Background

Holy Willie saying prayers and Holy Willie as a drunken letch

Background

A local church dispute involved the strict Calvinists of the Auld Licht in conflict with the forward-moderates of the New Licht.

Gavin Hamilton (Burns’ landlord) was tasked with collecting the ‘penny fees’ of the parish from each member of the community, but being a sensitive man of the people (like Burns) he sometimes allowed the poor to default on their payments.

For this, he was suspected of stealing amongst the elders of the parish. One of these elders, Willie Fisher (the 'Holy Willie' of the title) was given the task of investigating Hamilton’s background to trump up charges against him.

Fisher and the minister of the parish, both members of the ‘Auld Lichts’ were beaten three times on appeal when the case came to court.

Fisher, the Reverend Auld and other Auld Lichters saw God as a stern, unyielding presence. New Lichters Gavin Hamilton and Burns thought of God as a redeeming, forgiving being.

A Key Auld Licht belief, based on Calvinism, was that people did not go to Heaven because of their apparent goodness or good deeds, but because they had been chosen, ‘elected’ by God before birth. It was all due to God’s ‘Grace’, which meant that the ‘Elect’ could do all sorts of terrible things and still go to Heaven. Holy Willie believed himself to be one of the ‘Elect’.

The incident was well-known throughout Scotland at the time. Willie Fisher himself came to an ignominious end, found dead in a ditch with a whisky bottle nearby.

Themes

This poem explores the following themes:

  • Religious hypocrisy and its negative effect on people
  • The corrupting quality of extreme religious belief