not completely reinventing the main title but finding way of tweaking it now that we’re planting a flag in American soil for the next couple of seasons.”
For season 6—releasing two years after the prior season, in a world forever transformed by the pandemic—that “tweak” appears to be completely upending the original Outlander theme song’s premise:
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.
YEP, THAT’S A MAN’S VOICE, after all this time with our beloved gender-swapped “Skye Boat Song.” Joining Yarbrough in this rendition is Griogair Labhruidh, who McCreary says has sung on cues in seasons 2 and 5, quoting Robert Louis Stevenson and bringing back memories of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Except that it seems clear that this is meant to represent Jamie: his voice and his story intertwining with Claire’s, both returning to the roots (!) of the theme song and also trying something new.
It’s a big swing, initially jarring as it could be interpreted as undermining the idea of the song coming solely from Claire’s perspective. However, every transformation of the theme has been deliberate, and season 5 did introduce other voices to indicate the context of other time travelers in which she exists. At this point, the series hinges less on Claire deciding whether to go back and forth through the stones as her committing to staying with Jamie, so it does make sense that the song would change to reflect that renewed partnership and communication between them. For that reason I’m willing to trust the reversal and the reasoning behind it. Plus, Labhruidh turns in a lovely Gaelic translation of the theme:
“Altering a series main title is a risky move,” McCreary wrote when it came to switching things up for season 2. “The entire point of a main title is to be consistent from episode to episode, building a relationship with the audience.” And that could be the case, but when does familiarity begin to breed monotony? Do TV audiences really have a relationship with a static title card and one beat of music, or is it just an extra two seconds to fast-forward to get to the episode at hand?
Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser’s relationships are as jagged as the lines on her palm: She’s with Frank, then Jamie, then returned to Frank, then reunited with Jamie. As she jumps through time and around the world, aging and changing and conceiving in one timeline but giving birth in another, meeting old friends for the first time and rediscovering new loves, viewers must follow along her dizzying route. She, and they, need a theme song that changes with the show, that always reflects its present moment before shedding that identity and taking on a new one.
Let’s bring back opening credits that match the tone of the show—the headbanging fun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the almost-too-cheesy folksiness of Firefly’s “You Can’t Take the Sky From Me,” the quick trip through the universe afforded by Futurama. These should be the rule, not the exception—the rule being that even if you have read the books or otherwise know what to expect from your show, it can still surprise you.
Originally published in August 2018, and updated in March 2022.
Natalie Zutter loves how the Outlander fans made an alternate version of the season 1 credits. Talk the best TV opening credits with her on Twitter!