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The Burns Encyclopedia
Home | Introduction | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

'Auld Lang Syne'

This dismissory song now used throughout the English-speaking world. In Scotland, it gradually displaced the century-old 'Good-night and joy be wi' you a'.' In spite of the popularity of 'Auld Lang Syne', it has aptly been described as 'the song that nobody knows'. Even in Scotland, hardly a gathering sings it correctly, without some members of the party introducing the spurious line: 'We'll meet again some ither nicht' for the line which Burns actually wrote: 'And we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet'. To say nothing of adding 'the days of' to the line 'For auld lang syne'!

On 17th December 1788, Burns said in a letter to Mrs Dunlop: 'Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these 'social offsprings of the hear'. Two veterans of the 'men of the world' would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, 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. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet... 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.' The song 'on the other sheet' was Burns's first version of 'Auld Lang Syne'.

With slight emendations, the poet sent a copy of the song to Johnson, who delayed publishing it, possibly because the air to which it went had already appeared in the Museum with words by Ramsay, beginning: 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot.' But Johnson changed his mind and put the song into the fifth volume of the Museum, which appeared about six months after Burns's death, but which there is plenty of evidence in Burns's letters to suggest he had seen in proof stage. The tune to which it was matched in the Museum first appeared in Playford's Original Scotch Tunes, 1700, though doubtless it was then at least half a century old, for it was the tune to which the antecedents of Burns's poem were written.

The 'exceedingly expressive' germphrase has been taced back to an anonymous ballad in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, 'Auld Kyndnes foryett'. The last of the eight stanzas goes:

"They wald me hals with hude and hatt,
Quhyle I wes rich and had anewch,
About me friends anew I gatt,
Rycht blythlie on me they lewch;
But now they mak it wondir tewch,
And lattis me stand befoir the yett;
Thairfoir this warld is very frewch,
And auld kyndnes is quyt foryett."

From that anonymous old poet's complaint of man's ingratitude, we move on to a slightly later ballad, probably by the courtly poet Sir Robert Ayton (1570-1638) who accompanied James VI and I to England, though sometimes attributed on little evidence to Francis Sempill of Beltrees (d. 1683?). First published in Watson's Choice Collection of Scots Poems, 1711, the anthology upon which the whole of the 18th Century Scots Revival was based, Ayton's poem begins:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never thought upon,
The flames of love extinguished,
And freely past and gone?
Is thy kind heart now grown so cold
In that loving breast of thine,
That thou canst never once reflect
On old-long-syne?

Chronologically, the next reference is a prose one: to a scurrilous work, Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display'd published in London in 1694. The author quotes a sermon: 'Did you ever hear tell of a good God and a cappet [pettish] prophet, Sirs? The good God said, Jonah, now billy Jonah, wilt thou go to Ninevah, for Auld lang syne? [old kindness].'

Henley and Henderson refer to a street song, dating from the end of the 17th Century, which had the refrain:

"On old long syne.
On old long syne, my jo,
On old long syne:
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne."

This, attributed to Francis Sempill, appeared in Watson's Choice Collection, but clearly derives from Ayton.

The song which Ramsay wrote to the tune, printed with his words in the Museum, was published in his Scots Songs, 1720. The first eight lines establish the connexion, and at the same time demonstrate that the poem represents Ramsay at his least inspired:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Tho' they return with scars?
These are the noble hero's lot,
Obtain'd in glorious wars:
Welcome, my Varo, to my breast,
Thy arms about me twine.
And make me once again as blest,
As I was lang syne."

At least two other political ballads of the period exist which exhibit turns of phrase, the echo of which sounds in Burns's version: and in 'The Old Minister's Song', 'Tullochgorum' Skinner came nearer than most:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Or friendship e'er grow cauld?
Should we nae tighter draw the knot
Aye as we're growing auld?
How comes it, then, my worthy friend,
Wha used to be sae kin',
We dinna for ilk ither spier
As we did lang syne?"

Was Burns, in fact, aware of these older poems? Almost certainly he was. But if his claim to Mrs Dunlop was correct, and the forces of Nature have honoured his request, the turf must by lying lightly upon the breast of an unknown poet of whose intermediary version not a trace can be found.

Cromek alleged evidence that the two best stanzas were by Burns. William Stenhouse, the editor of an early 19th Century reissue of the Museum, stated that Burns admitted to Johnson that only three stanzas were old, the other two being written by himself. George Thomson was certainly suspicious of the supposed old originals. In September 1793, Burns forwarded him the third known manuscript of the song, with some minor changes, the most important of which is the substitution of 'my dear' for 'my jo' in the chorus. In the accompanying letter Burns remarked: 'One song more, and I have done, 'Auld lang syne'. The air is but mediocre; but the following song - the 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's singing - is enough to recommend any air.'

Some time later, after Thomson had discovered from Stephen Clarke that Johnson had a copy of 'Auld Lang Syne' and had noticed that the air was already in the Museum to Ramsay's words, he must have written to Burns, who replied in November 1794: 'The two songs you saw in Clarke's are neither of them worth your attention. The words of 'Auld lang syne are good, but the music is an old air, the rudiments of the modern tune of that name. The other tune you may hear as a common Scots country dance.'

What was 'the other tune'? Probably the tune which we know today, and to which Thomson published the words in Scottish Airs, 1799, claiming them to be 'From an old MS. In the editor's possession', which was at least slightly more honest.

The first strain of the familiar tune appears in 'The Duke of Buccleugh's Tune', in Appollo's Banquet, 1690, though I am inclined to think this establishes nothing beyond yet another interesting example of melodic coincidence. Its 'common Scots country dance' version appeared first in Bremner's Scots Reels, 1759, under the title 'The Miller's Wedding' and in Cumming's Strathspeys, 1780, as well as in McGlashan's Strathspey Reels, also published in 1780, in which it was called 'The Miller's Daugher'. Its commonness is attested by the fact that it appeared in at least a further five similar publications within the next thirty years; was used twice to different words in the Museum; and was employed in a slightly pruned version in William Shield's ballad-opera Rosina in 1783. It is also closely related to the melodies of 'O Can you labor lea' and 'Coming thro' the rye' which appear to derive basically from the same strathspey as 'Auld Lang Syne'.

Although Thomson's version of the words are usually to be met with in popular editions of Burns's poems, the Johnson version is probably the better. Both versions contain the line 'And we'll take a right gude-willy waught' means 'a draught of good fellowship', 'gude-willy' being an Old English term like Lydgate's (c. 1375-1462) 'A! Faire lady! Welwilly found at al', from the Complaint of the Black Night, instanced by Dick.

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