John Fian, died 26 December 1590,[a] also known as John Cunningham or Johnne Sibbet, was convicted of witchcraft and condemned to death on 26 December 1590. A school teacher in either the small settlement of Prestonpans within the East Lothian area of Scotland, or Tranent, he was one of the central figures in the North Berwick witch trialsSeries of Scottish witch trials held between 1590 and 1593 .
Fian had been engaged in a long-standing dispute with a local magistrate, known locally as a fervent witch hunter. Convinced that his financial difficulties were the result of others committing ungodly acts against him, in November 1590 the magistrate questioned one of his employees, a young maidservant named Geillis DuncanGeillis Duncan, also known as Gillie Duncan, a young Scottish maidservant, was suspected of witchcraft by her employer, David Seton, in November 1590. After being tortured, the initial testimony she gave led to the start of the North Berwick witch trials. Geillis Duncan, also known as Gillie Duncan, a young Scottish maidservant, was suspected of witchcraft by her employer, David Seton, in November 1590. After being tortured, the initial testimony she gave led to the start of the North Berwick witch trials. , as he suspected that she was involved in witchcraft. Under torture, she named several other alleged witches, and Fian soon became one of those implicated, as the head of the coven of North Berwick witches.
Under torture himself, Fian confessed that he was a witch, but retracted his confession before being executed, claiming that he had been terrified and thought the stories would save his life. He did, however, admit to committing adultery with thirty-two women.
Background and arrest
Little in the way of official documentation concerning Fian has survived, so modern-day academics have to rely on information gleaned from the account in Newes from ScotlandPamphlet describing the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland detailing the confessions given by the accused witches before the King.Pamphlet describing the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland detailing the confessions given by the accused witches before the King. and that given in the indictment. Several names using a variety of spellings are given for him: John Fian or Fean, Johnne Sibbet alias Cunninghame, and John Cunningham.[b] The Newes refers to him as Dr Fian, the term used for a schoolmaster, claiming he taught at a school in Prestonpans; other sources place the school in Tranent.
Querulous, bad tempered and with a tendency towards lewdness, Fian was engaged in a long-standing dispute with David Seton, a local magistrate. Seton and his son, also named David, had a reputation locally as fervent witch hunters. Belligerent and in severe financial difficulties, the magistrate was convinced that his problems were the result of others committing ungodly acts against him. In November 1590, Seton questioned one of his employees, a young maidservant, Geillis DuncanGeillis Duncan, also known as Gillie Duncan, a young Scottish maidservant, was suspected of witchcraft by her employer, David Seton, in November 1590. After being tortured, the initial testimony she gave led to the start of the North Berwick witch trials. Geillis Duncan, also known as Gillie Duncan, a young Scottish maidservant, was suspected of witchcraft by her employer, David Seton, in November 1590. After being tortured, the initial testimony she gave led to the start of the North Berwick witch trials. , as he suspected she was involved in witchcraft. After being tortured, Geillis confessed and went on to name several others, triggering what became known as the North Berwick witch trials, the first major Scottish witch-hunt and the inaugural large witchcraft trial under criminal law. Fian was very soon implicated, taken into custody and interrogated then questioned by King James.
The account in Newes from Scotland
According to Newes from ScotlandPamphlet describing the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland detailing the confessions given by the accused witches before the King.Pamphlet describing the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland detailing the confessions given by the accused witches before the King., Fian was allegedly the head of the coven of North Berwick witches. The tract narrates that during his early examination Fian confessed to being the register of the witches under the service of Satan. He was then subjected to escalating types of torture: his head was bound in rope and twisted, when that did not elicit a fuller confession, his legs were enclosed in the boots – iron cylinders that then had wedges driven between the person’s legs and the casing by the torturers, crushing the feet and lower legs. After the wedges were hammered in three times, Fian indicated he wanted to confess but was unable to speak. Acting on advice given by other witches, his tormentors checked under his tongue where they found two charmed pins; once these were removed, he was extricated from the boots and taken to King James before whom he willingly confessed.[c]
The narrative goes on to detail his confession, claiming that Fian bewitched a man into an hour-long state of insanity each day because he was a rival for the affections of an unmarried woman. It describes Fian’s love adversary being brought before the King, during which audience the victim was again possessed by the sorcerer into a sixty- minute fit of madness. The man screamed, contorted and jumped high enough to touch the ceiling of the chamber; after the hour ended and the fits ceased, the victim told the King he had no memory of the event, thinking that he had been in a deep sleep.
