How the forgotten middle verses of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ reveal its deeper meaning on memory and gratitude

As is so often the case with old songs, the middle verses bear the greater load of meaningful content (and are also, incidentally, the first forgotten.)

As I returned to my favorite holiday traditions over the last couple weeks, I fell again under the spell of “Auld Lang Syne.” It has always seemed to me a perfect song, with words and melody bound together so tightly as to be inextricable, like soul and body.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?”

The phrase from which the song draws its title, preserved in the lyrics’ original Scots language, is often translated as “long, long ago” or “old long since.” I completely approve of those who left the phrase “auld lang syne” untampered in the modern English version. The wooden translations do violence to the phrase. Even at the phonetic level, the Scots “auld lang syne” seems to carry a vernacular charm, rolling off the tongue like fog from the highlands.

How can we celebrate “picking daisies fine” alongside wearisome wandering, or raise a glass to paddling streams together alongside our estrangement across broad seas?

For anyone who thinks “Auld Lang Syne” was written specifically for the final cathartic minutes of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” however, these translations do provide a helpful entry point for understanding the song’s history and legacy.

Composed by the poet Robert Burns in the second half of the 18th century, the song rapidly gained popularity across the English speaking lands. It eventually took its place among standard New Year’s Eve festivities, encouraging eager party-goers to reflect upon the year coming to a close before celebrating the year to come.

The song goes on:

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Kathleen Ferrier – Ca` the Yowes

There are traditional songs that can restore to me a sense of  centeredness, calm – even gratefulness in stressful times such as these. The Scottish traditional song  Ca` the Yowes is one of these. The words are by Rabbie Burns. The voice belongs to the legendary Kathleen Ferrier.

1789 lyrics Robert Burns
Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them where the heather grows
Ca’ them where the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie.

Hark! the mavis’ evening sang
Sounding Cluden’s woods amang,
Then a-fauldin let us gang,
My bonie dearie.

We’ll gae down by Cluden side,
Thro’ the hazels spreading wide,
O’er the waves that sweetly glide
To the moon sae clearly.

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die—but canna part,
My bonie dearie.

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them where the heather grows
Ca’ them where the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie.

Kathleen Ferrier

“The greatest thing in music in my life has been to know Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.” That’s what the conductor Bruno Walter wrote after Ferrier’s death from breast cancer in 1953, at the age of just 41.

[Wikipedia] Kathleen Mary Ferrier was an English contralto singer who achieved an international reputation as a stage, concert and recording artist, with a repertoire extending from folksong and popular ballads to the classical works of Bach, Brahms, Mahler and Elgar.

Her death from cancer, at the height of her fame, was a shock to the musical world and particularly to the general public, which was kept in ignorance of the nature of her illness until after her death.

Robert Burns: Scots Are Right to Revere Their National Poet

The Scots are right to revere their national poet.

It was bizarre. The deafening bagpipes ceased as an actor — wasn’t he in Braveheart? — began frantically stabbing what looked like a pillow encased in plastic. Its gray gut spilled out, and the thespian, dressed in a tartan skirt and woolly socks, made terrifying noises, very occasionally spitting out a phrase or two in English (something about “gushing entrails”). As if this weren’t unnerving enough, the stage prop — a “haggis” — turned out to be edible: dinner, in fact, served alongside mushed turnips and mashed potatoes. . . . This is how I imagined the uninitiated to be experiencing the evening.

Complete with complimentary glasses of Aberlour whisky (too much of the honey-colored one and you’ll knock yourself out), a live cèilidh band, and — yes — the guy from Braveheart, Burns Night at the Harvard Club was just one of countless suppers happening around the world to commemorate the life and work of Scotland’s national poet. To nonnatives, perhaps it seems ridiculous, but it’s not.

Robert Burns was born on January 25, 1759, in Ayrshire and died in 1796 in Dumfries. He was the son of a farmer, and his formal education was limited. He grew up reading Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden and listening to Scottish folklore. A Romantic and a revolutionary, Burns won many enemies as well as friends in his lifetime. His poetry exhibited extraordinary range and depth, from biting political satire to the heartfelt sincerity of country folk.

