The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Robert Burns
and Auld Lang Syne

Biography of Robert Burns

Portrait of Robert BurnsRobert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland, was born in on 25 Jan 1759, in the tiny village of Alloway, Ayrshire, near to the town of Ayr on the West Coast of Scotland, the son of William Burnes, [1] an Ayrshire cottar. [2]

His father was a very poor man who in 1750 had moved to the area in search of work, which he found at Doonholm [3] market garden. He then obtained lease over a small area of farmland which he worked whilst continuing in his position as Head Gardener at Doonholm. He met and married Agnes Broun, [4] a local girl, described as a comely person, with red hair, bordering on yellow, and with ‘fine dark eyes, which she left, along with a poetic temperament, as a legacy to her son. She had been taught to read, but not to write. Her memory was stored with old ballads and songs, which she sang uncommonly well. She was of exceedingly active habits, of a cheerful disposition—a helpmeet to her husband and a kind mother to her children.

William built a small, two-room thatched cottage at the farm. The cottage, now renamed "Burns Cottage", still stands to this day and is a key focal point for Burnsians, tourists and visitors from all over the world.

Robert Burns (often now referred to as "Rabbie") was born in this cottage, the eldest son of seven children to be born to William and Agnes. Life was extremely harsh and the farm was not succeeding. Even as a small child he was to work long hours with his father, and many evenings were spent huddled round the fire listening to his father reading from the Bible, his mother's songs stories, and the ballads and stories of an old woman, Betty Davidson, a relative of the family..

The little cottage was twice extended to accommodate a growing family, (eventually 4 boys & 3 girls) but in 1765 William Burnes leased a farm at nearby Mount Oliphant.

William Burnes had the traditional Scottish respect for the importance of education for his children, and together with other neighbors, contracted the services of a local teacher, John Murdoch. At an early age, it was apparent to Murdoch that the young Robert showed the potential of a gifted scholar. After Murdoch moved on, Robert continued his education under the direction of his father, and later at nearby schools and tutors. [5]

For Robert, the combination of poverty, hard work on the farm, story telling, the influence of the Kirk, [6] his studies, and a tremendous ability to observe life in general, was the making of The Man. He would develop a wicked sense of humor, a controversial frankness decrying hypocrisy, a tender and thoughtful creativity, an alleged thirst for drink, a deep Nationalist pride in his beloved Scotland, and an insatiable passion for women.

He was a driven lad who would constantly read, particularly the poetical works and novels of the time. Influenced and deeply motivated, he had been writing creatively since an early age, with his first piece, "My Handsome Nell", (a poem about his first love, a girl called Nellie and the first indication of his eye for women) having been written when he was only 15.

Once I lov'd a bonie lass,
Ay, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I'll love my handsome Nell.
As bonie lasses I hae seen,
And mony full as braw;
But, for a modest gracefu' mein,
The like I never saw.
A bonie lass, I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e'e;
But, without some better qualities,
She's no a lass for me.
But Nelly's looks are blythe and sweet,
And what is best of a',
Her reputation is complete,
And fair without a flaw.
She dresses aye sae clean and neat,
Both decent and genteel;
And then there's something in her gait
Gars ony dress look weel.
A gaudy dress and gentle air
May slightly touch the heart;
But it's innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart.
'Tis this in Nelly pleases me,
'Tis this enchants my soul;
For absolutely in my breast
She reigns without control.

Later, in 1777, the family moved a few miles to Lochlie [7] farm near Tarbolton. For a time, Robert unsuccessfully pursued the trade of flax-dressing in the nearby town of Irvine. He returned to the family home in early 1782, after his flax shop burned to the ground.

After his father died in February, 1784, Robert and his brother Gilbert rented a farm at Mossgiel. However, Robert was more interested in the romantic nature of poetry than the arduous craft of ploughing. Between 1784 and 1788, while farming, he wrote much of his best poetry, including "Halloween", "The Cotter's Saturday Night" and the skilful satires "Death and Dr Hornbrook" and "Holy Willie's Prayer". Not coincidently, he met Jean Armour shortly after he moved to Mossgiel; would be twice his lover – becoming pregnant with twins on both occasions – and later his wife.

