By Stuart Lewis
In what has developed into a global tradition on the last day of any given year, friends and families gather to bid the old year adieu and welcome, in joyous anticipation, the beckoning twelve months.
As the bigger hand of the clock ticks towards its destination, scrutinised by billions of eagle eyes, people everywhere join hands and count down the final ten seconds of the old year before launching into the same song that can be heard from the heart of Dublin to the upper Hebrides, and from Time Square to Tokyo – Auld Lang Syne.
Many of us are familiar with the lyrics of the song (or perhaps a line or two of the song), but not so many of us are aware of its origins.
Auld Lang Syne has become an international anthem and is one of Scotland’s greatest cultural exports to the world.
It was Robert Burns (1759–1796), the eighteenth-century Scottish poet (pictured right), who transformed the original song, which has its roots in an old ballad about a disappointed lover and a popular dance that evoked a country wedding. In fact, the remarkable Burns devoted the final decade of his short life to collecting old verses, revising and “mending” as he saw fit.
He wrote the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne in 1788 but the tune we know now did not appear with the song until after his death.
In 1799, Edinburgh publisher George Thomson included the song in his Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs. But what does Auld Lang Syne mean?
It would translate into standard English as “old long ago” or more colloquially “the good old days”.
It is a tale which looks back at old times with a friend from childhood and seeks to rekindle the past by a handshake and a goodwill drink (a guid willie-waught, as Burns would have it).
The song’s initial popularity coincided with the age of Scottish emigration, especially to Canada and the US, in the 19th Century.
It is reported that during the American Civil War the Union tried to curtail the singing of Auld Lang Syne because of the sentiments of returning home and reconciliation.
However, after the signing of the surrender terms, General Grant ordered the band to play it, recognising that the country and the soldiers had been through a tremendous upheaval and that now was a time for healing.