For anyone growing up in Scotland, it’s impossible to avoid Burns. At elementary school, there were yearly competitions for those able to memorize his poems and sing his tunes by heart. And in the English department at the University of St Andrews, I studied under the tutelage of his biographer Robert Crawford. Which is why it seems to me as though one evening a year of Burns only scratches the surface.

As with all Scots, Burns’s sensibilities were informed by the landscapes he grew up in. He was a Romantic, so he revered the natural world. He was also extremely class-conscious, always siding with the underdog. This is evident even in his rustic and rural poems. Like To a Mouse (more on that here), written in the Scots dialect in which a ploughman who accidentally turns up a mouse’s nest experiences pity for the “wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,” prompting him to contemplate “nature’s social union,” i.e., mortality:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
[Emphasis added]

(American readers will of course recognize the emphasized lines from John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name.)

Burns was a songwriter as well as a poet. Which is hardly surprising given the innate lyricism of his verses. His “Auld Lang Syne” is the most sung song in the English language other than “Happy Birthday.” In the years before his death, he collected and wrote the lyrics to traditional Scottish airs, many of which can be found in two collections: Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum (1787–1803) and the first five volumes of Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice (1793–1818). My personal favorite is A Red, Red Rose.”

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.

This also happens to be the favorite of Bob Dylan, who cited the poem as having had the greatest influence of any work on his own songwriting. Though he wrote well about love, Burns himself was a cruel and faithless lover. So much so that in recent years he’s come under (anachronistic) fire from the Me Too movement.

Burns was a deeply political thinker. His “Scots Wha Hae” [Scots Who Have] served as Scotland’s unofficial national anthem for years and stands as a defiant statement against English tyranny. After William Wallace led the Scots to an incredible victory at the battle of Stirling Bridge, he was eventually captured and excruciatingly executed. The king of England, Edward I, then abolished the kingdom of Scotland in 1305. But the Scots had other ideas. Undeterred, they crowned Robert Bruce king of Scotland in 1307, who then led them into the battle of Bannockburn:

By oppression’s woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!—
Let us do or die!

Burns initially sent the song to his publisher, George Thomas, at the end of August 1793, with the title “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn,” and attributing it to Bruce’s “glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing ideas of some other struggles of the same nature, not quite so ancient.” This is thought by interpreters to be a covert expression of his sympathies for the French Revolution.

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Out of Doors – A Robert Burns Special

Mark Stephen and Euan McIlwraith with a tribute to our national bard.

Euan and Mark speak to Des Thompson, one of the specialist advisors to the Grouse Moor Review Group about the group’s report and what the licensing of grouse moors might practically involve.

As we gear up to the opening of the River Dee for salmon fishing Euan hears about plans for the celebrations to mark the event. What we plant in our gardens can impact the wildlife that makes its home.

Euan finds out about the types of wildflowers we should be growing to encourage insects and birdlife. And as Saturday marks Burns Night Mark and Euan investigate what goes in to making the ‘Great chieftain o the puddin’-race’ with Dumfries butcher Stuart Houston.

And after 7 o’clock we focus entirely on Robert Burns and in particularly his time in the Dumfries area. In 1788 Burns moved to Ellisland Farm and built a house that he stayed in until 1791.

Mark and Euan take a look around and hear about what Ellisland would have been like in Burns’ day and which of his poems and songs were composed there. Burns was keen on nature and wrote a lot about the wildlife he encountered while farming at Ellisland.

Chris Rollie is an ornithologist, conservationist and Burns enthusiast who tells us all about Burns and his connection with nature.

The Globe Inn in Dumfries was a favourite haunt of Burns during his time at Ellisland and afterwards when he moved to the town. Mark and Euan get a tour from former landlady Maureen McKerrow whose family have a long connection with the pub.

And we end our programme at the Burns mausoleum in Dumfries, the resting place of the poet and his wife Jean Armour

Listen to this program at BBC Scotland: Out of Doors – A Robert Burns Special – BBC Sounds