Posted in Historic Characters

The First Executed Witch in the North Berwick Witch Trials

What were the North Berwick Witch Trials?

The North Berwick witch trials were held to examine several people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland starting in 1590.

King James VI of Scotland married Anne of Denmark in a proxy marriage ceremony in 1589. But when it came time for Anne to sail to Scotland to meet her new husband, that is when the real trouble began.

Anne’s ship was delayed by storms for so many months that James decided to sail to Norway, where she was stuck, and retrieve her. He too, had issues with the storms, but they finally reached Scotland in 1590.

  • Portrait title: James VI and I, 1566 – 1625. King of Scotland 1567 – 1625. King of England and Ireland 1603 – 1625. Artist unknown but attributed to Adrian Vanson.
  • Portrait title: Portrait of Anne of Denmark (1574-1619) by Unknown Artist.

It was during this turbulent time that it was first brought to James’ attention that witches might be responsible for the storms that caused the delay in Anne’s travels (and also caused the death of one her maids). Witchcraft and the hunting of witches was very popular in other parts of Europe at the time and James began to make serious inquiries into the possibilities. Eventually a woman name Geillis Duncan who lived in the town of Tranent, was arrested. She went on to accuse several more people of being witches and a true witch hunt began.

Not All Accused Witches Were Women

At least three of the names that Geillis Duncan gave her accusers were men. One of these men was a schoolmaster from Prestonpans by the name of Doctor Fian, who went by the alias, John Cunningham. It was said he was the witches’ register, and  that there was not one man who could come to the devil’s readings but only he.

Once he was arrested, Doctor Fian had his head thrawed, whereby a rope would be wrapped around the head and squeezed. This did not have the effect his accusers had hoped, and he confessed nothing. He was also put in the “boot” which was a wooden or metal device into which wedges were hammered thus crushing the feet and lower legs. Yet, he still would not confess. The other accused witches urged his accusers to search his tongue, whereby two pins were found underneath, pressing up into his tongue. The witches claimed that the charmed pins were the reason Doctor Fian could not confess. He was immediately released from the boots and brought before the king where his confession was taken, written in his own hand.

Love-Sick Schoolmaster?

Along with his admittance of recording the witches’ confessions of service and true oath to the Devil, he would write whatever the Devil commanded him.  Doctor Fian also admitted to bewitching another man in town who had an interest in the same young woman that Doctor Fian did. He caused the man to fall into a state of lunacy for the span of one hour, every 24 hours. This young man was brought before King James to testify and it was witnessed that he did indeed fall into madness, bending himself and capering directly up, so high that his head would touch the ceiling. It took several men to subdue the man and once he was bound hand and foot, he was left to lie still until his fury had passed. Once the bewitchment was over, the man had no recollection of the events. 

Doctor Fian was also accused of trying to bewitch the young woman that he was in love with. Having enlisted the help of one of his students, who happened to be the brother of the woman he was in love with, he attempted to obtain “three hairs of his sister’s privities”. Doctor Fian gave the young man a piece of paper to wrap the hairs in to be brought safely back to him.  The young man pestered his sister so much that she brought it to her mother’s attention.

Her mother (who was said to also be a witch), began to inquire of the brother what he was trying to do. She finally beat a confession out of him and he told her all that Doctor Fian had asked him to do. Wanting to give the schoolmaster a taste of his own medicine, she then proceeded to snip three hairs from the utter of a heifer and wrapped them in the paper that Doctor Fian had given to her son. 

When Fian used the hairs in an attempt to cast his love spell, you might imagine what happened next! According to contemporary accounts, he had no sooner done his intent to them, that the heifer appeared at the door of the church where the schoolmaster was. The cow came through the doors of the church and made toward him “leaping and dancing”, and followed him out of the church and wherever he went. 

According to the writer of Newes from Scotland, this was witnessed by many of the townspeople who recognized that such acts could never have been sufficiently effected without the help of the Devil. It became such an ordeal that Doctor Fian came to be known amongst the people of Scotland as a notable conjurer. 

An Apparent Change of Heart

Doctor Fian eventually recanted his allegiance to the Devil and renewed his confession of Christ. He pledged to live a godly life and eschew all that the Devil had asked of him. But the morning following his confession, Fian revealed that the Devil had visited him in the night and demanded that he continue his faithful service. The Devil had appeared to him dressed all in black with a white wand in his hand. Doctor Fian claims he rebuked the Devil, telling him that he would no longer take part in that lifestyle. He also claimed that the Devil then told him “once ere thou die, thou shalt be mine”. The Devil then broke the white wand and immediately vanished. 

Doctor Fian told these events to his accusers the next morning and remained in solitary confinement throughout the day. He appeared to ponder the care of his own soul and would call upon God indicating a penitent heart. However, that very same night, Fian was able to apprehend a key to the cell in which he was kept and escaped the prison.

The king immediately issued public proclamations throughout the land in an effort to apprehend Doctor Fian. According to Newes from Scotland, a hot and hard pursuit ensued, and he was eventually recaptured.

Although the schoolmaster had confessed his sins in his own handwriting, he denied now that he had ever had such a pact with the Devil. The king, perceiving that Fian had renewed his allegiance to the Devil during his absence from prison, commanded he be searched again for a mark indicating his new pact. He was thoroughly searched, but no mark could ever be found. 
More torture was ordered and it was done in this manner:

**SENSITIVITY WARNING**


All his fingernails were split with an instrument called a Turkas (pincers)  and two needles were pushed up under each nail up to the heads. The Doctor felt nothing and confessed to nothing from this torture.

He was then put to the boot again. He remained in the boots for a long time, enduring many blows insomuch 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 forever.” For more information about how the boot was used as a torture device check out this website here.

Example of a boot used for torture

Yet, he still would not confess. 

His accusers claimed that the Devil had entered his heart so deeply that he utterly denied all that he had previously confessed. Doctor Fian claimed that he had only made such confessions for fear of pains which he had endured. 

Pincers from the archaeological excavation at the Harburger Schloßstraße in Hamburg-Harburg, Germany. Dated to approx. 15th or 16th century. Photoraphed at Archaeological Museum Hamburg. Photo credit: Bullenwächter; Wikipedia CC

After great consideration by the king and His Majesty’s council, in the name of justice and “also for example’s sake”, Doctor Fian was soon condemned to death. 

According to Newes from Scotland, he was strangled, carried in a cart to Castle Hill of Edinburgh and put into a great fire and burned. 

Doctor Fian was the first accused witch executed in the North Berwick witch trials.  There would be many more.

Woodcut featured as a scene from the life of Doctor Fian’s life, in Newes from Scotland, published 1591.

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