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The 'Madame Guillotine' of Edinburgh and the Execution of Jean Kincaid.

I'm a graduate in Economic and Social History from the University of Strathclyde and have worked as a Tour Guide in Edinburgh.


The streets of the Old Town of Edinburgh have witnessed many a grisly scene throughout its history. But it would not be true to say that the medieval quarter has dark secrets as such. Thanks to the multitude of bus tours, walking tours, museums and exhibitions available, it's an open book and visitors to the Scottish capital can learn about its gruesome past.

One of those tales is that of Jean Kincaid who lived near the city back in the 16th century. Why is her story notable? It's because she was one of the few Scots to meet the acquaintance of the Scottish 'Madame Guillotine'.

Jean Livingtone becomes Lady Warristoun

Born Jean Livingstone in 1579 she came from a high class family, local gentry with large estates of land in Midlothian and Linlithgowshire. Her father was John Livingston of Dunipace, in Stirlingshire and a man of great influence in Edinburgh.

At the age of only 15 years Jean married John Kincaid of Warristoun, from a family with whom the Livingstons had close connections. Jean then became Lady Warristoun and she was described as a beautiful woman who certainly must have been a prize for Kincaid. However this was not to be an arranged marriage made in heaven as the story is told it was "against their inclinations".

However the tale has been subject to many balladeers of folklore and the facts of the story still retain much mystery. Without historical documents we will never fully understand what went on in the Waristoun household.

It was said that Kincaid was a brute to his young wife and she suffered greatly at his hands in their early years of matrimony. This included physical violence as Kincaid is alleged to have often lashed out violently at his wife.

Finally, at the age of 21, after withstanding this constant maltreatment for 6 years living with Kincaid, Jean could take no more and something snapped inside. But this was not to be any spontaneous crime of passion, no mindless and fevered retaliation against her husband. Instead Jean devised a simple but deadly plot to rid herself of her abuser.

A murderous plot is hatched

In her father's house worked a servant named Robert Weir who was employed to groom the horses among other duties. Jean decided that he would be the agent of her murderous revenge. She was friendly with Robert and it will be no surprise to learn of speculation that they were actually secret lovers as is the way with these lustful dramas of historical crime.

Added to the mix was another co-conspirator, Janet Murdo, a nurse who lived in the Warristoun household. She is actually said to have been a driving force in cajoling Jean into striking back at Kincaid.

And so the plot was put into action. In the early hours of darkness on the 1st July 1600 the door of the house was opened by Jean allowing Robert Weir to enter whereupon he hid in the cellar.

Then on Jean's bidding, he went up to the room of Kincaid and silently approached his intended lordly target. He lunged forward, struck Kincaid violently with fist and foot during which Kincaid awoke leading to a fierce and loud struggle that shattered the stillness and peace of that night. Then seizing his victim tightly around the throat Weir began to slowly strangle Kincaid.


Later, Jean would recount of the horror of hearing the terrifying sounds of her husband coming from the bedroom. Perhaps only then realising the raw enormity of her crime. But by then it was too late. Weir was much younger and stronger than Kincaid and finally squeezed the last breath from the nobleman.

The killer escapes, the Lady is imprisoned

Perhaps Weir also suffered an instant remorse at his cold-blooded murder of Kincaid. When the Officers of Justice entered the house later that morning he fled the scene leaving Jean behind to meet her fate despite her pleadings to take her with him.

Whether he deserted her or, as it's claimed, left on his own to divert any guilt from her remains forever unknown. But for whatever reason Weir therefore escaped justice, at least for a time, whilst Jean now faced the full and deadly wrath of the law. Along with her accomplices she was taken to the 'Heart of Midlothian' the well-known name given to the Tollbooth jail in the Royal Mile.

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No official records exist today of the legal process that followed the crime. All we know is that, according to contemporary diarist Robert Birrel, Jean Kincaid was arrested "red-handed", although no details exist of what this meant precisely. She was detained along with her accomplices Janet Murdo and, as Birrel wrote, two "hyred women", presumably other servants in the house.

Swift justice with no quarter given

Justice was swift and brutal in the fledgling 17th century of Scotland. In those times, there were no protracted legal preparations, no long-term court dates nor endless appeal processes.

