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Delving into Auld Lang Syne’s history

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By Fiona Reid
Delving into Auld Lang Syne’s history

THE first appearance of Auld Lang Syne has been studied by University of Glasgow academics

Written at Ellisland Farm near Dumfries, pictured, it is arguably one of Robert Burns’ most famous pieces – and it has become an anthem sung around the world at New Year.

But surprisingly the way it is known today is thanks to his second song editor, George Thomson, and not to the bard himself.

Now the relationship between Burns and Thomson is receiving its first detailed scrutiny by academics at the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.

In fourth volume of The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, due to be published in February, Professor Kirsteen McCue has looked at Burns’ songs for George Thomson.

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.”

But Professor McCue states that it was thanks to Thomson’s combining the Auld Lang Syne text with a different tune that we have ended up with the version known around the world today.

It’s also the first time, since their original publications, that the songs Burns produced for Thomson have been presented as they were seen by Thomson’s readership in the 18th century, as well as detailed notes and commentary.

The letters between the pair reveal what Burns thought of specific songs and tunes and even tell how he wrote a song.

They explain a great deal about why Burns’ passion for songs was so important to his artistic work, and why they took up so much of his time, especially when farming at Ellisland and then in Dumfries where he worked for the Excise in his final years.

Professor McCue added: “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.”

The Burns expert 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’.”

Thomson was an Edinburgh civil servant who was to be one of Burns’ major correspondents across the last four years of his life.

As Burns died so soon into the project, Thomson was left to publish most of his songs posthumously.