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Auld Acquaintance for the New Year: Burns’s Auld Lang Syne

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Portrait of Robert Burns, Ayr, Scotland
L. C. Prints and Photographs Division
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-07528

As the Old Year turns to the New Year, thousands of people around the world will sing along to “Auld Lang Syne,” a Scottish song that has come to be firmly associated with New Year’s celebrations. The song has a fascinating history, and we’re lucky at the Library of Congress to have several unique items relating to this global favorite, including what just may be Burns’s original, and very unusual, words to the song.

Burns’s words to “Auld Lang Syne” were first published in volume five of the Scots Musical Museum, an anthology of Scottish songs organized and edited by James Johnson.  That publication had been several years in the making, and the volume was finally issued in the year of Burns’s death, 1796.  In the meantime, in 1793, Burns had sent a slightly revised copy of the words to publisher George Thomson for inclusion in another anthology, A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs.  This book also took years to come to fruition, eventually seeing publication in 1799, three years after Burns died.  The best known set of words is the one printed by Thomson:

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

Robert Burns and His Highland Mary
Robert Burns and His Highland Mary
L. C. Prints and Photographs Division
Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-2962

For auld lang syne, my Dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu’t the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidlet i’ the burn,
Frae mornin’ sun till dine:
But seas between us braid hae roar’d,
Sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty feire,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine;
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine;
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Taking Burns’s statements about “Auld Lang Syne” at face value, we would assume the whole thing was a traditional folksong, for he included with the submission to Thomson a letter, in which he wrote:

Auld lang syne—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 I took it down from an old man’s singing; is enough to recommend any air.

Exactly what Burns meant by this note, and the extent to which he was downplaying his own contribution to the lyrics, is unknown. Since Johnson and Thomson each published the song with a different air, it is even debated which air Burns found to be mediocre, although it is most likely that he meant Johnson’s earlier setting, since he probably didn’t yet know which air Thomson intended to use. We can certainly hope that Johnson’s was the air he disliked, since Thomson’s later tune became the standard melody we all sing today.

As to the words, Burns’s remarks are even more puzzling. Songs with a similar chorus, and with the phrases “should auld acquaintance be forgot” and “auld lang syne,” certainly went back to the seventeenth century. These had in fact appeared in both manuscript and print collections, and Burns most likely knew about them. However, the verses published before Burns’s were not on the same theme as Burns’s song, so it is debatable if they could be considered “the same song” sung to Burns by the old man. Moreover, the verses Burns published do not have close analogues in folksong collections, and most scholars believe that Burns is responsible for writing at least two of the verses, and possibly more, leading many to question exactly what the old man sang to him.

The first page of the Manuscript Division’s photographic reproduction of the “Auld Lang Syne” manuscript.

Part of the evidence for Burns’s authorship of the song is the fact that he apparently continued to rewrite and rework the words throughout the last years of his life; six manuscripts exist in Burns’s hand, and no two of these are exactly alike. The earliest of these  manuscripts, which predates the song’s publication by some eight years, used to be here at the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division, and we still retain a photographic reproduction of it. It preserves an unusual version of “Auld Lang Syne,” which begins:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never thought upon?
Let’s hae a waught o’ Malaga,
For auld lang syne.

Notably, several lines in this earliest of Burns’s versions are identical to lines of an earlier text thought to have been written by the Scots Court Poet Sir Robert Aytoun (1570-1638):

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

Aytoun’s text was published for the first time in 1711 in James Watson’s Choice Collection of Scots Poems, which Burns certainly knew. 

It wasn’t until later that Burns added the familiar  phrase “…and never brought to mind” and moved “we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet” to the chorus, producing the song we all love to sing on New Year’s Eve.  This again raises the question of what the old man sang to him that inspired his version of the song.

The second page of the Manuscript Division’s photographic reproduction of the “Auld Lang Syne” manuscript.

This unique manuscript of “Auld Lang Syne” was originally part of a letter Burns wrote to his most frequent correspondent, Mrs. Frances Anna DunlopAuthorities date it to 1788, although since the Library’s pages containing the song have been separated from the rest of the letter, no date appears on our manuscript.  In addition to the lyrics, the manuscript contains Burns’s enthusiastic appreciation of the song, which once again identifies it as an old song written by some long-dead poet:

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 than [sic] in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.

After Mrs. Dunlop’s death, the manuscript ended up in the collection of William Pickering, a prominent publisher. Pickering was an adult when Mrs. Dunlop died, so it may well have gone straight from her family to him.  After Pickering’s death in 1854, it was auctioned by Sotheby’s, and bought by Henry Stevens, an American expatriate who was a prominent London book dealer.

