Me and I, Sailing to Skye

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), of “Outlander.”

Why me? Why I?

That’s the grammatical puzzle posed by a newly popular Scottish ballad. It’s a strange song, as well as a haunting one, that begins every episode of the Starz series Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling novels, the TV series is an impressively realistic  re-creation of life in Scotland in the 1740s, to which the 20th-century heroine, Claire Beauchamp, finds herself transported. This happens shortly after World War II, and Claire, conveniently for her survival in the 18th century, has served as a battlefield nurse during that war.

The theme song reflects her sense of loss, not only of her modern-day husband but of the entire 20th-century world. It derives from a Scottish ballad about an event that takes place in Scotland just a few years after Claire’s arrival: the escape to the island of Skye in 1746 of the Scottish-backed Jacobite pretender to the throne of England, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, after the defeat of his Scots by the English in the Battle of Culloden.

Robert Louis Stevenson in the 19th century adapted the historical narrative of the ballad to focus on the would-be king’s personal loss. And that version, with a change of gender for the narrator, became the poignant and pertinent theme for the TV series. It begins and ends with this stanza:

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone —

Say, could that lass be I?

Merry of soul, she sailed on a day

Over the sea to Skye.

In between comes this:

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.

So here’s the grammatical puzzle: I  in the predicate nominative position for “Say, could that lass be I?” but me  in that position for “All that was me is gone.” The former is usually reserved for very formal style, the latter for colloquial. It’s unusual to have it both ways. But clearly it was deliberately so for this song; Stevenson had it this way too in his 19th-century version.

I think the explanation must be something like this: The singer asks her question in a formal, dignified, archaic-sounding way, appropriate perhaps for a ballad; and then when searching to express the depths of her loss, it becomes intimate and personal. In the context of the song, there is more personal feeling in me than there is in I. It could also have to do with the prominence of I  at the end of a main clause as well as at the end of a line, compared with the lesser emphasis on me in a relative clause in the middle of a line.

Whatever it is, the combination seems right.

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