Making sense of ‘Over the hills and far away’

You may or may not know the song ‘Over the hills and far away’ by Gary Moore (there’s also an excellent cover by Nightwish). Instrumentally, this is a very enjoyable song, with good tempo and some great guitar bits. The lyrics however, are slightly odd, and the more you listen to them, the less sense they make.

Let’s start at the beginning:

They came for him one winter’s night.
Arrested, he was bound.
They said there’d been a robbery,
his pistol had been found.

This part is pretty clear. Our main protagonist is picked up by the cops, after his weapon has been found at the scene of a crime. It goes on to tell us that this person is worried, because he has no alibi for the evening in question. But then:

He knew that it would cost him dear,
but yet he dare not say.
Just where he’d been that fateful night,
a secret it must stay.
He had to fight back tears of rage.
His heart beat like a drum.
For with the wife of his best friend,
he spent his final night of freedom.

So the guy does have an alibi, he just doesn’t want to tell the cops about it. This is pretty odd, since in the UK[1], adultery isn’t a felony, unlike armed robbery. But ok, maybe his best friend is very dear to him, (though apparently not so dear that he’d keep his hands of his old lady), and he’d rather do time than lose his friend. I’ve seen people choose their daily smoke over food for their children, so questionable priorities exist.

But then we get the next refrain:

Over the hills and far away,
he swears he will return one day.
Far from the mountains and the seas,
back in her arms again he’ll be.
Over the hills and far away.

Followed by:

Each night within his prison cell,
he looks out through the bars.
He reads the letters that she wrote.
One day he’ll know the taste of freedom.

So, while he’d rather go to prison than have his best friend find out who’d been keeping his wife warm at night, he’s still planning to get back with her after his time is done. And judging from the letter-writing, so is she. Now, if they both want to be together that bad, surely dumping the cuckoo’d husband now would be better than her playing mommy and daddy with the poor sod for years while he is in prison?

Nonetheless, so far we’re still only talking about people with a lot of trouble getting their priorities straight. They’re mostly hurting themselves: The guy is in prison and the wife is getting it from a man she doesn’t love. While the husband is being betrayed, right now he is blissfully unaware, and `no harm, no foul’ is certainly appropriate here, considering the guy who betrayed him is actually doing time for it.

But we’re forgetting one thing: A crime was committed. From the first verse, we already learned there was an armed robbery, but shortly after that, we got this:

Over the hills and far away,
for ten long years he’ll count the days.
Over the mountains and the seas,
a prisoner’s life for him there’ll be.

Looking at the British sentencing guidelines for robbery, we see that 10 years for robbery is in the heaviest category of verdicts for that crime, meaning either someone was seriously injured, a very large sum was stolen, or both.

So while the subject of the song is languishing in jail for being too much of a coward to own up to his best friend, a very violent criminal is on the loose, enjoying his ill-gotten gains.

But it is even worse than that. Remember why the guy was arrested? His weapon was at the scene. Now, I don’t own a gun, but I imagine it’s not something you leave lying around. Call it a hunch, but I dare suggest that, should the bloke cooperate with the police, there is a good chance they’d be able to find out how and by whom the weapon was stolen, thus leading the police to the real criminal. This could, quite probably, even be done while keeping his real whereabouts of the night a matter between him and the police, in exchange for his help in getting the real felon, something the police will probably prefer over sending an innocent man to gaol.

So, to recap, we not only have two persons with considerably twisted priorities, one of them serving time for the wrong crime (I’d submit that while he might be innocent of robbery, he should still be persecuted for obstruction of justice), we also have a violent criminal walking free because of the illogical actions of those two. Well done!

Making sense of it all

In the title, I promised I’d make sense of it all, so now I will. I have devised a small script that is, according to me, the only reasonable explanation for the story described in the song.

Our main characters:

Bob: A hapless video-rental clerk with the approximate IQ of a Venus Flytrap, but without the killer instinct. Bob spends his days watching the store’s porn collection and dreaming of one day meeting a woman who’ll fall hopelessly in love with him.

Clyde: A slick con-man and part-time crook. Took Bob under his wing during childhood, as a sidekick who does as he’s told was a good thing to have around when appointing blame for one of his failed antics. Bob in turn was honoured by being included, and has always looked up to Clyde.

Debbie: Clyde’s voluptuous wife. She knows what she wants, and is not afraid of getting dirty to get it. Debbie is one of the many reasons for Bob’s hopeless adoration for Clyde, as well as the subject of many of his wet dreams.

The movie starts with Debbie and Clyde planning their retirement. The following evening, Debbie knocks on Bob’s door, dressed in her skimpiest outfit, and upon being let in, explains to him how she’s always been turned on by the fact that his manhood is bigger than his brain (which Bob mistakenly takes as a compliment). She proceeds to undress herself in a sensual manner, until Bob’s pants burst open from arousal, at which point she excuses herself to go to the bathroom. On the way there, she slips into his closet and takes his firearm. In the bathroom, she opens the window where her hubby is waiting outside, and passes him the gun, as well as one of her stockings. She then returns to Bob and proceeds to take one for the team, after which she pressingly reminds him that Clyde can never, ever, ever find out about this.

