The History of Leith

March 21, 2012

WITCHCRAFT.(South Leith Church Magazine 1910)

The subject of Witchcraft forms one of the most painful
and distressing chapters in Scottish History. Next to the
idolatry of the Church of Rome, our Presbyterian forefathers
ranked this crime, and they never tired in their
efforts for its extermination. They took as their warrant,
Exodus xxii. v. iS, “Thou shall not suffer a witch to
live,” and this text they interpreted in its literal sense.
It is strange that a people so conversant with the Bible
should have ignored the references in the New Testament
to demoniac possession, and our Lord’s loving treatment
of men and women thus sadly afflicted.
In the Records printed in the February Magazine
under date I4th March 1644, there are several minutes
dealing with witches, which demonstrate the course of
action followed by the session when such accusations
were made to them. One minute reads thus, “Ordains
to send for the man in Musselburgh who tries the witches
marks, and John Brand was ordained to ride for him.”
Witches were believed to bear the devil’s marks on
their bodies, for upon receiving the vow of fidelity, the
devil handed to the witch a piece of money and put his
mark upon her. The precise nature of this mark has
been matter for much discussion. Sir George Mackenzie
has described it as ”a discolored spot caused by a nip or
pinch.” Another writer states that ” the witch’s mark is
sometimes like a blue spot or a little tet or red spot like
a flea bite, sometimes also the flesh is sunk in and hollow,
and this is put in secret places, as among the hair of the
head, or in the eye brows, within the lips, under the arm
pits, etc.” An old Minister writing on the subject
describes the mark as ” a small mole, horny and brown
colored, through which, when a large brass pin was thrust
t i l l it was bowed, the witches, both men and women, –
neither felt pain, nor did it bleed.”
For the discovery of the mark, which was the first step
towards a conviction, the session had recourse to the
“pricker” or ••witch-finder.” Amongst those who
followed this cruel and revolting occupation, the best
known was Mr John Kincaid, who resided near Tranent,
and he is very likely the party referred to in this minute.
He was common pricker to the Court of Justiciary, and
his hands were always full. From the Kirk Session of
Stow he received £6 scots for “The brodding of Margaret
Denham in 1649.” So proficient was Kincaid in his
nefarious art that he never failed to discover the devil’s
mark, hence all that he pricked were sure to perish at
the stake.
In the discharge of his office, Kincaid proceeded in the
most barbarous fashion. Having stripped his victims and
bound them with cords, he thrust his needles everywhere
into their bodies, unmoved by their screams or entreaties.
When the victim fell into a swoon, he relented only till
sensation was restored. When exhausted by an agony
too great for utterance, the victim remained silent,
Kincaid proclaimed that he had found the mark.
Another Minute is in these terms, “Ordains every
Elder and Deacon in their several quarters to give up a
certain number of honest men, to watch with them the
witches, who for the present are in prison.”
When the witch-pricker reported that he had detected
the devil’s mark, it was held essential that the victim
should be watched. For this proceeding one reason given
was that further converse with Satan might be averted,
but a stronger motive was to induce confession, since the
entire prevention of sleep brought about a delirium, in
which innocent utterances were accepted as an acknowledgment
of guilt. The duty of the watchers was to keep
the accused constantly awake.
In order to extort confession, the accused was subjected
to torture by thumb-screws and other instruments. On
2nd May 1644, there is a Minute ordaining “to make
intimation that none use any kind of torture against any
of those who are suspect of witchcraft, and for the present
in prison.” The torture used to extort a confession was
not applied by the Church, but by the civil Magistrate at
the trial of the accused. At the trial the testimony of the
witch-pricker was held sufficient by itself to justify sentence
of death. Those who refused to make any confession of
guilt were first of all tortured and had the prospect of
being burned alive. Those who made confession had a
respite from suffering and escaped further cruelty in

source-South Leith Church

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