John Kincaid the witch brodder

Image of John Kincaid from contemporary records. Image © Rhiannon Hunt

Witch brodders or witch prickers were one of the few individuals involved in witchcraft trials that made a living. They were paid for every witch they detected. They were the specialist who could find the ‘Devil’s Mark’ on a suspected witch.

             The most famous witch brodder in Scotland was John Kincaid from Tranent in East Lothian. Working between 1649 and 1662, it is not known how many witches were sent to the flames as a result of his work but the figure may well be in excess of 200.

             In his time, Kincaid travelled between Edinburgh and the Lothians, as far north as Stirling and as far west as Glasgow, but he was most frequently to be found in the various towns of the Lothians and the Borders.  His name is repeated time and time again in trial records right through the 1650s. He was licensed by the Privy Council; at least initially.

             In 1662, accusations were raised against Kincaid and a warrant was issued for his arrest by the Privy Council. It was alleged that he had wrongly found the Devil’s mark on innocent victims and, more importantly, that he had been brodding suspects without having a warrant to do so.  The official report submitted to the Privy Council stated that Kincaid had worked ‘without warrand and order to prick and try these persons’. More damning was the statement that ‘there hath bein great abuses committed by John Kincaid’, concluding that ‘in all probabilitie many innocents have suffered’. The records show several appeals by individuals pleading for release on the grounds that they had been unlawfully brodded and that other than the supposed Devil’s mark found by Kincaid there was no evidence against them. Kincaid was arrested and sent to the tolbooth in Edinburgh.

             After some two months in gaol without any formal charges being laid against him, Kincaid petitioned the Privy Council for his release. The Privy Council seemed reluctant to formally charge him and he was released after he had posted bail of £1,000 Scots and agreed that he would no longer work as a witch finder without the correct warrant. The situation of the ‘many innocents [that] have suffered’ was quietly forgotten by the Privy Council. It is not recorded if any of those who appealed against Kincaid’s treatment of them won their appeal but if they did not, a single record has survived. What is more probable is that Kincaid’s release with no charges brought against him resulted in any appeals being set aside and the trials for witchcraft continuing as normal.

             The £1,000 Scots Kincaid posted as surety was an extremely large sum of money which may in part answer why he had worked without warrants. To be able to raise £1,000 in a two-month period hints that he was, by this time in his life, a relatively wealthy man. It may well be that part, if not all, of that wealth had been generated by witch-hunting. The temptation to work quickly and without warrant for money had proved a great temptation for other brodders: Kincaid, may have given in to such a temptation.

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