In Scottish poetry he achieved triumphs of a quite extraordinary kind. Since the time of the Reformation and the union of the crowns of England and Scotland, the Scots dialect had largely fallen into disuse as a medium for dignified writing. While Burns was acquainted with the work of his Scottish predecessors – Barbour and Blind Harry, Dunbar, Henrysoln and Lyndsay, the Makars of the 14th to the 16th Century – it was the work of the poets of the 18th Century Scots Revival, notably Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, which most strongly influenced him technically. He reached maturity when the verse forms and colloquial temper of the Ramsey-Furgusson school were both to hand and already popular. He established himself as a poet to be reckoned with just before the old agrarian way of life of Scotland, which had lasted more or less unchanged since medieval times, began to recede before the double pressure of the Industrial Revolution and the advance of "Englishry." Thus, before it was too late, Burns in his poetry caught and fixed the old Scotland for all time.

By 1788, Mossgiel was becoming a losing concern. And by this time, Burns had had love affairs with numerous women (resulting in several illegitimate children). The parents of Jean Armour were calling upon him to give security for the maintenance of his children by Jean, which, due to poverty, he was unable to do. In frustration, he planned to escape to the safer, sunnier climes of the West Indies (hopefully, with "Highland" Mary Campbell [8]). However, at the point of abandoning Scotland, his first collection "Poems- Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect - Kilmarnock Edition" (a set of poems essentially based on a broken love affair), was published in July, 1786.

The simple unbound book, covered in unassuming "plain blue wrappers" (which was limited to only 612 copies) was to reach the Socialites of Edinburgh, where it was met with curious wonder. Not only were the literati astounded at the quality of the work, they could not perceive that an apparently ignorant farmer could write in such a manner. The publication received much critical acclaim. [9] In a matter of weeks he was transformed from local hero to a national celebrity, fussed over by the Edinburgh literati of the day.

It was in Edinburgh in 1786 that Burns met the engraver James Johnson, then planning to publish his Scots Musical Museum as a permanent repository for Scots folk song. Fortunately Johnson invited Burns's aid. Burns soon became virtually editor of the Museum, and during the last ten years of his life, 'Tam o' Shanter' (1791) apart, he poured much his rich genius into songwriting and song-repairing prepared for him by Johnson – publishing 160 of his songs – and starting in 1792, by another editor, George Thomson, with his Select Scottish Airs, who would ultimately publish 114 of Burns’ songs.

The second edition of "Poems", published by William Creech in 1787, brought him some slight financial security. [10] This, together with pride of parenthood, made him stay in Scotland. He was able to assist his brother Gilbert survive a financial difficulty at Mossgiel, and in 1788, he took a long-term lease of a farm called Ellisland. Jean Armour's father finally allowed her to marry Burns – now that he was no longer a lowly wordsmith, but was the 'ploughman poet'. The couple settled to a hard life in Ellisland with their four children, and to supplement their meager income, Burns took a job as an excise man. Burns also concentrated on songwriting, making substantial contributions to James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, including "Auld Lang Syne" (1788) and "A Red, Red Rose". In 1790, Johnson published the third volume of Scottish Musical Museum, with a preface by Burns.

Regrettably, Robert inherited his father’s success at farming, and abandoned the venture in 1791, moving the family to Dumfries in the South of Scotland where he would continue in his profession as an excise man. There, he continued his writing of songs – both for Johnson [11] and now for Thomson [12] – together with his habits of drinking and philandering. [13]

The real national importance of Burns is due chiefly to his songs. The Puritan austerity of the centuries following the Reformation had discouraged secular music, like other forms of art, in Scotland; and as a result Scottish song had become hopelessly degraded in point both of decency and literary quality. From youth Burns had been interested in collecting the fragments he had heard sung or found printed, and he came to regard the rescuing of this almost lost national inheritance in the light of a vocation. About his song-making, two points are especially noteworthy: first, that the greater number of his lyrics sprang from actual emotional experiences; second, that almost all were composed to old melodies. While supplying material to Johnson and, as few of the traditional songs could appear in a respectable collection, Burns found it necessary to make them over. Sometimes he kept a stanza or two; sometimes only a line or chorus; sometimes merely the name of the air; the rest was his own.

His method, as he has told us himself, was to become familiar with the traditional melody, to catch a suggestion from some fragment of the old song, to fix upon an idea or situation for the new poem; then, humming or whistling the tune as he went about his work, he wrought out the new verses, going into the house to write them down when the inspiration began to flag. In this process is to be found the explanation of much of the peculiar quality of the songs of Burns. Scarcely any known author has succeeded so brilliantly in combining his work with folk material, or in carrying on with such continuity of spirit the tradition of popular song.

In spite of the fact that he was constantly in severe financial straits, he refused to accept any recompense for this work, preferring to regard it as a patriotic service. And it was, indeed, a patriotic service of no small magnitude.

