Auld Lang Syne

Alexander Reid’s miniature miniature watercolor portrait of Robert Burns was completed during the last eighteen months of his life when Burns was working as an excise officer in Dumfries, Scotland. According to the poet, this was ‘the best likeness’ of him ever to be made.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) is the poet laureate of Scotland. In a hazy, double-malted stupor, some careen through the words to one of his most famous poems Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay in Scotland). In 1788 Robert Burns submitted the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to the Scots Musical Museum, indicating that it was an ancient song but that he’d been the first to record it on paper. It was not published until 1796 shortly after Burns’ death.

The lyrics are in the Scots language. Roughly translated from old Scots, auld lang syne means “a long time ago” or “for old time’s sake.” The beloved song asks the rhetorical question, “Is it right that old times and friends not be forgotten?” and reminds us of the value of old friendships and family.

Burns collected and wrote hundreds of poems and songs. He was born two miles south of the town of Ayr along the Irish Sea north of the Rhinns of Galloway. After a life as a rambling poet, he eventually settled in Dumphries about 30 miles northeast of the McCulloch lands at the Gatehouse of Fleet. When living in Edinburgh, Burns made a lasting impression on the young author Walter Scott. Scott went on to become one of Scotland’s greatest writers, author of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy and many other novels. He, like Burns, collected the old stories of the Dumfries and Galloway region of southwestern Scotland.

David McCulloch (1740-1794) of Ardwall was friendly with Robert Burns and even submitted some of his poems to the bard. But it was his son, David (1769-1825) who became a close friend of Burns. David met Robert Burns in 1794 when he was admitted as a member of St. Andrew’s Masonic Lodge in Dumfries. McCulloch and Burns became friends immediately brought together by a great love for Scottish songs. McCulloch had a fine tenor voice and assisted Burns in singing his new lyrics. It was said that Robert Burns did not venture to publish a new song unless he heard it sung by McCulloch. The bard more than once said that he never fully knew the beauty of his songs until he heard them sung by David McCulloch.

McCulloch was raised at Ardwall estate in the shadows of the Cardoness Castle. He asked Burns to visit him if he were ever in the area. Burns promised that he would get in touch, and he did. This letter is in the British Museum: To David McCulloch Esqr., Ardwell, Gatehouse, My dear Sir, My long projected journey through your country is at last fixed; and on Wednesday next, if you have nothing of more importance than take a saunter down to Gatehouse about two or three o’clock, I shall be happy to take a draught of McKune’s best with you… Burns went on to invite young David to accompany him on a trip throughout Galloway to help support him when he approached “our Honourables and Right Honourables.” Burns gradually realized that on any social occasion he was in need of “minders” or friends that might stand by him. Also around this time Burns entered a period of depression. Burns was fond of drink and women and perhaps needed a McCulloch to keep him in line!

Sir Walter Scott’s brother married David McCulloch’s sister, Elizabeth. Scott also became acquainted with David who became a favorite at his home at Abbotsford. Scott considered him “the finest warbler he had ever heard.” A confirmed bachelor, David McCulloch never married. After Burns’ death he went to India to become a merchant.

We’ve been through a lot in 2020, and many of us have lost loved ones to the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps you will want to bring in 2021 with all of the verses of Auld Lang Syne:

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-stowp! 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 pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot, Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d i’ the burn, Frae mornin’ sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d, Sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere! And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right guid willy waught, For auld lang syne.

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