Origin of Auld Lang Syne?

Illustration to Robert Burns' poem Auld Lang Syne by J.M. Wright and Edward Scriven.

The words and music of Auld Lang Syne are of uncertain origin. The tune had been around for generations. It was already in vogue in the 1790s when Haydn arranged a classic variation on the theme:

Some of the words were also already in circulation decades before their first publication in 1796, in an anthology of traditional Scottish verse. Attribution went posthumously to Robert Burns.

This was misleading. Burns himself had not claimed authorship when he submitted Auld Lang Syne to the Scots Musical Museum in 1788.

“...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.”[8]

This ‘old man’ has never been identified. It seems likely that at least some of the words came from an older folk song published by James Watson in 1711. These lines seem, ahem, similar:

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon


The title of Auld Lang Syne is from the Scots language. The literal translation into English is Old long since, but ‘for old times sake’ is a more natural fit. 

The context is a social occasion to mark an imminent departure

The world’s best known New Year’s Eve song is not specifically about Hogmanay or any other a particular calendar date. Nor does it advocate linking arms or communal singing.

The Words

The first verse and chorus are sung across the world:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For days of auld lang syne