by Hugh McLachlan, Professor emeritus of Applied Philosophy at Glasgow Caledonian University

AS we approach Hallowe’en, with its association with witchcraft, it is interesting and instructive to consider a celebrated historical pamphlet that was published anonymously in London in 1591. It is called Newes From Scotland.

It purported to be a true account of the trial of several people, including John Cunningham, alias Dr Fian, who were examined, tried and convicted of attempting to bewitch James VI in North Berwick Church. 

Some of the events described in the pamphlet conform with what was said in the trials of the accused witches. For instance, Dr Fian was, as described in the pamphlet, a young local schoolteacher. He was accused of witchcraft, tried, found guilty and executed.

However, it is claimed in Newes from Scotland that the following story was part of the official legal case that was brought against him. There is no trace of it in the records relating to the evidence cited in the trial of Dr Fian. It appears to be a fabrication.

He was, so the story goes, sexually attracted to a teenage girl and he attempted, without success, to seduce her. 

As was not uncommon at the time, the girl shared a bed with her brother, who was one of Dr Fian’s pupils. 

Dr Fian threatened to birch the boy unless he procured him several hairs from his sister, but this proved more difficult than the teacher had envisaged. 

The girl complained to her mother about her brother. His mother thrashed the boy until he confessed to her what he had been trying 
to do and why he had been trying to do it. 

The mother then went into a nearby field and plucked several hairs from the udder of a cow. At his mother’s request, the boy gave them to his teacher and told him that they were hairs from his sister. Thereafter, the teacher was said to have been followed around Haddington by a lovesick cow.

This, according to the pamphlet, was regarded at his trial as evidence that he had performed witchcraft on the hairs from the cow in the mistaken belief that they had come from the girl.

Why was the story said to have been used in evidence in the Scottish High Court in the trial of a capital offence if it was not so used? 
Three possible reasons are worth noting.

The story might have been invented in order to reinforce a salacious interest in the publication and thereby boost sales.

It might have been a deliberate piece of anti-Scottish propaganda. It could have been intended to make Scotland a laughing stock. If evidence like this were actually used in Scottish courts in the most serious of criminal cases, what a stupid, backward, and superstitious country English readers of the pamphlet might well have thought Scotland to be.

Less obviously, it might have been written to flatter James VI. Not only was he personally involved in the course of the examination and trial of the accused people, he was the alleged victim. 

He was the target of a supposed sustained satanic offensive. Hence the accused were tried for the crime of treason in addition to that of witchcraft. 

The more ingenious, heinous and potent that campaign was thought to have been, the more glorious its survivor, James, might have appeared to be.

The essence of “fake news” is that it is untruthful, not merely that it is untrue. It is told with the intention to deceive rather than to inform. 

Fake news is very far from being a novel phenomenon.