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  • Writer's pictureJacqueline Heron Wray

Sawney Bean, Scottish Cannibal?

Updated: May 31, 2022

Extract from King Street to King’s Road.

Papa’s cousin, Tammy, was a dairyman on a farm In Stoneykirk, Wigtownshire. I loved to visit the byre (cowshed) and watch the cows being milked. I never did grow to appreciate the distinct farmyard aroma. His wife, Netta, without fail, had fresh baked bread and scones in their cottage kitchen, and there was always a big jug of creamy milk and copious amounts of butter and homemade jam and marmalade on the table. The drive down the west coast of Scotland to the caravan was interesting. Ailsa Craig, an extinct volcano, and uninhabited island from which, blue-honed granite has been quarried for many years to make curling stones, can be seen protruding impressively from the sea for most of the journey. Further along the coast road, we passed the area where there is an infamous cave, locally known to have been where a rather nasty man by all accounts, called Sawney (Alexander) Bean had lived with ‘Black Agnes Douglas’ his common-law wife. As the story goes, Sawney, who had been born in East Lothian, the son of a hedger and ditch-digger, moved to South Ayrshire and set up home with Agnes. Bean did not relish a future labouring like his father, and so he and the like-minded Agnes supposedly made a living by ambushing unsuspecting travelers, murdering and robbing them. Not content with that, afterward they would drag the bodies back to the cave where they would disjoint them and eat the flesh. What a lovely couple. Papa loved to tell this cannibalistic tale and would slow down as he drove past for dramatic effect. I was never sure whether I wanted to look or not. In fact, the cave cannot be seen from the road, but I didn’t know that at the time. It is about 150 feet below the hilltop which has a car park on it now, and it is thought to run about a mile deep into the hillside. Allegedly, Sawney and his incestuous family lived in the cave for about twenty-five years before they were discovered. Body parts were found on neighbouring beaches and locals noted that some people had disappeared. One evening some fairgoers witnessed a murder and a search party was organised to seek out the evil culprit, allegedly led by King James VI of Scotland. Once captured, and after body parts had been found hanging to dry or being pickled in the cave, Sawney and his family were taken to the Tollbooth in Edinburgh to be executed. The women and children were burned at the stake, the men were dismembered and left to bleed to death. A macabre tale which, be it truth or fiction, captivated and horrified us as children and triggered many a nightmare in the caravan further down that very road

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