Robert Burns: Scottish Bard never heard Auld Lang Syne as we know it

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The Bard of Ayrshire never heard the version of Auld Lang Syne that we all know today, according to academics at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies. 

The lyrics of the anthem, written by Burns, were combined with a different tune by George Thomson, Burns’ song editor, three years after the poet’s death.

The song, one of the Ploughman Poet’s most identifiable works, is sung across the globe on New Year’s Eve and has been covered many times.

 Robert Burns: The life and loves of Scotland’s bard

Professor Kirsteen McCue, co-director of the Centre, looks at the relationship between Thomson and Burns in the fourth volume of The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, which will be published on February 18.

She said: “Burns’ relationship with his second song editor, Thomson, was a stormy one, and Thomson is seen as a ‘bad boy’ in the Burns story.

“Thomson is accused of changing Burns’ texts and choosing different tunes for Burns’ songs, after the poet’s death in 1796 and of making lots of money from the proceeds, after having failed to pay Burns for all his work.

“Burns, in fact, often mixed and matched songs and tunes himself and he forcefully refused to accept payment from Thomson. But the battle against Thomson has raged to this day.”

Once the National Bard died, Thomson put many of Burns’ lyrics to contemporary music, including that of influential composers Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven.

He also became central to the memorialisation of Burns, helping with the erection of the Edinburgh Statue, assisting in the first major edition of the poet’s life and works, while appearing at early Burns suppers.

 More ways to enjoy Burns night at home

Professor McCue said: “In 1799, just three years after Burns’ death, Thomson combined the text of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ that Burns sent to him with a different tune.

“He was inspired by Burns’s discussion of the song to seek a new tune, and the one he chose has ended up being the one we all now sing as the global song of parting and which we’ll all be singing across Burns’ birthday again in 2021.”

She added: “Burns would most probably have approved of this new tune for ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as it was very similar to a tune for another of his songs ‘O can ye labour lea’.”

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