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A song of friendship and brotherhood: The history of Auld Lang Syne


It is a song of parting and friendship, one of Scotland’s greatest exports and the soundtrack to New Year the world over.

When the clock strikes midnight on December 31 there is one song on everyone’s playlist from Scotland to Russia, the United States to Japan, whether it’s ex-pats or partygoers, the world unites in a chorus of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne.

Penned by Scotland’s bard, for many the song captures the essence of Hogmanay, inviting them to raise a glass, welcome in the New Year and remember friends and family who are no longer with them.

“It’s a song of parting and friendship,” said Chris Waddle, Learning Manager at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. “These are universal ideas and I think that is at the absolute core of the song’s popularity. It’s universal and it’s timeless.

“We all love people, we have all lost people, we all have friends and we all reflect on that.

Perhaps, more than anything else, this is why the song is such a success at this particular time of year.”

Oor Rabbie- Robert Burns

In his time working there Chris has watched as people have welled up when the have reached the display celebrating Auld Lang Syne and told stories of loved ones who have passed away.

Chris continued: “When I show schoolkids the original manuscript and talk about the song, I actually get quite emotional.

“The world’s turning on its access and I always thinking of it clicking through those timezones, 24 times as the world turns. If you think about it, in every one of them the New Year is heralded in by something from Scotland.

“That is one of our great gifts to the world. It’s funny, we hear people being criticised for using the Scots language but for many people it’s the first language they hear, every New Year.”

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The song itself has an unusual history in that it actually pre-dates Burns, echoing across generations since medieval times.

It is one of the best examples of how the Bard forged links between Scotland’s oral and written history.

“There was a germ of an idea already out there and Burns was able to turn that into something,” explained Chris. “You find versions of the song going back to 1568 and a ballad called ‘Old Kyndnes Foryett”.

“Burns version actually came out posthumously in the Scots Musical Museum – a collection of folk music published in several volumes from 1797. He had submitted this version and there was also another one out there, by Alan Ramsay, in an earlier volume.

“Burns says himself that he picked it up from hearing it from an old man. We just can’t trace who that old guy was. It’s lost in the mists of time.”

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

Preserving these traditions and ensuring the voices of ordinary people were heard was, not surprisingly, “very important” to the man known as ‘The Ploughman Poet’.

A proud Scot, his works told the stories of ordinary people, their hopes, fears and emotions.And did so in their own voices.

Aside from his own writing he also took part in the Scots Musical Museum project, a series of volumes of traditional Scottish songs and which included Auld Lang Syne.

“When he took part in the Scots Musical Museum project with James Johnston and later with another editor, George Thomson, Burns showed that he was as much a collector as he was a writer,” continued Chris.

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“This is something that was very important to him.

“As we know, he was absolutely infused with a sense of patriotism for his country and culture. He wanted to preserve it and Auld Lang Syne was part of that process.

“In on taking on the project what they set out to do was put a stamp on, to crystallise traditional culture. Thank God he did. Or what would we be singing at New Year?!”

While the song quickly became a part of Scots’ life and celebrations, the story of it spread across the world is an interesting one, connected to the expatriate community who spread across North America.

The driving force behind it though was a man with no prior connection to Scotland at all.

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum will take you back in time

“His name was Guy Lombardo,” said Chris, “and he was a band leader in Canada in the middle of the last century. His band was called Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians.

“He was the son of two Italian immigrants to Canada but grew up in Ontario, which was full of Scots emigres and their descendants.

“He was used to playi dances and it was traditional for Auld Lang Syne to be played at the end of a night as a song of ‘parting’. His band picked it up, they became well known in the States and played a show every New Year or Hogmanay which was first broadcast on radio and later television.

“He became Mr New Year and through him, Auld Lang Syne the song of New Year. To this day it’s still his version that plays when the ball drops on Times Square in New York.”

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The fact is that we could be singing a very different version of Auld Lang Syne today. One that Burns actually preferred and is today re-emerging – and popping up in the most unusual of places.

“The original tune that Burns intended is not the one that we sing now,” revealed Chris.

“That version appeared towards the end of his life. There is another, much slower old air.

“The one we know is derived from an old Strathspey tune, but the older version is the one that Burns preferred and wanted.

“The older version is actually making a bit of a comeback and, believe it or not, was in Sex and the City 2 – which featured a version of the old song by Mairi Campbell. It’s making a real resurgence, particularly at Burns Suppers.

“We’re not really sure why one became more popular than the other,” added Chris, “but the version that’s best known, the one that is sung today, is to the tune of what was a very popular Scots’ country dance song.

“It was a dance tune and a bit more upbeat, but people would have known that tune and perhaps responded better to it.”

So, when you join the chorus this Hogmanay and reflect on times past and the year ahead, you will not only maintain a link with Scotland’s history but a connection with people the world over.

“Although it’s a song of parting and reflection, it’s very positive as well,” added Chris. “It’s about raising a glass to old pals, having a drink to them and then having a few more. It’s about conviviality, brotherhood, friendship, things that Burns held very dear.”

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