Fian’s infatuation with the same woman is at the core of another section of the Newes. She was the sister of one of his pupils, so he coerced the boy into obtaining for him three of her pubic hairs to enchant, by promising he would not beat him during his lessons. The boy, who shared a bed with his sister, tried to obtain the hairs while she slept, but he disturbed her, causing her to call out to their mother. Familiar with magic practices as she was a witch herself, she gave her son some hairs she had cut from a maiden cow bidding the boy to pass them to Fian pretending they belonged to his sister. The boy did as instructed, handing the hairs to his teacher who set about casting a spell over them. Shortly afterwards the heifer duly arrived, besottedly cavorting around Fian and following him everywhere he went, much to the amusement of the villagers.
Later, after he had been returned to his cell following the interrogations, Newes reports that Fian recanted his pact with Satan and swore to live an honourable Christian life. The following morning Fian claimed that Satan had visited him during the night to persuade him to uphold his original pact, but the schoolmaster stated that he renounced Satan to his face. That evening Fian managed to steal a key to his cell from one of the guards, and escaped during the night. He was soon recaptured and again tortured to obtain a fresh testimony as he had denied all his previous confessions. Implements described as used during this later interrogation included turkas – a type of pincer – and needles to forcibly extract his nails; despite this Fian continued to refuse to reiterate his earlier confession so the boots were again applied but with such force as to render his legs and feet beyond repair.
Fian’s indictment, or dittay, is one of only four that survive.[d] In his indictment, which itemises twenty charges brought against him, Fian implicated Michael Clark, Robert GriersonNamed by several accused of witchcraft during the North Berwick witch trials, Grierson died whilst being tortured during his interrogation.[e] and Agnes SampsonScottish midwife, cunning woman and healer; central figure in the North Berwick witch trials, claiming they attended the convention at North Berwick kirk with him.
The first of the charges listed allege the Devil first visited Fian while he lay in bed at the home of Thomas Trumbill in Tranent; Fian was plotting retribution against Trumbill for breaking his promise to clean the room. The Devil assured the young schoolmaster that he would receive everything he wished for, never be needy, and would gain the power to avenge his enemies by entering his service. He went on to encourage Fian to burn Trumbill’s house, which he did not do.
Fian was again lying in bed at Trumbill’s house when he had his second encounter with the Devil; on this occasion the Devil put his mark on Fian with a rod. The schoolmaster was accused of attending many conventions of witches during which he paid homage to the Devil by performing the obscene kiss Osculum infame, also known as the Kiss of Shame, the Obscene Kiss, is the name commonly given to the ritual of a witch paying homage to the Devil by kissing his genitals, anus or feet. . Various modes of transport were used to get to the meetings: he rode a horse that had burning candles magically attached to its ears which provided sufficient light to give the impression of daylight although it was the middle of the night. On another occasion he was conveyed through the air from his bed to North Berwick kirk by the wind; similarly he speedily pursued a cat through Tranent while levitating above the ground.
Two charges relate to the bewitching of William Hutson with an “evil sprite”; Hutson had been afflicted for twenty-six weeks but recovered as soon as Fian was taken into custody. His convictions also included opening locks with magical methods such as puffing through a woman’s fisted hand and being able to predict when someone would die based purely on their date of birth.