On 21st July 1796, at the age of 37, he died at Dumfries, his health undermined by rheumatic fever. [14] His burial on July 26th occurred on the same day as his wife Jean gave birth to their last son, Maxwell. Burns, a member of the Dumfries Volunteers – a local militia – was buried with military honors by members of the Volunteers together with members of his parent unit, the Fencib’e Infantry of Augusshire, and the regiment of cavalry of the Cinque Ports. His hat and his sword were laid upon his coffin. On the day of his burial more than 10,000 people came to watch and pay their respects. Jean Burns lived in Dumfries, well respected, until March, 1834, when she died and was buried beside her husband.

To balance this "traditional" information on Burns it should be pointed out that, as well as being quite the poet, Burns was also a sexist, philandering womanizer, who sired multiple illegitimate children. It is also perhaps true to say that Burns had the same casual relationship with his music as he did with many of his women. Burns is often hailed as the champion of Scots but he was broader than that and drew extensively on Highland music too, perhaps through his relationship with "Highland" Mary Campbell. During his lifetime, he wrote 368 songs, preserving the Scottish traditions. [15]

It is recorded at that time that many groups of his friends, associates and "fans" would form societies, memorial groups, and of course "Burns Clubs" to preserve and promote his memory through celebration of his life and work. This first recorded Burns celebration was held in July 1801 on the anniversary of his death. Later this would change to the evening of the anniversary of his birth – January 25th – and would become "Burns Night" with the focal point being the "Burns Supper" These "Burns Clubs" were the origins of the Celebration of Burns as seen today; the Greenock Burns Club, instituted 1802, claims to be the oldest Burns club in existence. Similarly, Robert Burns would now be celebrated on St. Andrews Day, and at any other social occasion in the Calendar, for those with a link to Scottish Heritage. Burns night has even been commemorated in the Kremlin.

Burns suppers consist of having a meal of tatties (mashed potatoes), neeps (turnips) and haggis. There is usually quite a bit of whisky drunk at these occasions too, particularly as Burns was a well known drinker. Usually a bloke makes a speech remembering Burns and how his thoughts and poems are timeless and as relevant today as they were when they were written. Then there's a "reply from the lassies" where it's usual to point out the other side of Burns and how he left many women broken hearted. Well, that's the general idea anyway, there's lots of variations. Some of the features of Burns Suppers are rather inauthentic: the kilts/tartans worn are really the garb of the Gael, and the Great Pipe is the Gael's instrument. Burns himself wasn't a Gael, and would have been more acquainted with breiks and the fiddle. Besides, the pipes had been banned in the years 1747 to 1782 and Burns was around between 1759 and 1796. For more information on Burns Suppers, see The Scottish Tourist Board Website.

One of Burns’ better known works is Address to a Haggis. This poem is often recited at Burns Suppers, St. Andrews Nights or Caledonian Society events, where that most famous of Scottish delicacies "Haggis" is on the menu. Burns thought so highly of the meal that he felt compelled to write of it. Here he describes its popularity and stature as the greatest of foods, drawing comparison with other dishes & foreign servings. He suggests that the Scot who eats Haggis draws great strength from it, setting him above other men.

Background of Auld Lang Syne

Even in Scotland, hardly a gathering sings it correctly, without some members of the party introducing the spurious line: 'We'll meet again some ither nicht' for the line which Burns actually wrote: 'And we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet'. To say nothing of adding 'the days of' to the line 'For auld lang syne'!

On 17th December 1788, [16] Burns said in a letter to Mrs. Frances Anna Dunlop:

'Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these 'social offsprings of the hear'. Two veterans of the 'men of the world' would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet... 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 in it than in half a dozen of modern English Bacchanalians.' [17]

The song 'on the other sheet' was Burns's first version of 'Auld Lang Syne'.

With slight changes, the poet sent a copy of the song to James Johnson, [18] who delayed publishing it, possibly because the air [19] to which it went had already appeared in the Museum with words by Allan Ramsay, [20] beginning: 'Should auld acquaintance be forgot.' [21] But Johnson changed his mind and put the song into the fifth volume of the Museum, which appeared in 1796, about six months after Burns's death; there is evidence in Burns's letters to suggest he had seen in proof stage. The tune to which it was matched in the Museum first appeared in Playford's Original Scotch Tunes, 1700, though doubtless it was then at least half a century old, for it was the tune to which the antecedents of Burns's poem were written.

The 'exceedingly expressive' germphrase has been traced back to an anonymous ballad in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, 'Auld Kyndnes foryett'. The last of the eight stanzas goes:

"They wald me hals with hude and hatt,
Quhyle I wes rich and had anewch,
About me friends anew I gatt,
Rycht blythlie on me they lewch;
But now they mak it wondir tewch,
And lattis me stand befoir the yett;
Thairfoir this warld is very frewch,
And auld kyndnes is quyt foryett."

