If you’ve gone on a Scotland holiday before, you’ve likely stepped into a pub to find a small band – sometimes simply including a fella with a lute and another with a tambourine – performing a rendition of “The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond”.
This is one of Scotland’s most famous folk songs. Even here in Edinburgh, we hear it about twice a day, what with the number of street performers and bagpipers up and down the Royal Mile and Princes Street. If you’re taking one of our Scottish motorhomes through the country, then it’s going to be almost impossible to miss it.
But how many people know what the song is about? And how many people know Loch Lomond’s story and how it became such a mystical, magical place in Scottish folklore?
Well, we don’t think there are many, but you’re about to be one of them. Below, we’ve whipped up all the information there is to know on this classic Scottish tune, as well as the story of the loch itself:
The Story of the Song
The first thing to know about the “Loch Lomond” song is that it was written back in the 1700s, during the Jacobean uprising against the Protestant Hanoverian government. The battle saw thousands fight against political and cultural oppression, with Scottish and English men on both sides of the battlefield. Many died in the pursuit of freedom to believe and live the way they wanted to.
During the battle of Culloden, large numbers of Highlanders were imprisoned within an English prison known as Carlisle Castle. It’s here that the cross between reality and fiction gets a little sketchy, however.
“The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” is about two Scottish soldiers who were imprisoned on the Scottish border. One of them was going to be set free, but the other one was going to be executed. In Scottish legend, anyone who dies outside Scotland takes the “low road” back to their homeland, where they will finally be at peace.
In this song, the doomed soldier is comforting the soldier who will be set free. He tells them that “you’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland before ye”.
As well as this, he recalls a life full of love and happiness. He harkens back to his time by the “bonnie banks of Loch Lomond” where he met his wife, and he comes to peace with the fact that his “broken heart ken nae second Spring again” – meaning that he will never return to the loch to be with his true love, although he is going to return in spirit.
The Story of The Loch
The “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond”, then, is far more of an emotional song that describes the feeling of Loch Lomond, rather than anything factual or historical. In fact, the song says more about the battle of Culloden Moor, which took place around 140 miles away from the loch itself.
But the important thing is that it pinpoints the enduring beauty of the loch. When we know that death is coming, it is hoped that we will look back on the special moments in our life, and the places that we loved the most. For this soldier, that place and those moments existed at Loch Lomond, where the “wee birdies sing” and the “wildflowers spring”.
In a way, the loch feels like a heaven that is waiting for him on the distant horizon. A place that he will revisit in spirit, despite the fact that he and his true love “will never meet again”.
Visiting Loch Lomond
Over three hundred years later, the beauty of Loch Lomond and the meaning behind the song endures. If you’re looking for places to visit in Scotland, or you’re working out how to break up your travels with a beautiful weekend-break, this would have to be one of the top locations we would recommend.
The loch is as beautiful as the song makes it out to be, and hearing the lyrics after having visited adds a whole different emotion. Not only will you know the story of the soldiers, but you will have walked in his footsteps, heard the nearby birdsong and watched the sun flicker on the loch itself.
Who knows? You might even meet a true love of your own there. And in years to come, you could find yourself coming back, if only in spirit, to experience those emotions once more and watch the wildflowers spring on the banks surrounding you.
That’s certainly a nice thought, and it’s not altogether an outlandish one. After all, this song is going to last forever, and any song that lasts forever holds both magic and truth.