A Cup O’ Kindness

Burns ms auld lang syne

Susan here, wishing all of you a Happy New Year’s Eve – with best wishes for 2020 and its new decade. May this be the start of a happy, healthy, peaceful time in your lives.

Tonight many of us will sing verses of a very famous and familiar song, known far and wide, sung every New Year’s Eve around the world. We may not know all the words or understand the Scots language in the verses, but we all know the song. And here’s to the Scots, for the song is theirs originally, written by Robert Burns, who based his version on remembered lines from even earlier songs.  

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

Robert_burnsHe wrote it shortly before December 17, 1788, and it was officially published in 1796. Burns claimed that three verses came from older traditional Scottish folk songs dating back to the 16th century or earlier, and he added two verses himself. Some scholars feel that none of his verses were authentically older versions, though the phrasing was indeed traditional.

An early precursor appears in the Bannatyne Manuscript, a collection of Scottish poetry compiled in the 16th century:

About me friendis anew I gatt,
Rycht blythlie on me thay lewch…
And auld kyndnes is quyt foryett.

(About me friends anew I had/Right blithely on me they looked… And auld kindness is quite forgot.) 

Should auld acquaintance

A 17th century English version of an older Scottish folksong from a sheet of ephemera (basically, a flier), hints at the Burns song to come. “My jo” is a Scots endearment meaning "my joy" or "my dear”…

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

John_Masey_Wright__Robert_Burns_-_Auld_Lang_Syne_cropA verse by the 17th century poet Ayton contains other elements of the Burns song:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never thought upon,
The flames of love extinguished,
And freely past and gone

A few verses of a song about soldiers returning from war were published by the Edinburgh bookseller and poet Allan Ramsay in his Tea Table Miscellany, 1724:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Tho' they return with scars?
These are the noble hero's lot,
Obtain'd in glorious wars

Burns was familiar with some of these sources, though we are fortunate that he decided to have a go at the lyrics himself.

Auld lang syne vintage postcardThe melody was traditional as well—he set his version to a Scottish strathspey, a Highland reel called “The Miller’s Daughter,” a fiddle tune that can be traced much earlier (many old fiddle tunes are based on even older harp melodies). “The air is but mediocre,” Burns said of it, but it suited his verses and was a catchy little tune.

He wrote to a friend on 17th December 1788: "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…Light be the turf on the breast of the heaven-inspired poet who composed this glorious fragment!"

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,
For auld lang syne

For over 200 years, the “mediocre air” with its borrowed phrases that Burns put together has proven unforgettable.

Here’s the song performed by Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean – a rendition that Burns himself surely would have applauded. Enjoy – and Happy New Year to you! 

Dougie auld lang syne 2


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