From that anonymous old poet's complaint of man's ingratitude, we move on to a slightly later ballad, probably by the courtly poet Sir Robert Ayton (1570-1638) who accompanied James VI and I to England, though sometimes attributed on little evidence to Francis Sempill of Beltrees (d. 1683?). First published in Watson's Choice Collection of Scots Poems, 1711, the anthology upon which the whole of the 18th Century Scots Revival was based, Ayton's poem begins:

"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?

Chronologically, the next reference is a prose one: to a scurrilous work, Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display'd published in London in 1694. The author quotes a sermon: 'Did you ever hear tell of a good God and a cappet [pettish] prophet, Sirs? The good God said, Jonah, now billy Jonah, wilt thou go to Ninevah, for Auld lang syne? [old kindness].'

Henley and Henderson refer to a street song, dating from the end of the 17th Century, which had the refrain:

"On old long syne.
On old long syne, my jo,
On old long syne:
That thou canst never once reflect
On old long syne."

This, attributed to Francis Sempill, appeared in Watson's Choice Collection, but clearly derives from Ayton.

The song which Allan Ramsay wrote to the tune, printed with his words in the Museum, was published in Ramsay’s Scots Songs, 1720. The first eight lines establish the connection, and at the same time demonstrate that the poem represents Ramsay at his least inspired:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Tho' they return with scars?
These are the noble hero's lot,
Obtain'd in glorious wars:
Welcome, my Varo, to my breast,
Thy arms about me twine.
And make me once again as blest,
As I was lang syne."

At least two other political ballads of the period exist which exhibit turns of phrase, the echo of which sounds in Burns's version: and in 'The Old Minister's Song', 'Tullochgorum' Skinner came nearer than most:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Or friendship e'er grow cauld?
Should we nae tighter draw the knot
Aye as we're growing auld?
How comes it, then, my worthy friend,
Wha used to be sae kin',
We dinna for ilk ither spier
As we did lang syne?"

Was Burns, in fact, aware of these older poems? Almost certainly he was. As noted above, Burns was acquainted with the works of his Scottish predecessors – Barbour and Blind Harry, Dunbar, Henrysoln and Lyndsay, the Makars of the 14th to the 16th Century, and the principals in the 18th Century Scots Revival, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson.

Robert H. Cromek – who in 1808 published Reliques of Burns, consisting of Original Letters, Poems and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs -- alleged evidence that the two best stanzas were by Burns. William Stenhouse, the editor of an early 19th Century reissue of the Museum, stated that Burns admitted to Johnson that only three stanzas were old, the other two being written by himself. George Thomson was certainly suspicious of the supposed old originals. In September 1793, Burns forwarded Thomson the third known manuscript of the song, with some minor changes, the most important of which is the substitution of 'my dear' for 'my jo' in the chorus. In the accompanying letter Burns remarked: 'One song more, and I have done, 'Auld lang syne'. The air is but mediocre; but the following song - the 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's singing - is enough to recommend any air.'

Some time later, after Thomson had discovered from Stephen Clarke [22] that Johnson had a copy of 'Auld Lang Syne' and had noticed that the air was already in the Museum to Allan Ramsay's words, he must have written to Burns, who replied in November 1794: 'The two songs you saw in Clarke's are neither of them worth your attention. The words of 'Auld lang syne are good, but the music is an old air, the rudiments of the modern tune of that name. The other tune you may hear as a common Scots country dance.'

What was 'the other tune'? Probably the tune which we know today, and to which Thomson published the words in Scottish Airs, 1799, claiming them to be 'From an old MS. In the editor's possession'. It first appears as 'The Duke of Buccleugh's Tune" in Appollo's Banquet, 1690, though this may be just another interesting example of melodic coincidence. Its 'common Scots country dance' version appeared first in Bremner's Collection of Scots Reels, 1759, under the title 'The Miller's Wedding' and in Cumming's Strathspeys, 1780, as well as in McGlashan's Strathspey Reels, also published in 1780, in which it was called 'The Miller's Daugher." It also appeared in at least five other publications within the next thirty years and was used twice to different words in the Museum. It is also closely related to the melodies of 'O Can you labor lea' and 'Coming thro' the rye.'

