‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?’
These timeless words are synonymous with Scottish Hogmanay and New Year celebrations across the world. Year upon year they are shout-sung from hoarse throats, disrupting whisky kisses and twirling reels, as hands and hearts are bound together by the words of Robert Burns.
Written in 1788, the national bard sent the song to the Scots Musical Museum and noted that the lyrics drew inspiration from the 1711 ballad “Old Long Syne” by James Watson. The music to which it is most commonly sung is a Scots’ folk melody. In Scotland, it is often sung at the end of ceilidh dances and at weddings and has otherwise been widely absorbed into folk celebrations.
‘Auld Lang Syne’ has become a traditional form of farewell. It pays homage to the past while continuing into the future with optimism alongside long-standing friends.
In the song, Burns recalls fond memories and raises a toast “for auld lang syne”, which translates into standard English as ‘for old time’s sake’.
One verse poignantly contrasts a visceral connection with the present with a wider perspective of temporal expanse: “We twa hae paidl’d in the burn, frae morning sun till dine; But seas between us braid hae roar’d sin’ auld lang syne.” Translated it reads: “The two of us have paddled in the stream, from morning until dusk; But the wide seas between us have roared since a long, long time ago.”
The linguistic element of Burns’ works is not without significance. He was among several prominent writers responsible for a renaissance of the Scots language in the 18th century after it was widely suppressed in an attempt to standardise English across the Union. A more recent revival of the language has been linked to support for Scottish independence.
In this context, Burns’ poetry permeates through a unique cultural heritage and elevates a national tongue often dismissed as a dialect. And while the poet wrote solely in Scots, his works have now been translated into several languagesBurns’ repertoire of love poems, ballads and folk songs are as lyrical and witty as they are soulful and heartfelt. Only a few weeks after Auld Lang Syne rings in the new year, the bard’s life and works are celebrated on 25th January, Burns Night. The highlight of the dinner is the reading of ‘Address to a Haggis’ before the traditional meal is ushered in, tartan strewn and bagpipe-wielding, the words ‘FREEDOM’ sputtering from its very essence.
While the festive season can present its own forms of stress and tensions, Burns’ ephemeral words still have the power to lead bleary-eyed and weary souls towards hope. They do not simply convey momentary goodwill; they echo across generations and borders.
At a time when society is particularly marked by political divisions and instability, we should all remember to pause as 2019 heaves its last breath and tak’ a cup o’ kindness for auld lang syne.