Auld Lang Syne

“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.”

Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne” is a Scottish song pronounced[ˈɔːl(d) lɑŋˈsəin]. Traditionally, it is sung to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. It is also used in funerals, graduations, and as a farewell ending to other occasions such as the Boy Scout jamborees.

Robert Burns (1759 – 1796)

The poem was written in the  Scots-language by Robert Burns in 1788. But it is based on an older Scottish folk song. In 1799, it was set to a traditional tune, which has since become standard.

The poem’s Scots title may be translated into English as “old long since” or “long long ago”, “days gone by”, or “old times”. Consequently, “For auld lang syne”, as it appears in the first line of the chorus, might be loosely translated as “for the sake of old times”.

Robert Burns sent a copy of the original song to the 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.” Some of the lyrics were indeed collected rather than composed by the poet.

Robert Burns’ Original Scots Verse

“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 jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup!
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 mony 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 gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

John Masey Wright and John Rogers’ illustration of the poem, c. 1841

The ballad “Old Long Syne,” printed in 1711 by James Watson, shows considerable similarity in the first verse and the chorus to Burns’ later poem.

In 1792, the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn arranged Auld Lang Syne as one of more than four hundred Scottish folk song arrangements commissioned by George Thomson and the publishers William Napier and William Whyte; his arrangement may have helped popularise the song. Ludwig van Beethoven also wrote an arrangement of Auld Lang Syne published as part of his 12 Scottish Folksongs (1814). Both of these classical versions use the original brisk strathspey rhythm.

Singing the song on Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve very quickly became a Scots custom that soon spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots (not to mention English, Welsh and Irish people) emigrated around the world, they took the song with them.

At Hogmanay in Scotland, it is common practice that everyone joins hands with the person next to them to form a great circle around the dance floor. At the beginning of the last verse (And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!/and gie’s a hand o’ thine!), everyone crosses their arms across their breast, so that the right hand reaches out to the neighbor on the left and vice versa. When the tune ends, everyone rushes to the middle, while still holding hands. When the circle is re-established, everyone turns under the arms to end up facing outwards with hands still joined. The tradition of singing the song when parting, with crossed hands linked, began in the mid-19th century with  Freemasons.

A pipe major of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (date unknown)

Scottish Music and Bagpipes

Scottish music dates back to the late Middle Ages with the only surving song from this period is the “Pleugh Song”. After the Reformation, the secular popular tradition of music continued, despite attempts by the Kirk, particularly in the Lowlands, to suppress dancing and events like penny weddings. The first clear reference to the use of the Highland bagpipes mentions their use at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547. The Highlands in the early seventeenth century saw the development of piping families including the MacCrimmons, MacArthurs, MacGregors and the Mackays of Gairloch.

Fiddles were played in the HIghlands. Well-known musicians including Pattie Birnie and the piper Habbie Simpson (1550–1620). This tradition continued into the nineteenth century, with fiddlers including  Niel and his son Nathaniel Gow.

Scottish ballads date back to the late Medieval era and deal with events and people that can be traced back as far as the thirteenth century. They remained an oral tradition until they were collected as folk songs in the eighteenth century.

The bagpipe dates back to Scotland around 1400. The Great Highland bagpipe was originally used by the Scotts fighting battles. Popular belief sets varying dates for the introduction of bagpipes to Scotland. Ancient legends and stories about bagpipes were passed down through minstrels and oral tradition. Evidence is limited until approximately the 15th century. The Battle of the North Inch of Perth references “warpipes” being carried into battle in 1396.

A depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn from a 1440s manuscript of Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon, the earliest known depiction of the battle.

One clan still owns a remnant of a set of bagpipes said to have been carried at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.  A poem written in 1598 and later published in The Complaynt of Scotland refers to several types of pipe, including the Highland: “On hieland pipes, Scotte and Hybernicke / Let heir be shraichs of deadlie clarions.”

Happy New Year!

Let me wish you a happy new year and that “old acquaintance not be forgot for auld lang syne.”