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'Auld Lang Syne' In The Time Of Brexit


As the clock hit midnight and we started a new decade, people across the world heard "Auld Lang Syne." It was written in 1788 by Robert Burns, who's the national poet of Scotland. NPR's Joanna Kakissis went to the Scottish town of Inverness, and she found that with Brexit approaching, people are in their feelings about the song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot...

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It was cold on the banks of the River Ness, but thousands of Scots huddled together to celebrate Hogmanay, the last day of the year, and to toast the year ahead.

LACHLAN GARDINE: New Year, I mean, if you ask me, it's more important than Christmas.

ANJALI GONBANE: I really, you know, feel very excited about this new year.

LYNN FALCONER: It's the end of bad things happening and a good start and moving to good, new things.

KAKISSIS: That was farmer Lachlan Gardine (ph), neurosurgeon Anjali Gonbane (ph) and police officer Lynn Falconer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) We'll tack a cup of kindness here for auld lang syne.

KAKISSIS: Retiree Catherine Falconer joined her daughter, Lynn, to sing a song known all over the world.

CATHERINE FALCONER: Although lots of people try to claim it as their own, it's a Scottish song (laughter).

KAKISSIS: When Robert Burns first wrote "Auld Lang Syne," it didn't sound the way we know it now. Iain Gordon, president of the Burns Club in Inverness, sings what's believed to be the original version.

IAIN GORDON: (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot and...

KAKISSIS: But the lyrics are the same. Kirsteen McCune (ph) knows them all.

KIRSTEEN MCCUNE: 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.

KAKISSIS: Rabbie Burns, as the poet is known by the Scots, is her specialty.

MCCUNE: I'm professor of Scottish literature and song culture at the University of Glasgow, where I'm also co-director of the Center for Robert Burns Studies.

KAKISSIS: McCune has loved Burns since she was a teenager in the Scottish countryside. Her favourite lines are in the middle of the song.

MCCUNE: We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn, frae morning sun till dine. But seas between us braid hae roar'd, sin auld lang syne.

KAKISSIS: She translates from the Scots language into English.

MCCUNE: You know, as children, we played around in the river, and we caught fishes, and we've pulled the wildflowers and the daisies on the hillsides. But in fact, broad seas have roared between us.

KAKISSIS: Burns wrote "Auld Lang Syne" during a tumultuous time.

MCCUNE: There were two major revolutions in America and in France. The British were fighting in many European wars. It was also a time when Scots began to emigrate from areas of the Highlands and moving around the country from rural areas to urban areas - time of great upheaval, great turmoil. My goodness, there are many resonances with the world we live in in the 21st century.

KAKISSIS: Particularly so as the U.K. prepares to leave the European Union. Brexit has also renewed talk of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, which Inverness teacher Duncan Dyker supports. He says Burns would have, too.

DUNCAN DYKER: If he'd been alive today, he would have been a nationalist.


DYKER: I think so.

KAKISSIS: But retiree Gwen McCloud believes Burns would not have wanted Scotland to face the world alone.

GWEN MCCLOUD: The more friends we have now, the better.

KAKISSIS: Isn't that what the song's about? (Laughter).

MCCLOUD: That's what the song's about.

KAKISSIS: It's actually hard to know which way Scotland's great bard would have swung on this issue. Kirsteen McCune, the Burns scholar, describes him as very cautious with politics.

MCCUNE: Burns himself is a bit of a chameleon, so you see him writing ardently anti-English poetry. You see him writing unionist British poetry or song. You will see him write from every perspective because he had an amazing ability to be people on all sides of the debate.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Auld lang syne...

KAKISSIS: And that's why everyone sings his famous song, those who romanticize the past and those who yearn for the future.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Inverness, Scotland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.