By Tim Porteus

DIRLETON castle is a magnificent ruin with history seeped in its walls. Yet there is one sad story I always think of whenever I drive past or visit this ancient place. Perhaps it is not an obvious choice for a tale at New Year but, then again, perhaps it is.

The story begins in West Fenton in late June 1649 when Manie Haliburton and her husband Peter Watson set out from their home for an appointment at the castle. It was a journey they had taken numerous times as they headed for church. But this day was different: they knew they had to savour every moment of their freedom, for what awaited them at the castle may end it. They held hands as they walked that summer’s day to their fate.

When they arrived they were led into the Great Hall. There he was, waiting for them.

“Ah, sae ye hae found yer way,” said Kincaid sarcastically, “I thocht that perhaps ye would not come.”

John Kincaid was a notorious witch pricker, a man both corrupt and cruel but with the backing of the authorities. He was responsible for sending countless innocent people to their torture and death, all for his own profit and gain.

Manie and Peter had been summoned to meet him to be searched for Devil’s marks on their bodies. The country was infected by a witch-hunting craze, and accusations had been made against Manie and her husband that they had used witchcraft to cure their daughter of a sickness.

Kincaid claimed afterwards they had come of their own free will and without duress. But had they failed to turn up it would have been seen as evidence of their guilt. And so in reality they had no choice but to take the journey to meet this vile man at Dirleton Castle. Perhaps also they had a hope it could clear their name.

Kincaid was not alone. Other men, local worthies, stood around him as witnesses. Manie and Peter refused to tremble in their presence. They had God in their heart and knew themselves to be completely innocent.

Then Kincaid brought out his needles and Manie gasped in horror. Peter gently touched her hand to calm her. Their eyes met for a moment in mutual support. They loved each other and would endure this together.

A smile grew on the witch pricker’s face, a wicked smile. He noticed the affection between the couple and now he had absolute power over their lives.

If he found a ‘Devil’s mark’ on their bodies then their fate would be sealed and he’d get his payment. It could be a mole or freckle, a birth mark or a blemish immune from pain.

Peter was examined first. Kincaid handled him roughly as he searched his body, painfully piercing his skin with the needle. Eventually he found a small mark on his back below the left shoulder. He pricked it but this time Peter did not flinch.

“Ha, I hae found it, here is the mark of the Deil,” Kincaid said triumphantly.

“Look your honours,” he said to the witnesses, “he had nae pain and it does not bleed, this mark is proof he is in league wi the Deil.” The witnesses nodded in agreement.

Manie cried out in desperation: “No, no, we are God-fearing people, this cannot be.”

Then she pointed at Kincaid, saying: “He is a cheat, a liar.”

“Be quiet and let the Lord’s work be done,” she was commanded.

Kincaid turned to Manie. She was now trembling with fear as he ordered her stripped. He groped and fondled her, pricking her randomly. He seemed to enjoy inflicting pain as he searched for a mark.

He found one on the back of her neck which he claimed was immune from pain and wouldn’t bleed; she too, he proclaimed, had a Devil’s mark!

“Ye thocht ye would fool me eh?” he said to her, an evil grin decorating his face. Manie was numb with shock and disbelief.

We know, of course, that Kincaid cheated when pricking. He had false needles and methods of faking the procedure.

The idea of a Devil’s mark is nonsense and he probably knew that himself. Yet condemning people to torture and death was good business for him and now Peter and Manie were his latest victims.

His examination and ‘discovery’ of a Devil’s mark was all that was required to prove guilt. Their fate was sealed. A document was signed by the witnesses and Kincaid got his money.

He moved on to claim his next victims while Manie and Peter were placed in Dirleton Castle’s pit prison. But before being burnt, a confession was required.

Despite enactments against some torture techniques, Manie knew torture would now be used to make her confess.

She just couldn’t face it. So she decided to make up a confession. This was not easy for her conscience, for she must tell grotesque lies.

In her last moments with Peter she was able to whisper to him: “Ye ken what I will say is untrue. I just hope God will forgie me, and ye tae. I am weak, I cannae thole the thocht o’ them torturing me.”

As she was taken away, Peter mouthed the words: “I love you.”

And so Manie made her ‘confession’ in front of witnesses, including the minister of Dirleton Kirk. She gathered her imagination and began her story.

“Aye I admit it, I am a servant of the dark lord, o’ the Deil himself,” she said, but then burst into tears as she heard her own words. She wanted to retract the untruth, but the prospect of torture stopped her.

“Continue, witch!” she was told.

“My daughter was ill, I was sair afraid she would be taken frae us, sae I walked tae Aberlady to ask Patrick Christison for his help.

“He is weel kent as a physician. But he refused, even though I begged him. But then a few days later a man appeared at my door.

“He said he knew my daughter was ill and he was a physician and could cure her.”

“Ye believed this?” asked the minister.

“Aye sir, he said he had salves and ointments which would work. I paid him twa shillings fir his service, fir I was desperate.”

“Was this man the Deil?” enquired one of the witnesses.

Manie bowed her head and pursed her lips as she replied.

“Aye he was sire, Satan himsel. He came back, eight days later. He stayed the nicht and in the morning, while my husband was oot...”

Manie’s voice began to falter and she wondered if she could speak the words. But she knew she must.

“The Deil came intae ma bed and we had an unholy union.”

The witnesses gasped in horror and shook their heads. She had admitted to having diabolical fornication with the Devil.

The minister peered down at her and asked directly: “And did ye renounce Christ and accept him as yer maister?”

Manie knew the next three words would seal her fate. But if she didn’t say them, torture would compel her to anyway. So she gathered her composure and looked directly at the minister.

“Aye, I did,” she said firmly.

It was done. They were satisfied. Thankfully they demanded no more. This was enough to burn her.

So Manie, loving wife and devoted mother, was added to the list of hundreds of victims of the witch craze of 1649. She was strangled, then burnt.

And so I always pause for a moment to remember her, and all the others who likewise suffered, every time I visit the castle where her fate was sealed.