The young scholar was found guilty of receiving prior knowledge from the Devil that a ship transporting the queen would leak; also that, together with accomplices, he called up gales and later mists to impede the king’s sailings to and from Denmark. Further items describe him being entertained on ships, drinking wine and ale, mutilating corpses – particularly those of unbaptised babies – and having the ability to glide over the sea.
Fian was pronounced guilty of the various points of witchcraft detailed in the indictment against him at his trial on 26 December 1590. A contemporary note was made in the margin of the document reading: “convict of divers points of witchcraft and burned.” He was transported in a cart to Castle Hill, Edinburgh, where he was strangled before his body was burned in a large fire that had already been prepared; the pyre was fuelled by ten loads of coal.[f] Fian retracted his confession before being strangled, claiming that he had been terrified by the tortures inflicted and thought the stories would save his life. He did, however, admit to committing adultery with thirty-two women.
In Scottish witchcraft cases, the death sentence was routinely carried out very quickly after the verdict was declared, usually within a few days; often this was on a specific day of the week – in some areas of Scotland Wednesday was a particularly popular day – as officials wished to draw large crowds to witness the event. Newes records Fian’s execution as taking place towards the end of January 1591, but it may have been carried out weeks before then. The academic Laura Paterson suggests he was executed in 1590, citing the Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, in which an itemised list of the expenses incurred for “The executione of Johne Feane, alias Cuninghame, witche” is given, amounting to £5 18s 2d and dated 26 December.[g]
The only extant official documentation concerning Fian is his indictment; there is a slim possibility that records of a pre-trial examination may still be discovered among papers in the Scottish Record Office, as according to the academics Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts, writing in 2000, a systematic search for them had not been undertaken. Segments of the document reflect the pattern and wording used in the descriptions of witchcraft contained in the papal bull Summis desiderantes affectibus Summis desiderantes affectibus, (Latin for "Desiring with supreme ardor"), sometimes abbreviated to Summis desiderantes was a papal bull regarding witchcraft issued by Pope Innocent VIII on 5 December 1484. ; other sections incorporate simplified versions of the kind of allegations frequently encountered in continental witchcraft cases.
Modern-day academics surmise that the victim of possession described in the Newes is William Hutson of Windygoul, who is named as subjected to bewitching under the spell of Fian in the indictment. The list of official charges makes no mention of anything which could relate to the incident concerning the bewitching of the cow that is narrated in the tract. Resembling a folk tale, it may be a modification of part of The Golden Ass by Apuleius[h] added by the originator of the material or the publisher. It is also possible that Fian recounted a version of the tale to present his interrogators with a confession to minor magic, but scholars conclude it is a work of fiction.
Normand and Roberts opine that, other than assignations with the Devil, Fian seems to have been guilty of barely more than sexual misconduct and minor sorcery.
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- All dates in this article are given in the New Style (Gregorian), but at the time Scotland was still using the Julian calendar, so some sources give 16 December 1590. Both the Julian and Gregorian calendars were in use throughout Europe between 1582 and 1752.
- In Scotland and England during the sixteenth century spelling was haphazard, leading to many words, places and names having several variations. Modern-day texts often use an anglicised version.
- No official record of Fian’s confession has been found.
- The other extant dittays are those of Agnes Sampson, Euphame MacCalzeanWealthy Scottish heiress and member of the gentry convicted of witchcraft. A key figure in the North Berwick witchcraft trials of 1590–1591. and Barbara Napier.
- Grierson died sometime before 15 April 1590 due to the extreme tortures inflicted on him while he was being questioned.
- The exact weight of a load is uncertain but Paterson suggests each load would be “several hundred pounds”.
- The date given in Extracts for Fian’s execution is 16 December, Old Style, which is Wednesday 26 December New Style. Similarly, expenses for the execution of fellow accused Agnes Sampson are dated “the 16 day of Januar” [sic], which would also be a Julian date.
- The Golden Ass tells of a sorceress’s attempt to bewitch a young man by obtaining some of his hair from a barber, but hair from a goatskin is appropriated instead.