Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Auld Lang Syne

In preparation for Hogmanay, the Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century team looks at one of the most famous songs in the world: ‘Auld Lang Syne’. A global anthem generally considered as a plea to remember long-standing friendships, versions of it have been performed by artists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Rod Stewart. However, the song with which we are all familiar today has an equally diverse and complex past.

‘Auld lang syne’ is often referred to as the song that everybody sings but nobody knows. Although it is globally recognised, it is frequently sung with slight variations from Burns’s original lyrics, most commonly the line ‘For the days of auld lang syne’, instead of the simpler ‘For auld lang syne’. However, there are six manuscript copies in existence of the song, all with textual differences. Three of those manuscripts are in the United States while three are held here in Scotland. You can view a fragment of ‘Auld lang syne’ in Burns’s hand from 1793 at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum at Alloway.


Early History

The genesis of the phrase ‘Auld lang syne’ has been traced back as far as the sixteenth century. It appeared in an anonymous ballad, ‘Auld Kyndnes Foryett’, contained in the 1568 Bannatyne Manuscript (a compilation of Scottish literary materials collected by the Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne). Rather than Burns’s more optimistic call to remember old friendships, this ballad laments the fickleness of those who would feign it for financial gain:

They wald me hals with hude and hatt, [salute me with hood and hat]
Quhyle I wes rich and had anewch, [had plenty]
About me friends anew I gatt, [got]
Rycht blythie on me they lewch; [very happily on me they leech]
But now they mak it wonder tewch, [make it very tough]
And lattis me stand befoir the yett; [let me stand outwith the door]
Thairfoir this warld is verry frewch, [frught]
And auld kyndnes is quyt foryett. [kindness is quite forgotten]

Possible influences on Burns

Another ballad version, thought to have been written by the Scots Court Poet Robert Ayton (1570-1638) was published for the first time in 1711 in James Watson’s Choice Collection of Scots Poems. This song contained opening lines very similar to those that would appear in Burns’s adaptation:

Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems

Watson’s Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems


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?

Also in the early eighteenth century, the Scots poet Allan Ramsay wrote a song to the old tune, which was published in Scots Songs (1720). Ramsay opens with the familiar refrain, ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’, but the rest of his song is quite different from that of Burns. Ramsay was also aware of the Bannatyne Manuscript, indeed he is the last person to have added to it, so he would have known of the ‘Auld Kyndnes Foryett’ ballad. The song and the tune (No. 25) were published in the first volume of Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum in 1787.

Portrait of Allan Ramsay

Portrait of Allan Ramsay

Allan Ramsay’s version of ‘Auld lang syne’, in Scots Songs (1720)

Ramsay’s choice of title was a phrase which resonated with Jacobite and anti-Union sentiment, both in the late seventeenth, and the early eighteenth centuries, and it was a phrase which clearly struck a chord with Burns. However Burns expanded out the narrower Jacobite meanings, most notably his allusion to drinking in the line ‘We’ll tak a cup o’kindness yet’. Here the Jacobite notion of imbibing to prove one’s loyalty to the cause has been transformed into a more general feeling of good-will and generosity.

Burns and ‘Auld lang syne’

‘Auld lang syne’ as it appears in The Scots Musical Museum

The first mention that Burns makes of the song appears in a letter sent to Mrs Dunlop on the 7th December 1788, where he asks her, ‘is not the Scotch phrase ‘Auld lang syne’ exceedingly expressive?’ As an avid collector of traditional Scots music and song, Burns noted that both the old song and the tune ‘thrilled thro’ my soul’.

Clearly he was very taken with the lyrical quality of the verse for he wrote beside the song: ‘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’.

His version of the song appeared in Vol. 5 of the Scots Musical Museum (1796), and was accompanied by a tune which appeared in Playford’s Original Scotch Tunes (1700) under the title of ‘For old long Sine my jo’. This version of the tune was used frequently throughout the eighteenth century including the 1725 publication of the Orpheus Caledonius.

