Arm-linking for Auld Lang Syne started with Freemasons, book finds

Auld Lang Syne
"Connected Auld Lang Syne" (CC BY 2.0) by Alex Slaven Photography

New research into Robert Burn’s best-known song has pulled up a connection between the famous linking of arms during Auld Lang Syne and a tradition that began with the Freemasons. Singing with arms crossed and hands joined was a parting ritual in many lodges belonging to Freemasonry.

Dr Morag Grant, a musicologist at the University of Edinburgh, spotted the link when searching through the archives at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, reports the Guardian. She was researching the song in preparation for publishing a book about the famous ditty. Within the records, there was a newspaper report of a Burn’s night supper in Ayrshire in 1897, in which was described a “circle of unity” as the member joined together and sang Auld Lang Syne. The common masonic ritual was also called the “chain of union”.

Dr Grant said the tradition of singing the song at times of parting and doing so with crossed hands emerged in the mid-19th century. Robert Burns was a Freemason all of his adult life and the organisation promoted him during his lifetime and after his death. Grant has searched through hundreds of different types of publications to gather the information for her book. These included written accounts, newspaper reports, theatre playbills, printed music and early recordings, all with the aim of finding how Auld Lang Syne got to be so well-known.


“Auld Lang Syne’s sentiments didn’t just resonate with Freemasons,” she said. “Some of the earliest reports of the song’s use at parting come from American college graduations in the 1850s.”

Within decades, the use of the song at graduation had crossed to Japan, where the tune – known as Hotaru no Hikari – is still played at the close of business in some shops. Despite many thinking that the song’s popularity stemmed from the rise of broadcasting, Grant’s research has shown that its global fame preceded the invention of sound recording. Her book records that in 1877, Alexander Graham Bell used it to demonstrate the telephone, and in 1890 it was one of the first songs recorded on Emil Berliner’s gramophone.

Grant’s book, Auld Lang Syne: A Song and Its Culture, explores the song’s origins and Burns’s role in creating the modern song from older models. She said when speaking to AP: “It’s remarkable how this song, written in a language which even most Scots don’t fully understand, has become so synonymous with new year the world over.

“The many traditions and rituals associated with the song – as well as its simple, singable tune – are key to understanding its phenomenal spread, and why we still sing it today. Auld Lang Syne is a song about the ties that bind us to others across the years and even though its appeal is now global, it’s very much rooted in the world Burns inhabited.”

Dr Grant’s book, Auld Lang Syne: A Song And Its Culture is published by OpenBook Publishers and is available to read free online.

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