John Fian

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Doctor Fian
Dr. Fian showing pentinence for his wicked life the morning before his escape.png
Dr. Fian (center) showing penitence for his wicked life to his jailer and chaplain the morning before his escape from prison. From Daemonologie; Newes from Scotland (1597).
Died27 January 1591
Edinburgh, Scotland
Cause of deathExecution by strangulation
Other namesJohn Cunningham Dr. Fian
Criminal statusExecuted
Conviction(s)Sorcery, bewitchment (1590)
Criminal penaltyDeath

Dr. John Fian (alias Cunninghame) (died 27 January 1591)[citation needed] was a Scottish schoolmaster in Prestonpans, East Lothian and purported sorcerer. He confessed to have a compact with the devil while acting as register and scholar to several witches in North Berwick Kirk. He was accused of bewitching townsfolk, preaching witchcraft, and, along with Agnes Sampson and others, raising storms to sink the fleet of King James VI of Scotland and his wife Anne of Denmark as they returned from their wedding celebrations in Oslo. He along with several other witches were arrested, examined and put to torture, in what would become known as the North Berwick witch trials.


As Fian taught in his school, a boy who studied with him was serving as a scholar. As reported in the ostensibly true pamphlet News From Scotland, Fian was very attracted to this boy's sister and attempted to enchant the girl with a spell of seduction. Her mother however was also a notorious witch and sabotaged his enchantment to seduce a heifer instead. It was reported that the heifer attempted to engage Fian physically in the schoolhouse.[1]


Illustration of Doctor Fian drawing conjuration circles with the bewitched cow, from the English pamphlet Newes from Scotland

His apprehension was caused by a confession from Gillis Duncan which afterward prompted his examinations as a sorcerer. Fian first openly confessed that he bewitched a gentleman to fall into fits of lunacy once every 24 hours. To verify this, Fian caused the same gentleman to come before the presence of King James in the king's chamber on 24 December 1590, where he purportedly bewitched the man, causing him to be in a hysterical fit for an entire hour of screaming, contorting and jumping high enough to touch the ceiling of the chamber; after the hour ended, the gentleman declared no memory of the event, as if he were asleep.[2] Fian confessed during a later trial examination that he made a compact with Satan but would renounce Satan and vow to lead the life of a Christian. The next morning, he confessed that during the previous night, the Devil came to him in his cell dressed in all black with a white wand, demanding Fian to continue his faithful service, according to the first oath and promise of their agreement. Fian testified that he renounced Satan to his face saying "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." He confessed that the devil then answered "That once ere thou die thou shall be mine." The devil afterwards broke the white wand, and immediately vanished from his sight. He then was given a chance to lead the life he promised but the same night he stole a key to his cell and escaped. He was eventually captured and tortured until his execution.[3]


He endured the torture of having his fingernails forcibly extracted, then having iron pins thrust therein, the pilliwinks, and the boot to crush his feet until they were so small that they were no longer usable. He was reported to have endured the torture without expressing pain. He was finally taken to the Castlehill in Edinburgh, placed in a cart, strangled, and burnt on 27 January 1591. The cost of his execution was £5 18s 2d.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ King James. Daemonologie. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. 2016. pp. 109–112. ISBN 1-5329-6891-4.
  2. ^ King James. Daemonologie. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. 2016. pp. 107–109. ISBN 1-5329-6891-4.
  3. ^ King James. Daemonologie. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. 2016. pp. 112–115. ISBN 1-5329-6891-4.