Dr Fian with his goalers in 1591 before his escape.

Granny Kempock Tales

The Strange Case of Dr. Fian – 1590

If the King needed further convincing then the case against Dr Fian one of the other ringleaders gave him ample evidence of sorcery and witchcraft.

Dr John Cunningham (known as Fian) was a schoolmaster at Prestonpans and purported to be a sorcerer. He was already known in the town for trying to seduce a friends ́ sister with a spell of seduction. Unfortunately, the girl ́s mother was a well- practiced witch, who changed the spell to seduce a cow instead. It was said that the cow used to follow him around all over the town. When he was approached by members of the Commission, he confessed to having a compact with the Devil and of being a scholar to several witches in the area including Agnes Sampson. Once he had been apprehended on the confession of Gillis Duncan, he confessed that he had bewitched a man to fall into fits of lunacy every day.

King James was skeptical but intrigued by this tale but asked that Dr Fian be brought before him and that he also brings the man who had been bewitched.

“So, tell me Dr Fian. You say that you have bewitched this man and can cause him to fall into spells of lunacy every 24 hours.” The King was slightly amused by the proceedings as were many of the nobles who were also in attendance.

“Your Majesty, when I command it, this man will become a lunatic until I tell him to stop. He will then become normal again and will not know of his behavior. Speak to him if you will and you will find that he is quite normal, but when I cast my spell then you will see the change.” Dr Fian had a strange light in his eye and displayed a nervous twitch. This was not surprising considering that he had been commanded to appear before the King, but his general behavior was a little strange.

“Very well then, tell me your name, where you come from and how you know Dr Fian.” James was still amused by these proceedings and after ten minutes of conversation was sufficiently convinced of the gentleman’s normality.

“Well so Dr Fian, I am content that this gentleman is normal, so show me how you bewitched him.”

At the snap of his fingers, the man started screaming and went into an hysterical fit, jumping around and contorting on the floor. Those present swore that when he jumped it was high enough to touch the ceiling of the chamber. Dr Fian sat back and calmly watched, his eye constantly twitching and occasionally looking at the King, who was fascinated by the proceedings. For almost an hour, the man screamed, laughed, shouted, jumped and contorted his body into the most unnatural positions.

When he had seen enough, the King signaled to Dr Fian that he was satisfied that the man had become a lunatic and asked him to stop.

With a second snap of his fingers, the man stopped immediately. He was standing in the centre of the chamber sweating, with his hair and clothes disheveled and looking totally bewildered.

“What is going on. What am I doing here?” he looked around the chamber slowly taking in the faces of the nobles staring at him, and then finally to his King who was sitting looking very surprised and totally bemused.

“I am convinced,” said the King, “take him away for trial and we shall see what results.” This had clearly been a demonstration of the power of witchcraft and although it was certain that Dr Fian was a sorcerer, the fear was that there were many more, and in that case what could a large group of them do? King James decided that the best solution was to dig them out, root and branch, and rid the Country of this grievous pest.

In his later trial examination, Fian confessed that he had made a pact with Satan and that Satan had visited him the night before in his cell. He was dressed in black and carried a white wand demanding that Fian should continue being faithful to him. Fian said that he would renounce him and lead the life of a true Christian. Avoided Satan, avoided, for I have listened too much to thee, and by the same thou hast undone me, in respect whereof I utterly forsake you.” The Devil told him That once ere thou die thou shall be mine.The devil then broke the white wand and vanished.

The Goaler was so impressed with his tale that he promised to give Fian the chance to lead a good Christian life again. Later that evening Fian stole the key to his cell and escaped.

Eventually he was recaptured and taken back to his cell, where he was repeatedly tortured by having his fingernails pulled out and then metal pins driven in. Thumbscrews were applied and a metal boot was used which crushed his feet so badly that they were no longer useable.

It is said that he endured these tortures without expressing any pain until he was finally taken to Castlehill in Edinburgh where he was strangled and burnt at the stake in January 1591.

On his last confession, he denied that he was a sorcerer and had only said these things to avoid torture and execution.