Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne

There is a common joke that Auld Lang Syne is one of the most popular songs of which no one knows the full lyrics! Other than the chorus, this is largely the truth. Back in my long ago days of celebrating New Year’s Eve at a party, I can’t recall ever hearing more than the first verse and the chorus repeated over and over. To be fair, the song is from a Scots language poem, so a good number of the words don’t roll easily off an English speaker’s tongue!

In 1788, Scottish lyricist and poet Robert Burns wrote Auld Lang Syne based on a much older Scottish folk song. Historians trace the song as a funeral oration written in a Scot language some 600 years earlier. Burns himself admitted he did not write the poem, but was simply the first to “translate” the words into 18th century Scots and write an original tune. He sent a copy of the song to the compiler of Scots Musical Museum in 1788 with the remark:

“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.”

Robert Burns

A ballad printed by James Watson in 1711 titled “Old Long Syne” includes one stanza that is remarkably similar to Burns’ much longer poem. This is not to imply Burns stole the song/poem, as he never claimed to have originally written it. Rather, it indicates the existence of the song being far older than commonly assumed. Additionally, the Scottish phrase “auld lang syne” literally translates as “old long since” which roughly means “times gone by; days gone by; old times; for the sake of old times” and so on — all of these variations common phrases found in poems and songs dating back for centuries.

ROBERT BURNS (1756-1796) was a prolific poet. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland —familiarly known as the Bard of Ayrshire among other beloved epithets— and is celebrated worldwide as an influential poet and pioneer of the Romantic movement. The final years of his far too short life were devoted to collecting folk songs from across Scotland, often revising and adapting them before publishing. Such is likely the case with Auld Lang Syne, in that he added his distinct artistic touches to the verses despite modestly claiming he merely wrote down what “an old man” sang. What is without question is the melody, which Burns wrote specifically for the poem.

The first volume of Scots Musical Museum was published in 1787. Scottish engraver and music publisher James Johnson had met Burns in 1786, the two discovering a shared passion for old Scots songs and the determination to preserve them. The three volumes of Scots Musical Museum contain about 600 songs, a third of which were contributed by Robert Burns. In 1797, the year after Burns died, the third volume was published, this one including Auld Lang Syne.

Did Burns intend for the song to be an end-of-the-year anthem? Doubtful. But it certainly worked out that way!

Front page of The Scots Musical Museum (1787)

The song begins with a rhetorical question: Should old times and old friends be forgotten? Burns does not specifically answer the question with a Yea or Nay, but the subsequent verses reflect positively on fond memories, hence the strong implication that these memories should be treasured, no matter how much time or distance separates. In fact, there is the promise to remember people of the past with fondness: “For auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet.”

The lesser known verses continue this theme, lamenting how friends who once used to “run about the braes, And pou’d the gowans fine” (run about the hills and picked the daisies fine) and “paidl’d in the burn, Frae morning sun till dine” (paddled in the stream from morning sun to dusk) have become divided by time and distance ”seas between us braid hae roar’d” (broad seas have roared between us). Yet there is always time for old friends to get together—if not in person then in memory—and “tak a right guid-willie waught” (a good-will drink).

So certainly the lyrics of remembrance of the past lends to a year’s turning theme which fits as a New Year’s Eve song, even if that never entered Burns’ mind. In Scotland, Auld Lang Syne has also long been widely sung for all sorts of special events, including weddings, farewells, funerals, graduations, and so on. The truth is, no one knows for sure exactly when Burns’ song became associated with what the Scots call Hogmanay, the name for the last day of the old year. Nor is it known if the Scots can actually be credited with this since the song is culturally very significant for many occasions, as I just noted. Hogmanay celebrations are ancient, derived from Norse and Gaelic observances of the winter solstice. For unrecorded centuries, the Scottish have created a host of customs unique to their culture for celebrating Hogmanay, the joining of hands to sing songs one of many, for which Auld Lang Syne was one choice and has now become a tradition as it has in most English speaking (and many non-English speaking) countries.

We can definitely give major credit to American bandleader Guy Lombardo for launching Auld Lang Syne as a New Year’s Eve classic.

Lombardo first heard Auld Lang Syne in his hometown of London in Ontario, Canada, where it was sung by Scottish immigrants. When he and his brothers formed the famous dance band, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, the song became one of their standards. In 1929, Lombardo played the song at midnight at a New Year’s Eve party at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. The show was being broadcast by radio to homes all throughout the US, becoming an instant classic. Lombardo and his band played the song at the Waldorf Astoria every New Year’s Eve from 1930 to 1976, the song broadcast on radio and then on television. The song became such a New Year’s tradition that Life magazine wrote: “…if Lombardo failed to play ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ the American public would not believe that the new year had really arrived.”

Now, for a couple of excellent renditions of Auld Lang Syne to enjoy. The first is from BBC Scotland from Hogmanay 2020, performed by Hannah Rarity and Blazin’ Fiddles in the original Scots. Gorgeous! Secondly, I chose an a cappella version by Home Free. Enjoy!


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.

CHORUS: For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

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Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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Glynis

I’m afraid I only know the first verse and the chorus as that’s usually all that was sung (so I assume it’s all most people really know!

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