In 1859, John V.L. Pruyn, at the time a State Representative in New York, and a regent of the State University of New York, was considering ways to celebrate Robert Burns’s centennial in his native Albany.  It occurred to him to buy Stevens’s manuscript for a public reading on Burns’s birthday, January 25.  According to a February 1898 article by Cuyler Reynolds in the Century Magazine, the manuscript’s voyage across the Atlantic and up the Hudson was dramatic:

The manuscript was intrusted [sic] to Captain Moody, who guaranteed that it should reach Chancellor Pruyn in time for the celebration. His steamship reached New York late on the day of the celebration, leaving but a few hours to get it to Albany, or the mission would prove fruitless. The only way was for the captain to select one of his trusty men. With this special messenger it was sent from the steamer and conveyed with all despatch directly to the hall in Albany. Mr Pruyn was all-expectant when, during the exercises, he was called from the hall. Though he was gone only a moment, all interest in what was going on upon the stage was lost for the time being.  Another swing of the door, and Mr. Pruyn entered, waving aloft the manuscript and exclaiming ‘It is here!’  With exultant delight, and amid cries of ‘Auld Lang Syne is with us!’ Chancellor Pruyn advanced to the stage and read the poem through. Hardly could the people be prevented from breaking in upon him, and when it was proposed to sing it through, enthusiasm knew no bounds. Never did a chorus so willingly lend aid, and the familiar air swelled forth in mighty volume.

Pruyn was later chancellor of the State University of New York, which explains the honorific applied to him by Cuyler.  He also served twice in the United States Congress: first in the thirty-eighth Congress, to which he was elected when his wife’s uncle, Erastus Corning, resigned, and then in the fortieth Congress.

In a letter from Stevens to Pruyn, dated December 7, 1859, Stevens wrote of the manuscript:

I have often been importuned to part with it both in England and Scotland, but my reply has always been “for America,” where Burns is more read and admired and more universally appreciated than elsewhere, aye, even in his own Scotland.

Similarly, according to the Century article, Pruyn’s widow was eventually offered more than three thousand dollars for it, but refused to part with it.  It remained in the family until 1913, when Pruyn’s daughter, Huybertje, and her husband Charles Sumner Hamlin, who was the first chairman of the Federal Reserve, “placed it on deposit” at the Library of Congress.

Sadly for us, that deposit was only a loan, and at some later time the manuscript was returned.  Eventually, it was sold to the collector Josiah Kirby Lilly, and donated to the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington.  It has been digitized and placed online there for all to see.

In addition to images of this unique manuscript, the Library has other one-of-a-kind treasures relating to “Auld Lang Syne.”  For example, the song was sung in 1940 by a group of African American singers, with Liberian and Chinese guests, and given a spoken introduction in Danish, at the home of Dr. Charles Johnson, head of the department of sociology at Fisk University.  This recording of the performance came to the library in the 1940s and is now in the American Folklife Center archive. You can also hear other versions of “Auld Lang Syne,” and related songs, in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox.  Finally, at AFC’s Robert Burns symposium in 2009, the assembled panelists (including me!) sang the song to end the proceedings.  You can hear that performance at the very end of this webcast.

Let’s give the last word on the “Auld Lang Syne” manuscript to Henry Stevens, the dealer who sent it to America in 1859.  In his letter to Pruyn that accompanies the poem at the Manuscript Division, he wrote:

I am sorry to part with “Auld Lang Syne” in the handwriting of Burns. So I was with the books of Washington now in the Boston Athenaeum, and the sculptures of Nineveh, now belonging to the New York Historical Society, presented by Mr Lenox. But I do not for one moment regret that I have had the opportunity and been the means of securing these things to my country. They are all now in good hands and in the right place. Pray guard your treasure and let Americans sing “Auld Lang Syne” from the autograph of Burns.


Note: This post was corrected by the author on January 2, 2014.

Comments (4)

  1. ..tę pieśń zna każdy.
    bo traktuje w sposób nostalgiczny i szczery o przyjaźni.

    Czas mija a ta pieśń trwa…co w niej takiego?

    Po prostu prawda…

    • Thank you for your comments, Grzegorz Pieńkowski. I wish I could reply in Polish. My grandfather came to America from Białystok!

  2. Za stare dobre czasy, mój drogi
    Za stare dobre czasy,
    Podnieśmy jeszcze kubek z dobrocią,
    Za stare dobre czasy….

  3. I am Scottish, born in Glencoe. I first experienced the linked-arms circle of Auld Lang Syne at the age of ten when it was sung at the end of a cousin’s wedding celebration.
    I think that who-why-when questions about origins of the song are largely irrelevant. Of greater importance is why it emerged as the world’s best loved song.
    It celebrates the coming together of people who ought to be friends and should put aside whatever may have divided them.
    In Scotland, it also has a very Scottish significance. It is an alternative to ending an event with the English National Anthem. English people are very welcome to join in, linking arms to forget the old rivalries and drink to and think of the good things that bond people together.
    It really is just a very nice song of friendship and forgiveness.

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