The ruling was sentence to be carried out "within three suns" and therefore in the space of only 4 days Jean Kincaid was arrested, tried and convicted of her crime by the magistrates of Edinburgh. She was also condemned for her crime, condemned to capital punishment. She would die for the killing of her husband.

Executions were normally by hanging in Scotland at that time, a particularly harrowing and prolonged death as the rope slowly strangled the subject on the gallows. This was before the hangman's noose became more efficient in instantly breaking the neck. But this would have been poetic justice for Jean Kincaid considering the nature of her crime and the manner of death of her husband.

However, she would be spared this fate. As a lady of the higher classes this would be considered an unseemly end and so she was fated for a more technological dispatch.

She would meet 'The Maiden' as it was called. The guillotine.

The rise of 'The Maiden'

Beheading was regarded as the fitting method of dispatching nobility as infamously evidenced by Mary Queen of Scots, executed at Fotheringay Castle in England in 1587.

Jean Kincaid joined their ranks on 5th July of 1600 when she was taken to the guillotine which had been set-up at the 'Girth-Crosse' in the Canongate at the foot of the Royal Mile in front of Holyrood Abbey.

Holyrood Abbey

Holyrood Abbey

Despite her father's societal influence in Edinburgh even he could not have her life spared.

However, as a concession to his status, that of his kin and on his request, it was agreed that the execution would take place early in the morning at 4.00am with as little fanfare as possible. Thus the family avoided the shame of a huge public spectacle where hordes of the local populace would be ghoulishly looking on as one of their own met the plunging blade.

As it was many did gather and it is quoted that as the blade fell towards her neck Jean Kincaid exclaimed "Into thy hands, O Lord, .......", before her words were literally cut off, her sentence completed and "her heid struck fra her bodie".

The flames of wrath burn over the city

But Jean was fortunate in death. Her accomplice Janet Munro and one other "hyred woman" were afforded no such mercy, no swift transfer to the other side. Despite Jean's protestations that they had no involvement in the crime they were also found guilty. At their appointed hour they were taken up to the grounds outside of Edinburgh Castle to meet their doom.

In a horrific but familiar scene normally reserved for 'witches' their bodies were burned at the stake. The only sliver of humanity shown would probably have been the usual practice of strangling the condemned prior to immolation.

Dark plumes of black smoke rising up from the vantage point of Castle Hill, were always an ominous and very visual reminder for the Edinburgh people down below of the punishment that would await any evil-doers.


The fate of the fugitive

But what of the actual murderer Robert Weir who had committed the deed and made his escape? Unfortunately for him the long arm of justice finally caught up with the killer after several years. He was eventually caught in 1604 and on 26th June of that year he also was executed. Records of his trial do exist and shed light on the terrible happenings of 4 years before. Although they are heavily written in the tongue of the Old Scots language.

Extract from 'Twelve Scots Trials' by William Roughead (1913)

Extract from 'Twelve Scots Trials' by William Roughead (1913)

His killing was particularly atrocious and cruel. He was 'broken on the wheel', a quite literal description of his punishment.

Weir was tied to a large cartwheel and then, in public, repeatedly and mercilessly beaten all over his body with the heavy coulter piece from a farm plough. For the utmost effect his limbs would have been placed over spaces between the spokes of the wheel to ensure that his bones would crack under the brutal impact of the violence.

After being 'broken' he would have been taken away and allowed to slowly die from his agonising wounds.

A living relic and reminder of a dark history

The guillotine was last used in the early 18th century but it didn't disappear into the mists of history only to be referred to in scholarly books and articles. The Edinburgh guillotine still exists today. It is on display in the National Museum of Scotland which is located not too far from the execution site.

It was first put into action in 1564 after replacing the axe and the sword which had been considered a messy and untidy form of butchery. Even a skilled executioner would sometimes need several attempts to finally sever the head, as happened with Mary Queen of Scots.

With the implementation of 'The Maiden' the authorities now had an efficient killing machine that sliced its way cleanly through the necks of over 150 of the condemned until it was decommissioned in 1710.

It's a chilling reminder of the dark depths of crime and punishment of the past in the Old Town.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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