Meanwhile, Clyde pulls the stocking over his head and uses the gun to stick up the local bookkeeper. This being the night before the Derby, the bookie is understandably pissed off, and responds to Clyde’s request for the contents of the safe by saying `Over my dead body’, to which Clyde wittingly replies by shooting him twice through the frontal lobe. Clyde busts the safe, leaves the gun and makes his way home, where he joins his wife in the shower.

The following day, the local constabulary, having successfully looked up the weapon’s serial number, knock on Bob’s door, and, concluding that his intelligence matches that of someone who would leave a registered firearm at the scene of a murder, take him in.

Bob’s brain, being slightly out of its depth, latches on to the last thing said to him that made sense: Debbie’s persistent demand that Clyde never finds out about their (very brief) liason. Clinging to that like a drowning sailor to a piece of driftwood, Bob keeps his mouth shut and is soon escorted off to the local slammer.

Meanwhile, Clyde and Debbie have caught the earliest first-class flight out to paradise, and are enjoying the spoils of Bob’s sacrifice. Together they send Bob the occassional letter to remind him how much Debbie loves him, and can’t wait for his sentence to be over so they can elope together, thus making sure all Bob’s blood remains in his pants, and not in his head where it might cause his brain to work long enough for him to wonder why the letters are postmarked in the Bahamas and realize he’s being played.

The movie ends with Clyde and Debbie toasting their Margaritas overlooking an idyllic sunset on a white beach. Credits roll[2].

There you have it, next time you hear the song, you finally know what is going on.

  1. [1]Gary Moore is from Northern Ireland
  2. [2]For casting I was thinking: George Bush Jr. as Bob, Pierce Brosnan as Clyde, Jessica Rabbit as Debbie, Robert De Niro as the bookie and John Cleese as the detective to arrest Bob. As director I was hoping to get Michael Bay, though that might mean replacing Bob’s revolver with a bazooka.


  • Fallingwater wrote:

    I’ve always read this song similarly, but I never considered the woman to be implicated in the crime.

    It seems to me this is happening in older times (though not before the invention of firearms, for obvious reasons), when being fedifragous carried a very heavy social price, especially for a woman and especially for a known one. Not that this stopped people from doing it, but everything was kept from the public eye.

    The way I see it the woman in this story is a known person (high society and all that), who for any of a variety of reasons common in those awful times is locked into a marriage with our poor inmate’s best friend.

    Woman and Protagonist have an affair, fall in love. So-called best friend finds out, steals Protagonist’s gun, performs some sort of heinous crime and dumps the gun at the place. Protagonist is visited by the friendly cops who take him away in cuffs, but because he’s madly in love with Woman he doesn’t offer his alibi, as doing so would expose her to widespread ridicule and shame, and he considers her honor more important than 10 years of his life. (Weird priorities, and all that.)

    Perhaps he’s also afraid that making the whole thing public could pressure the Best Friend into getting violent with her – though the fact that he’s leaving her with a violent, disgruntled husband for a decade is no less worrying.

    During his time in the slammer the woman sends him love letters (hopefully without Best Friend ever catching her) and continues her loveless marriage; when Protagonist is eventually freed he’ll grab her and they’ll run away, or so they at least hope.

    Come to think of it, Protagonist might even want to enact some form of revenge over Best Friend – a framing and ten years behind bars tend to build up resentment.

  • Obviously, the song makes a bit more sense when put back in the times when adultery was still a crime. The man protecting the cheating wife from persecution is a lot more logical then protecting her from a wanted divorce.

    However, there are two problems with that interpretation:

    • – There still is the matter of the real murderer walking free because this bloke commits perjury.
    • – I’m pretty sure my version makes for a better movie :-)
  • Danita wrote:

    Super!!! ❤❤

  • I enjoyed reading this. Good input. Although Gary is Irish and I also see the main character as Irish. Despite being a rogue, he has values and clearly sticks to them through thick and thin. Although his intentions are questionable he is no doubt a proud man. Lead astray too. Just listening to it now along with the lyrics for the first time. The montreaux performance. Right behind rory gallagher for me. We really have had some truely great musicians and guitarists from our small island

  • Tommy would likely be confused if trying to follow the story from the Montreaux performance. Gary stuffs up the final lines of the third verse by accidentally? repeating the final two lines from the second verse, thereby removing one of the main themes of the song (i.e. he is an honourable adulterer!). But Tommy is right about having great musicians and guitarists.

  • I think the protagonist goes to jail to protect his friend who is the real robber.That time they have no bitter love triangle, he is just too faithful to his friend. The reason is not told, it’s just complete out of story.
    Mutually his friend takes care of wife, maybe some sort of reationship grows between them (video), maybe not.

  • I always read this song is the husband knew his wife was cheating on him, and with who. He swipes his back-stabbing best friend’s gun, commits the robbery and leaves the gun.

    He ditches the cheating wife, who now is free to write longing letters to her imprisoned true love.

  • The guy went to prison to protect his love from being branded an adulterer. The husband knew and framed him for a heinous crime because he had been betrayed by his best friend.

    His choice was his freedom or his love’s public shame. He decided to remain in prison and await the future. The husband had his revenge but still didn’t have the wife’s heart.

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