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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Fisher, William (1737 — 1809)

Prototype of 'Holy Willie' was the son of Andrew Fisher, farmer at Montgarswood, Mauchline. William Fisher farmed with his father, and at the age of 35 was chosen elder of the parish. He was, it seems, assiduous in his duties so far as visiting the sick and the aged went, but he lacked what has been called 'a sense of Christian forbearance.' At any rate, it was thought to be on his instigation that the minister and kirk session of Mauchline instituted proceedings against Gavin Hamilton for an alleged failure to observe the Sabbath in what the kirk session deemed a proper manner. As Gavin Hamilton was a much valued friend of Burns, the poet turned his satirical powers against Fisher in 'Holy Willie's Prayer' and the 'Epitaph on Holy Willie' and 'the Kirk's Alarm'.

In a note which Burns later prefixed to 'Holy Willie's Prayer', for Glenriddell, the poet described him as 'a rather oldish bachelor elder in the parish of Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering which ends in tipplin orthodoxy, and for that spirtualised bawdry which refines to liquourish devotion.'

He was, in fact, husband to Jean Hewatson, who bore him several children. But of his narrowness, the persecution of the liberal minded Hamilton is abundant evidence. As Snyder puts it: 'When men like Fisher represented the temporal power of orthodox Calvinism, it was small wonder that rebels against the establishment were easy to find; or that a rebel like Burns, embittered by personal humiliation and the treatment of his friend Hamilton, should have broken forth in derisive mockery.'

In spite of Burns's feelings on the Hamilton case, however, the remarkable thing is that 'Holy Willie's Prayer' never descends to abuse, or softens to farce. The character drawing is firm and consistent, and the self important, insignificant little church elder of Mauchline becomes the prototype of hypocrisy itself in what is perhaps the greatest satire against that vice written in any European tongue.

Fisher himself, however, fell from grace. On 14th October 1790, he stood before the 81 year old 'Daddy' Auld to receive a rebuke for drunkenness, a harangue which the minister preserved in his book of rebukes, and which ended: 'Be upon your guard in all time coming against this bewitching sin, shun bad company, avoid taverns as much as possible, and abhor the character of a tippler. Abstain carefully from strong drink, and from everything that may intoxicate and injure you; and withal seek wisdom from heaven to guide you, and grace to enable you to walk stedfastly in ways of sobriety and holiness all your days.'

Posterity has doubted whether or not Fisher was, in fact, granted either of these lines of wisdom. In 'The Kirk's Alarm', which appeared in 1790, Burns makes a clear accusation of embezzlement:

"Holy Will, Holy Will,
There was wit I' your skull,
When ye pilfered the alms o' the poor;
The timmer is scant,
When ye're ta'en for a saunt,
Wha should swing in a rape for an hour."

In 1834, when Fisher had been 21 years dead, the somewhat unreliable Allan Cunningham made a definite accusation of pilfering from an alms box out of Burns's stanza. Other biographers, including Chambers, followed suit. No evidence to support such a charge has ever been found.

However, Fisher froze to death in a ditch on a snowy night in February 1809.

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