JohnFian (?— 1591 ) A young schoolmaster in Saltpans, Scotland, in the late 16th century, Dr. John Fian was the central figure in Scotland’s most famous witch trials, which involved James VI (James I) himself. Fian, also known as John Cunningham, was accused of leading a Covenof witches in North Berwick who, among other charges attempted to assassinate the king. Fian was brutally tortured until he confessed and was burned at the stake in 1591.
The downfall of Fian was brought about by a young servant girl named Gillis Duncan, whose gift for natural healing was suspected by her master as the Devil‘s Magic. Under torture, she accused several persons of witchcraft, including Fian (see North Berwick Witches). Fian, who had a reputation as a conjurer, was arrested on December 20, 1590, and charged with 20 counts of witchcraft and high treason.
The most important charge was that of the attempted murder of King James as he sailed to Denmark to fetch his bride-to-be. The witches allegedly raised a terrible storm at sea by tossing a charm of a dead CAT with human limbs tied to its paws into the ocean and crying “Hola!” On the return voyage, Satan then cast a “thing like a football” into the sea, raising a mist. The king’s vessel was battered about but returned safely with no casualties (see storm raising).
Other charges against Fian included acting as secretary at the coven meetings, at which he recorded the oaths of allegiance to Satan; kissing the Devil’s anus (see KISS OF shame) and making a Devil’s pact; falling into ecstasies and trances, during which his spirit was transported to various mountains; bewitching a man to have a spell of lunacy once every 24 hours because he loved the same woman as Fian; attempting to seduce the woman by bewitching her, but instead bewitching a heifer that followed him about “leaping and dancing … to the great admiration of all the townsmen of Saltpans”; robbing graves for body parts to use as Charms; and various acts of magic, such as flying through the air. He was also accused of putting magical candles on the legs of his horse and upon his staff, which enabled him to turn night into day as he rode.
Upon his arrest, Fian was imprisoned. He refused to confess and was subjected to severe torture. After hav- ing his head “thrawed” with a rope (bound and twisted in various directions), he still denied the charges. Fian was then given a torture described as “the most severe and cruell paine in the world,” the “boots,” a vise that went around the legs from knee to ankle, and that was progressively tightened with blows from a hammer. Fian was given three hammer blows while in the boots, and passed out. His torturers “found” two pins under his tongue, thrust in up to their heads. The court declared that the pins were a witch’s charm to prevent him from confessing.
Fian was released from the boots and taken before King James. Broken, he confessed in his own writing. He renounced the Devil and vowed to lead the life of a Christian. He was taken back to jail.
The following day, the jailors found Fian greatly distressed. He said the Devil had appeared before him in the night, dressed in black and carrying a white wand, and had demanded that he continue his service in accordance with his pact. Fian said he stood firm in his renunciation, but the Devil reminded him that he still would possess Fian’s soul upon death. The Devil broke the wand and vanished.
All that day, Fian languished in depression. That night, he stole the key to the prison door and fled to Saltpans. The king had the area scoured. Fian was soon arrested and brought again before James. He recanted his confession. James was convinced that Fian had entered into a new pact with the Devil. He had Fian’s body searched for a new Devil’s mark, but none could be found. Determined to get another confession out of the schoolmaster, James ordered more brutal torture, described as follows in a pamphlet, Newesfrom Scotland (1591):
His nailes upon all his fingers were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in Scottish a turkas, which in England wee called a payre of pincers, and under everie nayle there was thrust in two needles over, even up to the heads; at all which tormentes, notwithstanding, the Doctor never shronke anie wit, neither woulde he then confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him.
Then was hee, with all convenient speed, by commandement, convaied againe to the torment of the boo- tes, wherein he continued a long time, and did abide so many blowes in them, that his legges were crusht and beaten together as small as might bee, and the bones and flesh so bruised, that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable for ever.
Fian still would not confess, “so deeply had the Devil entered into his heart.” The enraged king nevertheless condemned him to die. Fian was put into a cart and taken to Castle Hill in Edinburgh, where a great bonfire was prepared. On a Saturday at the end of January, 1591, he was strangled and thrown immediately into the flames.
- Kors, Alan C, and Edward Peters. Witchcraft in Europe, A Documentary History 1100-1700. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.
- Sharpe, C. K. A History of Witchcraft in Scotland. Glasgow: Thomas D. Morison, 1884.
Back to Witch Hunts and Trials
Back to Witchcraft