For Auld Lang Syne

For Auld Lang Syne

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In 1788, Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns set his poem to a traditional folk hymn. In the 250 years since, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has been traditionally sung at the conclusion of New Year gatherings around the world, especially in English-speaking countries.

Auld Lang Syne begins by asking whether it is right that old times be forgotten; it is a call to remember long-standing friendships. Deeply nostalgic in tone, it also evokes for those who know the tragedy of a Scotland cut adrift from her ancient Faith in the fires of the Reformation five long centuries ago.

It is fitting then that at the end of 2015, REGINA takes us on a sentimental journey through once-Catholic Scotland — for auld lange syne.

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?

 

The story of Scottish civilisation begins fifteen centuries ago, when a group of twelve Christian monks, led by St. Columba, set sail from Ireland to the wild coast of Scotland. The Ireland they were leaving behind was a land of civilisation, stability and safety. Scotland was foreign, hostile, unstable and dangerous.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, 

and old lang syne?

 

The monks were led by St Columba, a great man of letters, and a writer of hymns who is said to have transcribed over 300 books.

Domincan Nuns ad III

For auld lang syne, my dear, 

for auld lang syne

 

Columba died on Iona in 597 AD and was buried by his monks in the Abbey he had founded. It was his monks and the generations of religious after who civilized Scotland, eventually building great monasteries and centers of learning throughout the land.

We'll take a cup of kindness yet, 

for auld lang syne.

For 1500 years the Scottish Clans of MacCallum, Malcolm and Robertson have proudly traced their ancestry to the original followers of Columba and his monks – the earliest Christians in Scotland.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup

and surely I’ll buy mine!

 

Scotland was proudly and fiercely Catholic for a thousand years until David Beaton became the Cardinal at ancient St Andrews in the early 16th Century. Beaton lived ostentatiously with his mistress and their many children.

An arrogant, ambitious man, Beaton had a young student burnt at the stake in the university town, an act which galvanized John Knox, a Catholic priest who watched the horror.

Father John Knox then incited a mob which pillaged the magnificent St Andrew’s Cathedral. 

The violent, iconoclastic rioting eventually set off a religious conflagration that swept through Scotland.

And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet, 

for auld lang syne

 

Shortly after this, Cardinal David Beaton was murdered and his body hung outside the window of his castle by his bedclothes. (See more on this story here.)

Scotland’s monasteries were looted and almost completed destroyed, leaving gaunt ruins like this Augustinian convent in St Andrew’s.

We twa hae run about the braes, 

and pou’d the gowans fine

Today, the cardinal’s castle is a massive ruin on Scotland’s wind-swept eastern shore.

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, 

since auld lang syne

 

250 years after this, a child was born into a poor cottager’s family – the kind once supported by Scotland’s Catholic monasteries. Robert Burns would grow up to have a short, turbulent life.

We two have paddled in the stream, 

from morning sun till dine

 

By the time Burns wrote ‘Auld Lang Syne’ the Catholic Church’s moral hegemony had been wiped out — in fact, it was illegal to be a Catholic in Scotland.  Burns became a Mason, apparently in an attempt to find a place in a social network, and work.

But seas between us broad have roared 

since auld lang syne

 

Burns’ first child was born to his mother's servant, just as he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour, who herself  was pregnant with his twins.  Burns signed a paper attesting his marriage to Jean, but her father “was in the greatest distress, and fainted away”. They were eventually married and had nine children, only three of whom survived infancy.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend! 

And give me a hand o’ thine!

 

A couple of years later, Burns accepted a position as a bookkeeper on a slave plantation in Jamaica. He had fallen in love with a Mary Campbell and planned to abandon his family and emigrate to Jamaica with her. She died of a fever before this could happen. Burns never could raise the money for his dreamt-of passage to Jamaica, though he had several mistresses afterwards, and many children out of wedlock — none of whom he provided for.

And we’ll take a right good-will draught

On the morning of 21 July 1796, Burns died in Dumfries, at the age of 37. His funeral took place on the day that his last son Maxwell was born. His widow appealed for help to support his children through his literary friends, but financial support was many years in coming.

Through his 12 children, Burns has about 600 descendants alive today. Singing Burns’ song on New Year's Eve very quickly became a Scots custom that spread to other parts of the British Isles. As Scots, English, Welsh and Irish emigrated around the world, they took ‘For Auld Lang Syne’ with them.

For Auld Lang Syne

 

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