Auld Lang Syne — a song for all seasons?

Author: Anne Smyth

Date: 2013

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 13 Hairst 2013

Anne Smyth

Robert Burns

Our second son did a five-year stint teaching English in Japan. Impecunious as ever, he rarely managed to scrape enough money together for a trip home, so in order to remind him he had a mother and father we had to travel in the other direction. His plans for our entertainment while in Japan always showed the utmost ingenuity.

On the second of our four visits to him, however, we had a ‘free’ afternoon, which we occupied with a visit to Osaka’s historic castle (Ōsaka-jō), which dates from 1597. As there was plenty to see, we did not notice the time go in, but towards the end of the afternoon we were greatly taken aback to hear the strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ coming over the public address system.

In common with all the ‘music’ churned out in public places in Japan — and some in private places, as you often encounter loos that incorporate music as a means of disguising (ahem!) unwanted sounds — it had been produced electronically and sounded really tinny. It turned out that playing the song is a means of persuading tardy visitors that it is time to go home, and it seems to be employed quite widely there, probably due to the ingrained politeness of the Japanese, to avoid the more abrupt ‘buckin oot’ you are usually treated to in Northern Ireland. Everyone gets the message. By the end of that visit, however, we never wanted to hear it again.

Back home in Northern Ireland, as a fitting culmination to an evenings entertainment ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is up there with the National Anthem. Every January, the ‘Burns Night’ events, whether faithful to the Burns Supper formula or not, always end with the song, sung by the audience with joined hands, usually standing in a circle.

Certainly, it is always sung with gusto, but you wonder whether Rabbie would recognise the version sung by his modern-day fans. From the moment the announcement is made that ‘Old Leng Zyne’ is to be sung, the assembled company seems to forget all it ever knew about Scots. The ‘zyne’ is particularly puzzling, because the word syne is the equivalent of the English word ‘since’ which is never pronounced ‘zince’.

Incidentally, although most people think that ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was written by Burns, in fact Burns himself later acknowledged that an old man had sung the first verse to him, and he had at once written it down because he considered it ‘exceedingly expressive’. He described the song as having ‘often thrilled through my soul’.

Burns did add the remaining verses as we (more or less!) know them today. To add a further complication, however, in the process of preparing to publish the song in the collection called The Scots Musical Museum, Burns came up against the problem that he had already used the tune the old man sang him as the air matched with the lyrics of a song called ‘O Can Ye Labour Lea, Young Man’, also known as ‘I Fee’d a Man at Martinmas’.

Thus it came about that the lyrics of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ were attached to another old tune, called by Burns ‘The Miller’s Wedding’. This tune has had a variety of other names, and it has even been claimed by the English, but there seems to be little factual support for the truth of this claim. It is ‘The Miller’s Wedding’ that we now know as the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

‘Auld Lang Syne’ has, I believe, a special place in folk’s hearts because it speaks of a gentler (and older?) way of life — much like the gentler eviction by the Japanese — in which friendship mattered and personal contact rather than the virtual electronic variety took up one’s time. Some of the words may be considered overly sentimental in this hard-bitten age, but that clearly doesn’t detract from the song’s popularity. Other critics will tell you it was intended to be sung at the end of a night’s boozing. Well, Rabbie was no teetotaller, but ‘conviviality’ was definitely the thing towards the close of a day taken up with hard physical labour — and, obviously, the only entertainment was what you provided for yourself.

Let’s take another look at the words of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and see if we can revisit its attractions. Usually we only sing a couple of verses, which is maybe inevitable when it occupies the final place on the evening’s programme. A pity or a mercy? See what you think:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

And never brought to min’?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And days o auld lang syne[1]!


For auld lang syne, my dear[2],

For auld lang syne,

We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness[3] yet

For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,

And pu’d[4] the gowans[5] fine;

But we’ve wandered mony a weary foot[6],

Sin’[7] auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d[8] in the burn[9],

Frae mornin’ sun till dine[10]:

But seas between us braid ha’e roared,

Sin’ auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere[11]!

And gi’e’s a hand o’ thine;

And we’ll tak a right guid-willie[12] waught[13],

For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be[14] your pint-stoup[15]!

And surely I’ll be mine!

And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.

The more eagle-eyed among you will note that, despite all the bonhomie, the song views it as a foregone conclusion that each will pay for his own drink!

The convention is that the arms are crossed only in the last of the two verses (in the popular format) when the words ‘And there’s a hand’ (although this is generally rendered ‘here’s a hand’) are sung.

Those who frequent Burns Nights will have spotted that usually the verses sung are the first verse and verse four, but normally the fourth verse is radically amended to make it more accessible to those who do not understand Scots, by changing fiere to freen and right gude-willie waught to cup of kindness yet. That’s unfortunate. It’s to be hoped that the explanations given in this short article, which have not included the vocabulary that is more easily understood, will embolden the less confident among us to try singing the correct words for the last verse. And who knows, maybe at some of the Burns events we will even hear the whole song sung, rather than just the usual two verses!


[1] lang syne: long ago, long since

[2] some versions give my jo (my dear)

[3] kindness in this sense means ‘good will’, ‘favour’ or ‘friendship’

[4] pulled, plucked

[5] a yellow flower or one with a yellow centre, usually a daisy but sometimes a dandelion, buttercup or marigold

[6] some versions give fit (foot)

[7] since

[8] paddled

[9] stream

[10] dinner, dinner-time

[11] companion, comrade

[12] guid-willie: kindly, hearty, cordial, generous, open-handed

[13] a draught of liquid, a long pull, swig or gulp of any drink

[14] ‘stand’, be at the expense of

[15] pint stoup: drinking vessel with a one-pint capacity



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