Burns conceded to Johnson that only three stanzas of the song he sent to him were old, with the other two being composed by himself.

Play or download the tune which appeared with Burns’s text in the Scots Musical Museum:

Download song:

Auld Lang Syne (SMM) (3198 downloads )

Burns’s ‘Auld lang syne’ and George Thomson

'Auld lang syne' in Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1799)

‘Auld lang syne’ in Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1799)

While Burns was sending material on ‘Auld lang syne’ to James Johnson he was also corresponding with the Scottish editor George Thomson to whom he sent the third known manuscript of the song. There were some alterations from the previous version, most notably the inclusion of ‘my dear’ at the expense of ‘my jo’. In his letter to Thomson, Burns expressed his opinion that, ‘The air is but mediocre; but the following song – the old Song of the olden times, & which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, untill [sic] I took it down from an old man’s singin; is enough to recommend any air’.

Later, Thomson found out from Stephen Clarke that Johnson had a copy of the song and that the air was already in The Scots Musical Museum (Allan Ramsay’s version).Burns reiterated to Thomson his distaste for the older air in 1794 writing, ‘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’.

This ‘other tune’ is probably the one with which most people are familiar today, and was the tune which Thomson published in his A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1799). He even claimed that the text was ‘From an old MS. in the editor’s possession’, and curiously did not include Burns’s name with the song. The tune which Thomson chose, first appeared in Bremner’s Scots Reels (1759) entitled ‘The Miller’s Wedding’. Some earlier Burns editors thought that Thomson got the tune from the opera Rosina (1783) by William Shield. They believed that Shield had sourced it from a fiddle collection, as in 1780 it also appeared in Cumming’s Strathspeys, as well as McGlashan’s Strathspey Reels, although on this occasion it went by the title of ‘The Miller’s Daughter’. This arrangement was even used twice to different songs in Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum. The famous fiddler Niel Gow also included it in a collection he dedicated to Sir Alexander Don, and often the melody is known by that name. The tune is very similar to another for which Burns had written his lyric beginning ‘O can ye labour lea, young man’. Set to a tune with the same name, Burns’s song had appeared in the Scots Musical Museum in 1792 as no. 394. While the tune is more spirited here, it is nonetheless clearly a variant of Thomson’s tune for ‘Auld lang syne’.

‘Auld lang syne’ as it appears in Thomson’s Select Collection touches on two of the key elements of Thomson’s editorial practice. The first is to do with the musical setting. At this point in his project Thomson was principally working with the Bohemian composer Leopold Koželuch (1747-1818). Through the agency of the British Legation in Vienna, Koželuch was receiving packages of tunes from Thomson (usually without texts) for him to then provide settings or arrangements of the tunes or melodies for voice and piano accompaniment, but also with parts for violin and cello.

The tune for 'Auld lang syne' in the Select Collection

The tune for ‘Auld lang syne’ in the Select Collection

The composers were asked to provide little instrumental symphonies to introduce the song and to act as a conclusion and they harmonized the melody of the song proper in between. They would send their final versions back to Thomson in Edinburgh, and he would then underlay the text to the music provided. One of Thomson’s key issues with his composers in Vienna was that they often provided accompaniments which were too difficult for Edinburgh ladies and gentlemen to play. Thomson’s volumes, like Johnson’s, were intended mainly for home or domestic performance. Koželuch’s first attempt at setting the melody for ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was too full of semi-quavers (running or fast notes) to be playable and Thomson had asked him to simplify this.

The setting that you can see here was Koželuch’s second attempt – the bass line has simple octaves here, rather than fast and continual semiquavers. On the copy here you can see that Thomson has noted that this is ‘simplified as above by Mr. K’ in 1801.

Secondly, and more controversially here, is Thomson’s choice of tune. It was frequently the case in collections of national airs that editors would match texts to tunes as they saw fit, rather than adhering to the original tunes which their lyricists or poets had chosen.

