At New Year 1873, William Allingham, the Irish Poet, was in London and called on his Scottish friend Thomas Carlyle, as he told his diary.
London, January 1, 1873. — Carlyle’s at 3. He gives me a book. We walk out.
This morning he said, ‘ after midnight, as Mary and I were sitting together, we heard a chorus of male voices outside the window singing Auld Lang Syne. We peeped out, and saw five or six figures on the other side of the street. I was really touched. I put up the window and said ” Good-night ! ” one of them eagerly replied ” Good-night ! ” and then they all vanished silently away.’
Then with a laugh he added, ‘ Truly the songs of Judah in a Babylonish land ‘ ! and afterwards quoted Burns’s burlesque lines : — We hung our fiddles up to dreep*. He spoke of ‘Hogmanay ‘ in the streets of Edinburgh, hot punch and kissing.
*Nae mair by Babel's streams we'll weep, To think upon our Zion; And hang our fiddles up to dreep, Like baby-clouts a-drying: Come, screw the pegs wi' tuneful cheep, And o'er the thairms by trying; Oh rare! To see our elbucks wheep, And a' like lambs' tails flyin' Fu' fast this day!
In Psalm 137 the poet sings of the people of Israel refusing to sing in exile, instead hanging their musical instruments on the willows beside the rivers of Babylon. This willow was just coming into leaf in Spring. Carlyle was not a conventional Christian believer, more of a life-long enquirer, but he enjoyed the tribute of being serenaded with song from the first-footers – who vanished silently away rather than expect their dram of whisky. Hogmanay seems to have been carnival time in Edinburgh 200 years ago, when Carlyle was a young man there.
Burns was not the man to indulge for long in melancholic reflection; rather he looked forward to the fiddlers’ elbows whipping the strings and getting people to dance. Perhaps the exiles’ songs of Judah contributed greatly to the fellowship, friendship and community of the Chosen People.