Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Friday, 11 April 2014

07 April 2014 - "Holy Willie's Prayer"

A warm welcome was given by the Maybole Historical Society to the 10 members attending our Joint meeting.  James Thomson, Senior Vice President of the Robert Burns World Federation, told us all about the real characters who feature in Robert Burns' famous poem "Holy Willie's Prayer".   This greatly enhanced our appreciation of the poem by giving the background of the time in which it was written.

The "real" Holy Willie was a hard working farmer, William Fisher, in Mauchline who was born in 1737 and died in 1809.  He was invited to become a lay member at the Presbytery when only in his 20s which was a mark of how highly he was regarded.  He married Jean Hewitson with whom he had 11 children and by all accounts was a model and popular citizen of the town. There appears to be no evidence in the records that he was a hypocrite, fornicator and drunk as he is depicted in the poem, although there appears to be some suggestion in the record that his "sobriety" might have been questioned.

Gavin Hamilton, who also features in the poem was Burns' landlord at Mossgiel, was a powerful local man who was a thorn in the side of the Kirk Session for many years.  Because of the huge amount of poverty in the area at the time (the poem was written in 1785) it had been ruled that a "Stent" should be collected on every land transaction which meant that 1 penny in every £1 should go to the Church for the relief of the poor.  Gavin Hamilton had been appointed as "Collector of Stents" and the problem was that he collected the money over a period 3 years,  but never paid a penny of it to the Kirk.  In spite of continuous efforts made by the Minister, Mr. Auld, including appeals to the Presbytery of Ayr and finally the Synod, he managed to keep all of it.  Interestingly, in the poem, in spite his relationship to Hamilton, Burns does say he has "sae monie taking arts wi' great and sma' ... " which sounds like a tribute to his money grabbing abilities.  Hamilton was certainly "reprimanded" by the Kirk Session a number of times for other misdemeanors such as gardening on the Sabbath - or perhaps having a servant doing the work.

The two men are both buried in Mauchline churchyard. But while William Fisher has a stone aged by time, Gavin Hamilton has a very impressive memorial which has been refurbished by Burns Societies over the years.

The real object of the satire in the poem is not so much "Holy Willie" but his religious beliefs which were so contrary to those of the poet.  The "auld lichts", as they were called, represented the strand of Presbyterianism based on the beliefs of Calvin which solved the paradox of an omniscient, omnipotent God and man's free will by a doctrine of predestination.  This asserted that man was destined by God from birth either to be one of the "saved" or one of the "damned".  Believers in the Arminian doctrine, to which Burns subscribed were called the "new lichts" and believed that there was an opportunity for anyone who had faith to be saved.  Reading the poem against this background highlights the religious aspect of the satire as opposed to the personalities.

The talk was very illuminating and certainly sent members home to re-read the poem with more insights both into the poetry and the lives and beliefs of 18th century Presbyterian ancestors.

Pat Weston (any errors in the theological comments above are those of the author not of James Thomson)

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