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                         The Story of
                        John Fian



Dr. John Fain (also called John Cunningham) was the best
known of all the 70 persons implicated in Scotland's most
celebrated witch trial, that of the North Berwick Witches in
1590, and probably the bravest of all those Scots who suf-
fered torture. Commenting on his trial, E. Lynn Linton, in
Witch Stories (1861), wrote: "John Fian, a schoolmaster of
 Saltpans, with no great idea to support him, and no admiring
 friends to cheer him on, bore himself as nobly as any hero
of them all, and vindicated the honor of manhood and natural
 strength in a way that exalts our common human nature into
 something godlike and divine." Dr. Fian's strength of charac-
ter in refusing to confess to witchcraft contrasts sharply with
 the conduct of the judicial council and of King James VI of
Scotland (James I of England), who personally watched his
agonies and himself condemned the schoolteacher to death.
 The original informer in this series of trials, a servant girl,
Gilly Duncan, was cruelly torture by her employer, without
 any pretense of legality and before any interest by the courts.
 She involved others, and gradually a fantastic story was built
 up of an extensive plot on the life of the King. In this plot,
Dr. Fian was alleged to have acted as secretary or recorder
 of the "coven" or conspiratorial group planning the murder,
 and hence the ringleader. On December 26, 1590, he was
arraigned for witchcraft and high treason on 20 counts. The
 "dittany" or indictment, recorded in Pitcairn's Criminal Trials
 (1833), charged, among other things: 1. Conspiracy with
Satan to wreck the ship carrying King James to Norway, on
 a visit to his future queen, by throwing a dead cat into the
sea. 2. Making an agreement with Satan, who appeared to
 him as he lay "musand and pansand" [musing and thinking]
 how to be revenged on a workman for not having white-
washed his room on time; and recieving the devil's mark.
 3. Rendering homage in North Berwick curch to Satan, a
 "mickle black man, with black beard sticking out like a goat's
 beard, and a high ribbed nose, falling down sharp like the
bill of a hawk, with a long rumpled tail." 4. Having "ecstasies
 and trances, lying by the space of two or three hours dead,
 his spirit taken, and suffered himself to be carried and trans-
ported to many mountains." 5. Looting the graves for corpses
 to be used in charms (according to confessions under torture
 by others accused). The other counts covered various
magical acts committed by Dr. Fian, such as opening locked
 doors by breathing on them, carrying at night powerful magic
 candles on his horse, seducing a widow, flying through the
 air, storm-raising, using love charms (which came to naught),
 and casting horoscopes. A contemporary pamphlet, News
 from Scotland (1591), a unique copy extant in the Lambeth
 Palace Library, London, described how John Fian was
tortured. "First, by thrawing of his head with a rope."
Thrawing consisted of binding the head with a rope, and
then roughly jerking the rope in all directions. After an hour
 of this, Dr. Fian was admonished to confess "by fair means,"
 but he refused. Then he was "put to the most severe and
 cruel pain in the world, called the boots", a sort of vise to
 crush the legs. After the third pressing, Dr, Fian lost con-
sciousness. The court officials interpreted this as Taciturnity,
 a trick of the devil; accordingly, prompted by some other
 suspects, they searched his mouth for a charm, and found
 two pins "thrust up into the head". The pamphlet undoubt-
edly reverses cause and effects: the torturers themselves
 stuck the pins into his tongue until he succumbed. After the
 torture with the pins, in the presence of King James, he
 confessed whatever was suggested to him as "most true,
 without producing any witness to justify the same", and
 renounced "conjuring, witchcraft, enchantment, sorcery,
and such like". The next night, according to News from
 Scotland, Dr. Fian escaped from prison and made his wa
 home to Saltpans. At this news, the King "commanded
diligent inquiry to be made for his apprehension.... By
 means of whose hot and hard pursuit, he was again taken
 and brought to prison". This escape, in view of the con-
dition of Dr. Fian's legs, is probably an editorial to heighten
 the narrative. Nevertheless, all reports agree that when he
 was again brought before the King and his council, Dr. Fian
 recanted his confession. Thereupon he was searched a
 second time, because in the interval he might have "entered
 a new conference and league with the Devil". Nothing new
 was found. Then, to erase his denial and force an acknow-
ledgement of his first admissions, he was "commanded to
 have a most strange torment". His nails upon all fingers
 were riven and pulled off with an instrument called in
Scottish a turkas, which in England we call a pair of pincers,
 and under every nail there was thrust in two needles over
 even up to the heads. At all which torments notwithstanding,
 the doctor never shrunk any whit, niether would he then
 confess it the sooner for all the tortures inflicted upon him.
 Torture was heaped on torture, and the "Spanish boots"
 were again resorted to. Dr. Fian "did abide so many blows
 in them, that his legs were crushed and beaten together as
 small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised, that
 the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance,
 whereby they were made unserviceable for ever". He still
 denied the accusations and maintained his original confession
 "was only done and said for fear of pains which he had
 endured". In spite of his denials and in the absence of a
 confession, nevertheless the King's council determined to
 execute him "for example sake, to remain a terror to all
 others hereafter, that shall attempt to deal in the like wicked
 and ungodly actions, as witchcraft". The trial ran true to
 form: the accusation once made, death was inevitable.
 It came within five weeks. Dr. Fian refused to confess
 and was burned. The only distinction was that Dr. Fian
 was more horribly tortured before execution. As was
 gennerally the custom, Dr. Fian was first strangled and
 "immediately put into a great fire, being ready provided for
 that purpose, and there burned in the Castle Hill of
 Edinburgh, on a Saturday in the end of January last past
                                                                                  [January 23 or 30, 1591]".


                                           The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology

                                                           by Rossell Hope Robbins


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