June 2023 WCSSP Reminder • The Treasure of Far Island

Up this month for the Willa Cather Short Story Project is “The Treasure of Far Island.” It was published in New England Magazine in October 1902.

Read “The Treasure of Far Island” on the Willa Cather Archive: https://cather.unl.edu/writings/shortfiction/ss044

I enjoy a good reading synchronicity, when a thing from one story you’ve just read turns up in another. I never expected to come across an Outlander connection in a Willa Cather story. “The Treasure of Far Island” changed that.


There’s a line early on in “The Treasure of Far Island” when the protagonist, Douglass Burnham, visits his hometown in Nebraska for this first after 12 years in New York. As the train approaches town, he spots Far Island, a sandbar island on which he and his friends played as children. His excitement builds as he remembers events from his childhood. He thinks, “‘Once on a day he sailed away, over the sea to Skye.'”

If you’ve watched the Outlander TV adaptation, you are familiar with this line from the theme song.

In the YouTube video above, the theme is called “The Skye Boat Song.” But other than the line “over the sea to Skye,” the Outlander theme does not use the lyrics from the traditional Scottish Skye Boat Song. The song has a long history. It is based on a late 18th century Gaelic song written by William Ross about heartache. Then, in the late 19th century, Sir Harold Boulton took the tune and wrote lyrics about the flight of Bonnie Prince Charlie after the Battle of Cullodon.

Fast forward to Outlander.

The Outlander theme actually uses lyrics from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem called “Sing Me a Song of a Lad That is Gone.” The chorus and one verse is used, and the gender is changed from ‘lad’ to ‘lass.” Stevenson, who was Scottish, heard Boulton’s version of the song and didn’t think it very good, so he wrote his own. You can see Boulton’s original lyrics and the wide range of how the song has been used on its Wikipedia page.

Below is Stevenson’s full poem.

Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone
By Robert Louis Stevenson

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.

Source: Poetry Foundation

There are many literary, historical, and Biblical illusions in “The Treasure of Far Island,” from the Garden of Eden to Tom Sawyer, not to mention another obvious work by Stevenson, his novel, Treasure Island.

Becoming a better reader

I often hear from readers and podcast listeners that they want to become better readers. What ‘better’ means is personal for each reader, but it often boils down to wanting to get more out of each book read. They want to dive deeper into a story and be able to make connections & comparisons with other works they’ve read.

Keeping a reading journal where you jot down notes about how a story makes you feel, lines that strike you, and what questions it brings up for you is a good place to begin. You might initially think this is not very helpful, but after you read a few books/stories/poems, and then read through your notes, you might be surprised to find themes or patterns in what you have noted in your reading journal that you didn’t realize were things you were paying attention to over the reading of several works or months.

Going from there, you’ll probably start to look for these same themes or start to notice others. You will become a more aware reader and start to naturally make comparisons between how one writer uses a trope or theme versus another. Then you can ask why the authors used it differently or perhaps similarly, and if one was more successful than the other in the context of their story.

This is not to say that the same themes will appear in every work you read, but I hope you catch my drift. Obviously, from the example of my own reading, it is a line in a song/poem that caught my attention.

“Better” reading is a muscle

“The Treasure of Far Island” is a good story to practice deeper reading. Read Stevenson’s poem and then read Cather’s story. Why do you think Cather includes this line? Why do you think she has the protagonist think of the line, “Once on a day he sailed away, over the sea to Skye,” and not another line from the poem? Are there other connections to be made between the poem and the story via imagery or feelings, or is it a one off (like name dropping) or something that simply fits the over-all theme?

Or, you could look at Cather’s story “The Enchanted Bluff” (1909) which we read back in 2020. That story is about a group of boys sitting around a campfire dreaming and telling stories and then fast forwards twenty five years. Both “The Enchanted Bluff” and “The Treasure of Far Island” say things about childhood, imagination, and adulthood. How are they similar and different?

What’s next?

Read “The Treasure of Far Island” sometime this month. Come back to discuss it on the response post I’ll share on June 28. Or, feel free to read it now and comment here if you can’t wait until then!

New to this blog? Learn more about the Willa Cather Short Story Project here. In a nutshell, we read one Cather short story a month. I remind everyone of what story we’re reading on the second Wednesday of the month and then share a response on the fourth Wednesday of the month. Jump in anytime!

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