Robert Burns on memory

Surrounded by All Things 2.0, I’m still inclined to looking backward, since the past is where I’ve spent most of my time.  For the new year, I think instead of resolutions, I’ll go for actions.  Here’s a first one: a decoder ring for Robert Burns’ most famous song.

Why decode?  Well, the lyrics are in Scots–a language or dialect* of Lowland Scotland, as distinct from the Gaelic (Gaidhlig) of the Highlands.

* “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
— Max Weinrich

Also, overexposure tends to deaden perception.  Especially in the U.S., we associate the song with noisemakers and incoherent New Year’s Eve singing.  So it’s maybe time to revisit and reframe. Auld lang syne (“old long since”) means something like “the days that are past,” and especially “the times that we remember.”  In a way, Burns is celebrating our ability to store and retrieve our shared experience.

(Want extra credit?  “Syne” is pronounced like “sign.”  No Z sound.  Trust me.  You can hear proof if you hang around.)

The Burns The gist
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
These are rhetorical questions: Should we forget old friends and never bring them to mind?  Forget them–along with all the times past?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.
Not at all–in fact, we’ll have a drink together for the times gone by.
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.
(I know) you’re good for your drinks ( “be your pint-stowp” — “pay for your tankard” ), and you know I’m good for mine. We’ve still got that drink to share for the times gone by.
We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
Sin’ auld lang syne.
We two have run along the hillsides
And picked the lovely daisies together–
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot
since the times gone by.
We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream
From dawn till dusk
But broad seas have roared between us
Since those times gone by.
And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere
And gie’s a hand o’ thine
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught
For auld lang syne.
So, here’s my hand, my trusty friend
And give us (= give me) yours
We’ll take a good, hearty drink
For all the times gone by.

Here’s a lovely version sung by Eddi Reader (who also sang it at the [re]opening of the Scottish Parliament):

(Dec. 30, 2009 update: the original video w/ Mairi Campbell disappeared from YouTube, so I’ve substituted this.  You’ll find it acceptable.)

5 thoughts on “Robert Burns on memory

  1. Thanks for this. My parents are Scottish and still speak with a mild brogue. When my grandfather visited it would be something like “You twa gie’s a hand and watch your heeds.” Of course, we’d laugh, but we did watch our heads.

  2. Down home, people don’t say gie’s, but “give us” is all over the place: “Hey, Buddy, give us a tune.” In voices like your grandfather’s, we see up time’s river into the past.

    As for Scotland, well, is ann den aon chlò an cathdath ( “the tartan is all of the one stuff”). Blianadh bha uhr for 2009 to you and the parents.

  3. Weel Dave,

    Aye’n Mairi can fair sing a braw line – that’ll dae fine tae. Thanks fur thone.

    Here’s tae ye, wha’s like ye, damn few, an’ thir aw’ deed!

    Awra best furra New Year.

  4. Ken, you can hardly go wrong starting off the year wi oor Rab.

    I’d like to have a birthday party for him. It doesn’t have to be the whole Burns Night shebang; just an excuse for old friends to get together. Thinking about Scotland couldn’t hurt, of course. As Robin Laing sings

    I’d willing lose
    Our culture, or most of it
    Including that mess
    Called ‘full Highland dress’
    With the whole ethnic bit
    With haggis on Hogmanay
    I’d gladly dispense
    But leave us our glens–
    Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and also Glenmorangie
    I prefer it to Cointreau, which I find too orange-y.

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