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Auld Lang Syne – What’s It About, Anyway?

Rabbie Burns, New Years, and the most famous song that “nobody knows.”

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Christmas carols are a dime a dozen, but only one song has earned the mantle of international new year’s tradition; that song to which everybody knows the tune and the title, but of which most of the lyrics remain a mystery: “Auld Lang Syne.” Composed centuries ago, how has this Scottish ballad, sometimes referred to as “the song that nobody knows” survived to this day?

The title – and best-known phrase – translates literally to “old long since” but a more literary interpretation could be “since long ago” or “for old times’ sake,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Story Of “Auld Lang Syne”

“Auld Lang Syne” is generally credited to Robert Burns, the 18th-century Scottish poet. Known for writing in the Scots language as well as English, Burns promoted his native culture through novels and poems, and was a pioneer in the Romantic movement, playing an influential role in the literature of the British Isles during that era. “Auld Lang Syne” was not an original piece of his, however, but an old song that he transcribed as part of his work collecting the folk songs of Scotland.

Similar phrases date back to 1568, in the anonymous ballad “Auld Kyndnes foryett,” and appear throughout the 1700s. Burns’ version became the popular one, however, and he first recorded it in 1788. He wrote in a letter to friend Mrs. Frances Anna Dunlop in December of that year:

“Is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs … Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment! There is more of the fire of native genius in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.”

He sent the song to music publisher James Johnson for inclusion in the Scots Musical Museum compilation to which he was a significant contributor, describing “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.”

Folk music fans know that the genre is often messy, with multiple versions of songs and mismatched words frequently appearing over the years. “Auld Lang Syne” is no exception – the music is somewhat of a mystery, as the tune we use today is different from the one featured by Johnson. The melody of modern-day familiarity appeared in a different Scottish musical collection, published by one George Thomson in 1799 – the first time it is known to have been paired with those particular lyrics, although the music had appeared elsewhere before.

“Auld Lang Syne” was a huge success in Scotland, where it became part of the country’s new year’s eve celebration, Hogmanay. The song’s popularity spread through Britain and, eventually, the colonies. In the U.S., it was largely popularized by bandleader Guy Lombardo, who made it a radio and television new year’s tradition in mid-20th century New York.

Burns himself became a Scottish icon with many celebrated works that endure to this day. He was voted by Scotland’s STV audience in 2009 to be the greatest Scot of all time, beating out even William Wallace of Braveheart fame, and January 25 is celebrated as Burns Night, commemorated with meals befitting the poet who wrote “Address to a Haggis.”

To Old Friends

We all know the first verse and the chorus to some degree, but, not forgetting that the song was written in Scots, the rest may cause some issues for the English-speaking world. Take, for instance, the third verse, which goes:

We twa hae run about the braes,

and pou’d the gowans fine;

But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,

sin’ auld lang syne.

Translations vary, but let us finish by publishing the complete Burns poem/song in English (mostly), in the hope that it won’t offend any Scot who may be reading:

“Auld Lang Syne”

By Robert Burns

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!

and surely I’ll buy mine!

And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes,

and picked the daisies fine;

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,

since auld lang syne

We two have paddled in the stream,

from morning sun till dine;

But seas between us broad have roared

since auld lang syne

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!

And give me a hand o’ thine!

And we’ll take a right good-will draught,

for auld lang syne.

Socio-political Correspondent at and Managing Editor of Eclectic in interests and political philosophies, Laura came to journalism after years of working as an educator. Her background as a historian has informed her research and writing styles, as well as her approach to current affairs. Born and raised in Australia, Laura currently resides in Great Britain.

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