Auld Lang Syne lyrics: history and meaning of the Robert Burns song and why we sing it on New Year’s Eve

If you've ever clasped hands with strangers on a dance floor to belt out Auld Lang Syne at the start of a New Year, you might have wondered where the song comes from.

From Times Square to Tokyo, the sound of Auld Lang Syne rings in the New Year around the world.
From Times Square to Tokyo, the sound of Auld Lang Syne rings in the New Year around the world.

Like many festive traditions the origins of Auld Lang Syne – that traditional Scottish song that people around the world sing at weddings, ceilidhs, Burns' Night celebrations and to greet the arrival of a New Year - have been lost in time.

Here's everything you need to know about what is arguably Scotland's most famous song.

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From its humble roots as a Scottish folk song, Auld Lang Syne has travelled the world. Picture: Shutterstock

Who wrote Auld Lang Syne and when was it written?

Auld Lang Syne was of course written by Scotland’s favourite scribe, Robert Burns. It was originally penned in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song.

Beethoven wrote an arrangement of the song as part of his 12 Scottish Folksongs from 1814, and in 1999 Cliff Richard used the melody for his single, 'Millennium Prayer' in which he sang the words of The Lord's Prayer over the tune of Auld Lang Syne.

Interestingly, Burns takes credit more for collecting it than composing it. The note attached to the poem when he sent it to the Scots Musical Museum read “The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man."

Burns’ version has been found to show remarkable similarity to “Old Long Syne" which was written in 1711 by James Watson, and it is thought that the two must be derived from the same song.

What do the lyrics mean?

The full, original lyrics are as follows:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,and never brought to mind?Should auld acquaintance be forgot,and auld lang syne*?

For auld lang syne, my jo,for auld lang syne,we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,for auld lang syne.

And surely ye'll be your pint-stoup!and surely I'll be mine!And we'll tak' a cup o’ kindness yet,for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,and pou'd the gowans fine;But we've wander'd mony a weary fit,sin' auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl'd in the burn,frae morning sun till dine;But seas between us braid hae roar'dsin' auld lang syne.

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!and gie's a hand o' thine!And we'll tak' a right gude-willie waught,for auld lang syne.

The term “Auld Lang Syne” translates literally as “old long since”, perhaps better read as “long, long ago” or “in days gone by”.

The song repeatedly asks whether old times should be forgotten and implores us to keep old friendships in mind.

Why do we sing it at New Year’s Eve?

The tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne at the stroke of Midnight as New Year's Eve becomes New Year's Day began in Scotland soon after Burns’ song was printed. From there, it spread across the rest of the British Isles.

Given how reflective the song is in nature, it makes perfect sense to sing it as we say goodbye to one year and look towards the next.

As the British then emigrated around the world, they took the song and the New Year tradition with them.

In particular, the mass immigration from Scotland to the United States and Canada is credited with much of the song’s spread.