Tim's Tales - The Notorious Witch Pricker of Tranent
It could have been worse, it was cold but sunny and beautiful. I enjoyed the stroll along the shops, and the walk down the hill with the views over the Forth. My journey took me past Tranent Kirk and I paused for a moment there, thinking of all the history the place has seen. It suddenly gave me an idea for a story: that of John Kincaid, who used to attend the kirk in the 17th century.
I first came across the name of John Kincaid years ago while studying history. The facts about this man tell us he became one of Scotland’s most notorious 17th-century witch prickers, and earned the title ‘common pricker’.
Kincaid’s background is uncertain and he seemed unable to read or write. His notoriety came later in life as he was quite advanced in his years when he first became a pricker. But he quickly discovered that he could make lots of money from pricking, and gain both status and respect from political and church leaders. It was a dream job for a cruel man with no compassion. His witch pricking made him important; he was regarded as a specialist in his trade and his word was enough to condemn people to death.
But the lists of women (and the occasional man) he helped to condemn don’t convey the reality of this man’s legacy. I remember a lecture on him in which a catalogue of names was listed, but such information often lacks emotion. It may seem a strange thing to say but I think bare facts often hide rather than reveal reality. We can say we know about it, but knowledge of an event, a date or a statistic often doesn’t allow us to feel what that really means.
Academic history can paradoxically detach us from the human story behind the information it conveys. To live it, and feel it, we need a story that brings the facts to life. That’s one of the reasons I became a storyteller.
One tale is how Kincaid emerged from obscurity to into notoriety, and it all began at Tranent Kirk!
‘The minister of Tranent had always thought there was something unusual about the gardener’s wife. He’d watched her carefully as she walked by and she seemed to always mutter to herself. And she was often absent from kirk on Sundays.
“Och, she’s no weel, minister,” her husband would say, but she always seemed fine the day after. The minister also noticed she liked to take walks in the wood. What did she do there, who was she meeting?
It became clearer in his mind that she may be a witch. So he began to ask people about her. He discovered that once she helped deliver a baby and used herbs to alleviate the pain. That was enough to convince the minister that she was involved in witchcraft.
He was discussing his suspicions with one of his parishioners, a man in late middle age called John Kincaid.
“Weel if ye suspect her o’ bin a witch there is ane sure way tae find oot, minister,” said John. “Ye maun search her fir a Deil’s mark.”
The minister gnarled up his face. It was believed at this time that you could identify a witch by finding a mark on the body made by the Devil. Witches, it was believed, would meet the Devil himself, and he would kiss or pinch them, leaving his mark.
This mark was immune from pain or bleeding so pricking it could prove that a person was a witch if there was no pain or blood.
But the minister didn’t like the idea of him searching the body of a woman. It seemed an inappropriate activity for a minister of the Kirk. But the minister’s hesitation gave John an opportunity.
“Weel if ye dinnae want tae dae it yersel, minister, I could dae it,” he said.
The minister looked surprised. John was illiterate and had never before displayed any skills in the detection of witches.
“Would ye ken whit tae look fir?” asked the minister.
“Oh aye, minister, I’d ken, I’m lang in the tooth an have knowledge o’ such matters,” John replied.
“Very weel,” said the minister.
John returned to his home and planned his pricking carefully. He had once witnessed one take place, and he had an idea of how to do it. The most important thing, though, was to be confident.
The following day the gardener’s wife was compelled to attend the pricking in front of witnesses, including the minister himself. Her worried husband was allowed to accompany her. He held her hand but they were forced apart to allow John to do his work.
He produced a needle and she reeled with fear.
“Aye, if ye be a witch ye should be fearful,” said John, with relish. The woman did her best to remain calm.
But she was humiliated by Kincaid, who ordered her partially undressed. John began to prick the poor woman. He plunged the needle into her flesh and she cried out with pain. Blood-stained marks covered her body.
But then Kincaid found a blemish on her shoulder. He gave the minister a knowing look, indicating that he believed he’d found a Deil’s mark. He plunged his needle into the blemish, and no blood came out and this time she had no reaction. She had clearly felt no pain.
“Here!” said Kincaid, “she has the mark of the Deil. Nae pain or blood. Ye were richt, minister, she is a witch!”
The poor woman was taken away, protesting her innocence, followed by her husband, who begged for mercy. She got none. She was Kincaid’s first recorded victim.’
And so began John Kincaid’s career as Scotland ‘common pricker’. Over the next 12 years his fame and reputation spread. He was even invited to Newcastle in 1649 to find witches there. And of course he did.
How many people did he help send to their deaths? It’s not easy to say for sure but for sure many dozens and perhaps even hundreds.
He revelled in his reputation, and his fame allowed him to raise his fees and claim expenses. He seemed impervious to the pain and suffering of his many victims. In fact, he seemed to enjoy his work. And he used various tricks to find a mark, including false needles. He knew he was sending innocent women to their deaths.
But eventually this miserable and abusive man got above himself and began pricking people without official sanction. This was now too much for the authorities and they finally arrested him in 1662.
The tables were now turned. Kincaid was the one being interrogated. How did he know so much about witchcraft? Where and how did he learn his trade? And worse was to follow. He himself was accused of being at a meeting with the Devil at Tranent Moor Cross.
He denied this, and pleaded for mercy. He petitioned for his release, saying he was old and infirm. Evidence of abuses had come to light and that innocent people may have been condemned by Kincaid.
But the authorities had a problem. They had given him work and encouraged him to find witches. To now claim that Kincaid was a fraud would make those in power look foolish or complicit in the injustice.
So they released him in June 1662 after he’d promised not to prick anyone without authority. And so John Kincaid spent the rest of his life in obscurity, probably living the last of his days in Tranent.
But did his conscience ever bother him? There is no evidence in the records. We only get self-pity while he pleaded for his release.
But then again the authorities themselves expressed no real regret or apology for all the horrors and injustices committed in their name.
The list of Kincaid’s known victims is long and is just a small part of the whole ‘witch-finding’ story.
In Prestonpans the Baron of Prestoungrange formally issued an absolute pardon in 2004 to all women convicted there, and there is a memorial to them in the courtyard behind the Gothenburg tavern – a small, but important tribute to so many innocent victims of the witch-hunting days.