Outlander- Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe (Jamie and Claire

Bear McCreary on how Outlander's theme song connects to Battlestar Galactica

Contributed by
May 8, 2018

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film, to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our head long after the credits roll.

We've covered the main title music and the many themes of Battlestar Galactica in part one of our interview with composer Bear McCreary, and now it's time to see how his work on Battlestar led him right to working once again with showrunner Ronald D. Moore on Outlander.

How did he come to work on Outlander? How did the gorgeous title track come to be? Did his knowledge and Jacobite music turn out to be useful? To answer that last question, yes, yes it did. We're not done discussing Battlestar either, so here's part two of SYFY WIRE's interview with composer Bear McCreary.

I know I have a problem picking a favorite track from Battlestar Galactica. Do you have one that you are particularly proud of?

Bear McCreary: I couldn't say what my favorite is, but I can actually tell you which one I'm the most proud of. The one that I put the most into, the one where I felt like I was dying while writing it? I felt like it was going to kill me… when it was done I just thought, oh my god, I wrote this. It was a piece called "Diaspora Orotorio" from season four. It was the mid-season finale, and what it was... it was the happy ending. They find Earth and everything is great, and it's the emotional pay off, to pay off the moment that they find Earth, and they think it's what they were expecting.

Even though it was a misdirect, I had to make that emotion real. I had a choir singing text in Latin that I wrote, I wrote a poem that was translated into Latin. It was a concert piece. It was very harmonically and meIodically nuanced. I spent a week on this one piece. Look, If I'm going to put on a Battlestar track while I'm driving or whatever, it's not the first track I will go listen to. "Prelude to War" has more energy, any of the "Wander My Friends" variations have more emotion, but the one deep down inside I'm the proudest of is "Diaspora Oratorio."

Was there a particular Battlestar character that you really enjoyed writing music for?

Off the top of my head I want to say Baltar, because he was just so wonderful. You just loved to hate him, everything about him was fun for me. The other caveat here is immediately the first thing I would think of is Adama, and the Adama family, because I love Celtic music. I wrote this Celtic music for them because I thought it be the only chance in my life to hire the guy who played bagpipe from Braveheart and work with him. Then, thanks to Ron Moore, I've since done Outlander... in many ways I have explored that world so much more.

You can probably draw a direct line from the Adama themes to the Outlander music.

Completely. I draw a direct line from Battlestar Galactica to Outlander. When Ron Moore hired me, a couple of the writers were the same, but when I sat down to start the show with Ron, it was episode one of a new show, but it just felt like season five of Battlestar in terms of our relationship. He trusted me so much with the material and I just felt free to be like, hey, let's make something cinematic and cool. It was great. I felt like we were putting the band together, even though it is a very different show with a different audience. It was a great way to kind of explore that and feel safe exploring it because I knew Ron trusted me.

Moving over officially to Outlander, aside from what we've already discussed, is there anything more behind the genesis of that show's title song?

There is actually. That song is sort of why I ended up getting the job, perhaps even more so that having worked with Ron on Battlestar. Ron and I were talking as he was cutting the show together, about something unrelated, and Outlander came up. I told him that I knew a lot about Jacobite music, and music from that era in Scotland, and he goes, "you know what a Jacobite is? I have been spending the last year explaining to everyone what the politics of 18th century Scotland are."

I studied this stuff, I know all these songs. I went to highland games every year when I was growing up, and I like how the songs had hidden meaning, because the meaning was forbidden. I used to record all these songs. I sent him a recording of me playing a couple of tunes, one of which was the Sky Boat Song, which was one of my favorites. It was just a thing that I had done in college for fun. When I sent him the mp3, he said, "I really like that Sky Boat Song. I think that's our main title." I was like, it sounds like I'm scoring Outlander now!

I assumed it was going to be instrumental, because Ron really liked this recording of me playing it on accordion. For fun, I thought let's just try a vocal…and I brought my wife into the studio at midnight, and she just quickly laid down a vocal for this song. Immediately, the vocal version was head and shoulders above the instrumental version. We tweaked a few lyrics, we tweaked the performance a little bit, but from that initial demo phase that I sent to Ron, it was really close to what ended up going on the air.

The Sky Boat Song is one of my favorite Scottish folk songs. There's two sets of lyrics — the more traditional one, and then the Robert Lewis Stevenson lyric, which is the one we use. We tweak the gender of the character, it's [originally] "sing me a song of a lad that is gone." He is talking about Bonnie Prince Charlie, but Ron suggested we change it to "lass." Now we're talking about Claire.

What is interesting in the intervening years, I see people with this text tattooed on their body. People love this, I've seen recordings of people in high school groups singing this. People love it because it's a great song. What is funny is because of the text, when I see the "lass" instead of "lad" I know it's because of Outlander. It's like that little genetic marker, that this isn't just somebody who likes Scottish folk music, this is an Outlander fan, which is kind of cool. I was really excited that one of my favorite Scottish folk music tunes could to get a new life and find a new audience in this television show.

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For more on the wonderful music of Bear McCreary, be sure to visit his website. Here's hoping that we can expect plenty more music from him in the years to come — if he writes it, we'll listen. So say we all.