The modern tune was composed by William Shield for his ballad-opera Rosina on December 31, 1782.  Shield was born at Durham in 1748 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1829. He wrote the music to 35 operas, operettas, dramas and pantomimes. A writer in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle in December, 1891, wrote:

I have been privileged to read the correspondence between Dr. Bruce and Mr. Chappel, the learned author of Popular Music in the Olden Times, on this subject, and I am firmly convinced that the opinion of both Dr. Bruce and Mr. Chappel is fully borne out by historical facts, that the air of "Auld Lang syne" was first published in the opera composed by Shield.



Elson, Louis C. ed., Modern Music and Musicians, Part Two: Encyclopedia (New York: The University Society, 1912)

"The Life of Robert Burns" by Rev. George Gilfillan (1886), reproduced as the Life of Burns at Electric Scotland

"The Official Robert Burns Website" for an article on Robert Burns and an article on auld lang syne

The Douglas Clark Home Page, University of Bath, for an article on auld lang syne [Pages have disappeared]

Scottish Music Website for article (1) and article (2)

The contents of this web site appear to be mirrored at The Silicon Glen (1) and The Silicon Glen (2)

The World Burns Club for articles on Robert Burns, auld lang syne (1) and auld lang syne (2)

The Bard of Scotland

The Works of Robert Burns

The Bard: Your Complete Guide


1. Note the original spelling, pronounced Burn-iss & later changed by Robert Burns himself.

2. A cottar is a Scots word for a tenant occupying a cottage with or (from the late 18th century) without land attached to it or a married farm worker who has a cottage as part of his contract. The word dates from the 15th century.

3. Pronounced Doon-Home

4. Pronounced Broon, the old Scots for Brown.

5. Murdoch returned briefly to the area, and then moved to London where he became a private teacher of French and wrote books on the French language. Even in far away London, Murdoch heard of the fame of his former pupil. Murdoch died in 1824, aged 77, having survived his pupil by 28 years.

6. The Church, specifically, the strictly Calvinist Presbyterian Church of Scotland, one of the most conservative of Protestant churches.

7. Pronounced Lochlee.

8. His entanglement with 'Highland' Mary Campbell, whom he invited — in verse — to flee with him to Jamaica — that unsavory haven of 18th Century Scots in trouble! — ended with her death at Greenock in 1786; she became sick while nursing her brother, Robert, and died. She was described as spritely and blue-eyed, very sweet and artless. Before her death, she and Burns were secretly engaged.

9. Burns would net a total of ₤20 profit.

10. This publication referred to as the Edinburgh Edition. Burns netted ₤500 for this edition.

11. Johnson published the fourth volume of Musical Museum in August, 1792.

12. Beginning in 1792. In June 1793, Thomson brought out the first part of his Select Scottish Airs. It contained the twenty-five songs originally promised by Burns.

13. Rev. Gilfillian reports that in 1792, a young woman, residing with her sister, Mrs. Hyslop of the Globe Tavern, bore Burns a daughter. Some suppose that it was while Mrs. Burns was in Ayrshire visiting her friends that this unhappy affair occurred. Everybody remembers that Jean took home the child, laid her in a cradle beside her own infant, and when her father, who visited her, asked in astonishment if she again had twins, answered "It’s a neebor’s bairn who is unwell," and brought up the child as her own.

14. A letter from John Lewars to Mrs. Frances Anna Dunlop, written just after Burns's death confirms Currie's statement that almost the last line the poet was able to read on his death bed was a reconcilatory message from her. Burns had previously offended Mrs. Dunlop, with whom he had enjoyed a long correspondance. His last letter was to his father-in-law, with whom he had never fully reconciled.

15. Of these, Johnson printed 160, and Thomson printed 114, for a total of 274 of his total publication of 368 songs.

16. Other sources give a date of 7th December 1788.

17. In this statement, Robert Burns was confirming that someone else had written this marvelous piece, albeit that the original words had been lost. His reference to "Light be the turf" means the turf lying upon the writers grave. The "glorious fragment" confirms that Burns had taken the only known verses and added to them. His praise of the unknown writers talent demonstrates Burns great admiration for the words …" ..the fire of native genius…"

18. James Johnson, (c. 1750 — 1811), publisher of Scots Musical Museum (known herein as SMM or Museum), which published 160 of the songs of Robert Burns.

19. The tune can be found in The Digital Tradition and at, and his reproduced in the following pages, together with the "newer" tune.

20. Scottish poet, 1686-1758.

21. To a different tune set to a love song – "Can Ye Labour Lea" – rather than the original song of parting.

22. Clarke was an Edinburgh musician and music teacher whom James Johnson had brought in to harmonize the airs for his Scots Musical Museum. In 1787, when Burns became involved in the project, Clarke was organist of the Episcopal Chapel in the Cowgate, Edinburgh.



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