My friend Alyth is not particularly impressed with my last post, saying that it just shows my ignorance of witchcraft and Scottish history, and I dare say she’s correct.
‘Also,’ she added, continuing to scold me, ‘by turning it into a rant about the cruel treatment of women you’ve trivialised the equally cruel fates of the many men who were put on trial for witchcraft.’
‘That really wasn’t my intention,’ I protested while trying to look contrite.
‘Even so, when you wrote about Agnes Sampson you could equally have mentioned John Fian, the schoolmaster.’
It’s a fair criticism. Dr Fian was another victim of the North Berwick witchcraft trials. Like Agnes, he was tortured while King James VI watched, but he refused to confess even under terrible torture, until pins were driven into his head. He then confessed, but quickly recanted and was subject to further tortures, until the king ordered his execution. Amongst other things, he was accused of:
- “opening locked doors by breathing on them,
- carrying at night powerful magic candles on his horse,
- seducing a widow,
- flying through the air,
- using love charms (which came to naught), and
- casting horoscopes.”
(I’m learning about Dr John Fian from Alyth’s second hand copy of The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, by Rossell Hope Robbins. Alyth has also sent me a link to a recent article on Scotland’s witch trials in The Scotsman which mentions Dr Fian.)
Alyth insists, quite rightly, that none of these people were true witches, although it’s possible that some may have dabbled in charms. (I’m intrigued by the idea that using charms that don’t work can somehow be taken as evidence of witchcraft.)
‘It’s absurd to try and construct any sense of what real witchcraft was like then by studying trial records, confessions and church propaganda,’ she told me angrily. ‘That’s all lies and slander. Fucking politics.’