Thomson is much criticised in Burns scholarship for changing his mind about tunes, especially as so many of Burns’s songs were published posthumously by Thomson. Sometimes, as in the case with Burns’s ‘Scots wha hae’, Thomson would later admit he was wrong and would revert to Burns’s original choice of tune. But in the case of ‘Auld lang syne’ this was not what happened.

Later on Thomson also printed a Beethoven setting of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (‘Die alte gute Zeit’) for three voices and piano trio. It appeared only once in his collections, in the last of his six folio volumes of Melodies of Scotland in 1841.

Our new edition of the song for Thomson will investigate this musical story in much more detail and we’ll keep you informed of our findings. But what we do know is that the tune now commonly called ‘Sir Alexander Don’s Strathspey’ has become the tune most commonly paired with Burns’s lyric. The old tune known as ‘Auld lang syne’ which appears in the Museum is now becoming better known and is preferred by some, but, in this case, Thomson’s choice of melody stuck and is now sung all around the world.

Play or download the tune used by Thomson:

Download song:

Auld Lang Syne (Thomson) (1548 downloads )

‘Auld lang syne’ and the world

Not only is the song sung all around the world but it has inspired a number of translations into foreign languages. Pia Osberg, an exchange student from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, studying at Glasgow drew our attention to the literary links between Burns and the Danish poet Jeppe Aakjær (1866-1930), who wrote his own version of ‘Auld lang syne’ in 1927.

Pia writes: The Danish version of ‘Auld lang syne’ is called ‘Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo’ which translates as ‘should old friendships just be forgotten’. However, ‘Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo’ is not written in Standard Danish but in a Danish dialect called Sallingbomål. (Salling was the name of the village near Skive where Aakjær lived most of his life.) Both Burns and Aakjær came from farming communities and they took great pride in writing in their native dialects. Burns wrote in the Scots dialect of Ayrshire and Aakjær in Sallingbomål. It is funny when you think of Scots being a dialect that some people in the UK find difficult to understand, because some Danes definitely find Sallingbomål challenging to understand too!

Aakjær kept the theme of the original poem. The theme of looking back on old days gone by and about making a toast to old friendships. Not only is Aakjær’s translation of ‘Auld lang syne’ extremely close to the original, he has also managed to get the actual sounds of the words quite similar to Burns’:

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo

Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo
og stryges fræ wor mind?
Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo
med dem daw så læng, læng sind?
Di skjønne ungdomsdaw, å ja,
de daw så svær å find!
Vi’el løwt wor kop så glådle op
for dem daw så læng, læng sind!


‘Skuld gammel venskab rejn forgo’ is not sung as part of our New Year’s celebration in Denmark as it is the custom here in the UK. Instead, it is sung at family gatherings, such as graduation parties, weddings or round-figured birthdays where everyone, at the end of the party, join in to sing the song as a lovely way to say goodbye before the party breaks up and people part. All guests stand in a circle, and if you are in great numbers, you’ll make two circles; one within the other. Come the last verse, you cross your arms and hold hands with the ones standing next to you. This family tradition is only a custom in Jutland. (Thanks Pia!)

As well as Danish, and the Danish dialect of Sallingbomål, ‘Auld lang syne’ has been translated into a multitude of languages across the planet, demonstrating the truly worldwide appeal of the song. In 2009 the Global Burns Network saw singing events in a range of languages, from as diverse as Arabic, to Czech, to Esperanto, to Maori, to Russian, to Swahili to Urdu, and to Vietnamese. And on St Andrews night of the same year a world record was set in Glasgow when the song was sung simultaneously in over forty languages to mark the end of Homecoming Scotland. To see a recording of this event click below:


For more versions of the song you can visit the BBC website, produced in conjunction with the University of Glasgow, which provides audio recordings and introductions to all of the Bard’s works.

Ralph McLean

Kirsteen Mccue

Pia Osberg

Murray Pittock