John Kincaid, sometimes spelt Kinkaid, is invariably considered to be the best known of the Scottish witch-prickers. Their claimed facility in being able to identify witches was largely responsible for an increase in the number of prosecutions and consequent executions for witchcraft in Scotland during the 17th century. Kincaid made a lucrative income from his trade and was a key witness in several of the major Scottish witch-hunts of the period, despite being unable to write. He was based primarily in Tranent, a town in the East Lothian area of Scotland, but little else is known of his personal life.
Kincaid was eventually exposed as a fraud by the Privy Council and imprisoned in 1662, and subsequently admitted that he had used deception when identifying witches. Twenty-first century academics attribute Kincaid’s incarceration and that of another pricker, John Dick, as a significant factor in ending the practice of pricking witches.
Scant personal information is available about Kincaid; academic Peter G. Maxwell-Stuart speculates that the Kincaid family had its roots in Stirlingshire and he may have had relatives who had been charged with offences such as rape, incest and selling poison. A child named William, whose father is named as John Kincaid, was christened on 14 April 1635 in the same area as the pricker was known to reside, so Kincaid may have lived in Tranent for at least fourteen or fifteen years before coming to prominence. Court documents are endorsed by his initials or a mark rather than a signature, an indication he was not literate.
The earliest existing records naming Kincaid date from June 1649, although it is apparent that his status as a pricker was already established by then. He was summoned to Dirleton Castle near North Berwick to prick two people, Patrick Watson and his wife Menie Haliburton, who were accused of witchcraft. The suspects had asked for him to prick them, probably in the belief that he would confirm the charges against them were false. Kincaid gave a deposition indicating he had found the Devil’s mark on Watson’s back, just under his left shoulder; his wife was marked on her neck, again on the left hand side above her shoulder. When Kincaid subjected the blemishes to pricking, no reaction was displayed. and no blood flowed from the marks. Watson was executed and shortly afterwards Haliburton confessed that she had a sexual relationship with the Devil and supplied other information deemed to be witchcraft. She was also executed. Kincaid is identified in court documents as pricking witches on a regular basis in ensuing trials.
Kincaid predominantly plied his trade in the Lothian region but it was common for Scottish prickers to be employed in witchcraft cases in the north of England. Maxwell-Stuart and George Riley Scott place Kincaid in Newcastle during 1649 where he was paid twenty shillings for each witch he identified.[a] His services were also called upon by magistrates in Aberdeenshire. The parish at Dunfermline paid him twenty merks in 1649 for pricking Bessie Mortoun who was then convicted and executed; his accommodation and that of other prickers were also settled by the local officials. His earnings that year included a payment of £6 Scots from the Burntcastle estate for pricking Margaret Dunhome or Dunhame. An additional payment of £3 Scots was made to him to cover the cost of his and his man-servant’s food and wine.
After Kincaid inserted a long pin into two blemishes he found on the back of Barbara Cochrane’s neck near her left shoulder on 27 April 1659 in Tranent she did not react so he declared them as Devil’s marks, proving her guilt. She immediately retaliated by shouting out in front of the magistrates: “Foul thief, thou hast deceived me! Now, thou hast deceived me now!” Maxwell-Stuart suggests this could be an indication she may have paid Kincaid to declare her innocent or alternatively a castigation against the Devil for stealing her soul. Thirty-eight people were executed for witchcraft in 1659, eighteen of whom lived in East Lothian. Most had been pricked and records show that Kincaid undertook the task in a number of those cases.
Beatrix Leslie, an elderly midwife from Newbattle, was accused of witchcraft and maleficeMaleficium is an act of sorcery, historically usually performed by a witch, intended to cause harm or injury. in 1661. Kincaid’s services were called upon and he inflicted two tests to secure her confession. He pricked her to find the Devil’s mark then, as causing the death of two children formed part of the accusation,[b] he undertook a ritual called bierricht.[c] The octogenarian was declared guilty and executed on 3 September 1661. During that year he was also pricking witches in Forfar; the local authorities rewarded him with the freedom of the burgh in appreciation of his securing so many positive outcomes.
The Privy Council received an application for Kincaid’s arrest on 9 January 1662 and, following an investigation, a report was submitted on 1 April recommending he be taken into custody. He was apprehended then incarcerated in the Edinburgh tolbooth. Kincaid admitted he had employed deception when testing for signs of witchcraft. Writing in The Scottish Historical Review, W. N. Neill describes the accusation levied against Kincaid as being for his cruel behaviour. A little more than two months after he was imprisoned Kincaid appealed to the Justice-General to be released, on the grounds that he was elderly and so ill that he would not otherwise survive for long. He was given his freedom under a bail of £1,000 Scots on condition that he must not be involved in any unauthorised torture or pricking of witches.
A similar fate befell Kincaid’s apprentice, David Cowan of Tranent, who was imprisoned in 1678. The Privy Council received a complaint from Katherine Liddell, an accused witch, who claimed that she had suffered “cruelly and barbarously torment and torture” and that the pricking had endangered her life. She was declared innocent and released, while Cowan was detained indefinitely at the Privy Council’s pleasure.
Described by modern-day academics and historians as “the most famous pricker”, “a famous pricker of witches”, and “the most famous of all the prickers”, Kincaid and others known to ply the same trade – there were around ten prickers who worked in Scotland during the 17th century – have also been categorised as rogues, charlatans, cheats and of the lowest rank. The prickers were especially active in Scotland from around 1648 until 1662; Kincaid was a key figure in the major witch-hunt of 1661 to 1662 and that of 1649 to 1650. The marked increase in the number of cases brought and death sentences issued was partly caused by their involvement.
Historian Brian Levack attributes the Privy Council’s decision to incarcerate Kincaid and his fellow pricker John Dick[d] for fraudulent and deceptive practises as a major factor to the ending of the 1661–1662 hunt. It also resulted in the trade of witch pricking being almost entirely stopped.
- In one of his other books, Maxwell-Stuart refers to the pricker in the Newcastle case as an “anonymous tryer” and does not specify him as being Kincaid; the original deposition only refers to a Scotch man and declares that the witch-finder was later executed.
- Two girls died after being struck by a section of roofing falling in a coal-pit; they had been in an argument with Leslie over the killing of her cat. The girls bodies bled when Leslie was taken to them.
- Also known as cruentation, ordeal by blood or corpse bleeds. The definition of the ritual given by the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft is: “corpse bleeds when touched by person who was guilty of the murder.
- Dick was based in Tain