By Tim Porteus

THE following amusing tale is a well-kent one from our county, although I have to admit a certain reticence in sharing it. The reason for this I will explain after I have recounted the story.

It is set in late-16th-century Saltpans, or what we would today call Prestonpans. The schoolmaster at that time was a man called John Fian, although he was also known as Cunningham. Now I have to be honest and say I cannot say for sure the character of this man. To be sure, schoolmasters in those days were often harsh disciplinarians who saw physical punishment as a normal part of educational experience. But then again, it was the way in those days and whether John was worse than any other I cannot say.

John had become besotted with a local maiden. She had no interest in him at all, yet this didn’t dampen his ardour for her. I cannot say if feelings of love were mixed in with his physical desire, but he was determined to win her affections.

When he heard that he had a rival suitor, John moved quickly and ruthlessly to eliminate this opposition. You see, according to the accounts of the day, John was a man with a knowledge of witchcraft. He used this to make the competitor mad, to horrible effect.

Yet of course this still did not make the young woman any more interested in John. No amount of wooing was working. He just wasn’t her type and she just wasn’t interested. But it so happened that her younger brother was a pupil of John’s and so the schoolmaster decided to use this connection.

John pulled the young boy aside one day and told him that if he did him a favour then there would be no more beatings. The young boy of course was very keen on this idea and so agreed. The schoolmaster then told him what he must do.

In those days, it was common for families to be all crushed together at night, often the family sharing one bed. The schoolmaster told the boy that he wanted three hairs from his sister and that he should take them from her while she slept so that she had no knowledge of it.

“Then bring them tae me,” said Fian.

“What dae ye want wi three hairs, maister?” asked the curious boy.

“That needna concern ye,” the schoolmaster replied sternly, “just dae as I say and there’ll be nae mair beatings fir ye this term.”

And so that night the young boy waited for his sister to sleep. It was not hairs on the head that the schoolmaster wanted so the logistics of secretly plucking them without his sister waking up was rather difficult.

“Whit ye daein? Stop fidgeting, and waking me.”

Inevitably the commotion woke the their mother: “Whits wrang wi ye bairns? Gang tae sleep, it’s the middle o the nicht.”

“It’s him,” protested the sister, pointing to her wee brother, “he cannae keep still.”

The mother was furious that the household had been woken and so pulled the boy out of bed to punish him.

“Whit’s wrang wi ye?” asked the mother angrily, “whit are ye wakin yer sister fir?”

The boy told his mother the truth. “It’s the school maister, ma,” he said. “He telt me that he wanted three hairs frae ma sister.”

“Whit fir?” asked his mother.

“He telt me that it wasna ma business, but that if I did it he wud stop beating,” he said.

The mother knew exactly what was going on. It just so happened that she herself had knowledge of witchcraft, and she knew that once the schoolmaster had possession of the hairs he could use a spell to make her daughter fall in love with him.

In the morning, the mother went outside to the fields where a cow was grazing in the morning sunshine. She stroked the cow and then carefully plucked three hairs from its nether region.

She looked at them with a wry smile. “Aye, they will teach him a lesson,” she thought to herself with a chuckle.

She gave the three hairs to her son: “Gie them tae the schoolmaister, an tell him that they are hairs frae yer sister.”

The boy did as he was told. He of course knew that they were not his sister’s hairs, but he was very keen to avoid beatings.

John Fian was overjoyed when the boy slyly handed over the hairs.

“It wasnae easy, sir,” he said, “but here ye are.”

That evening, John Fian started spell making. He used the hairs in a love potion, a very strong love potion. Whoever had owned the hairs would fall in deep and passionate love with him.

By the morning, the potion had worked its magic. The lovestruck cow was waiting for him. It immediately pounced on him in a fit of uncontrolled bovine lust, and then followed him everywhere he went.

Classes were interrupted by the mooings and groaning of the cow as it waited outside, craving the attention of Fian.

He could go nowhere without being followed by the lovesick cow.

There was a moment when the poor schoolmaster ran past the mother of the young girl as the lustful cow trotted behind him trying to catch up.

“That will teach him,” she no doubt thought, “she should have kent it takes one to know one.”

Well that’s the story anyway. Yet I sit uncomfortably in retelling this story, as it was told under torture. Fian was one of the victims of the terrible witch-hunting craze in the early 1590s, and he was associated with the poor victims who were to become known as the North Berwick Witches.

The tortures he underwent I will not recount here; it is a dark part of our history.

Yet despite its origin, I’ve always found the tale of the love struck cow an amusing one. And there is part of me that wonders where such a story would come from. Was there a grain of truth in the events which were then elaborated?

For me, one of the revealing parts of the tale was the extent to which the beating of children seemed just so commonplace, and I’m thankful that times have changed since then. The nurturing and wonderful teaching staff that shape the children of Prestonpans these days are thankfully so different.

Poor John Fian was executed in 1591 after his horrible ordeal. The story says nothing about what happened to the cow.