Sawney Bean - my own retelling of a Scottish folk tale
A quirky and highly personal retelling of the Scottish folk tale of Sawney Bean, an Edinburgh orphan boy who ran away to take up a career as an outlaw, with gruesome consequences. The underground city mentioned in the story exists beneath Edinburgh’s Auld Toon (Old Town) but my version of the tale is quite different from others you may read. There was actually an outlaw named Sawney Bean but nobody knows his true fate.
Auld Reekie - The Old Town Of Edinburgh
The modern city of Edinburgh sprawls out in spacious suburbs along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth but social conditions did not always permit inhabitants the luxury of ample living space. “The Auld Toon” or “Auld Reekie” as it is called perches on Castle Hill, in bygone times the only easily defensible piece of real estate with access to the natural harbour of the Forth estuary.
Medieval Scotland was a wild place and the rule of law was often superseded by clan squabbles, religious conflict and wars with the English which were something of a national sport for both countries. Consequently people flocked to the security of the walled garrison towns and particularly to Edinburgh which was considered impregnable.
As the population grew the town, constrained as it was by the sheer cliffs of Castle Rock could only expand in two directions, up and down. The narrow streets became canyon – like as tenements of five and six stories towered above them. Beneath the streets another city was growing. Under each street several wynds, subterranean passages, were carved from the bedrock.
Medieval societies depended for their structure on a strict class – based hierarchy or in the case of Edinburgh a higherarchy. The richer and more important you were the higher you lived, the King in his castle atop the hill, the noblemen and gentry and their families in the penthouse apartments of each tenement. Below them were the wealthy merchants, lawyers and bankers, further down the craftsmen and tradesmen; goldsmiths, silversmiths and dealers in spices, wines, fine cloths and such. Eventually at street level the butchers and bakers, maybe the odd candlestick maker even, the farriers, weavers, tailors and other vendors had their premises. Below the street however was another hierarchy, or perhaps a lowerarchy, the servants, artisans, the hired help, below them the day labourers, chimney sweeps, stable hands and at the very bottom of society if you will pardon the pun, the night soil men who cleaned up the human waste in the hours of darkness.
Niddrie Street was the main street through the poorest, most low – lying part of town. Beneath it the Niddrie Wynd which at its lowest level was a refuge for Edinburgh’s underclass. The inhabitants often spent their whole life below ground, never knowing the feel of sunshine on their faces.
One of the people who dwelt in the lowest part of the Niddrie Wynd was a lad of about ten years called Sawney Bean. Despite his tender age he was alone in the world and made his living by running errands from household to household through the network of tunnels. Sometimes Sawney’s errands took him to the surface and the pale, unhealthy boy grew to love the sunshine and the soft rain, the smell of the flowers and trees and everything about the outside. He talked to other servants and to labourers and carters and learned from them of a wondrous world beyond the city where there were no wynds but miles and miles of trees and fields, where a young man could become an outlaw and live off the land, squeezing warm creamy milk straight from the cow’s udders into his mouth, snaring rabbits, hares and squirrels, catching fishes in the fast flowing streams and gathering nuts and berries. Sawney made up his mind that one day he would run away to the countryside and find an outlaw who needed an apprentice and would teach him the trade.
The boy had one true friend, Aggie, a scullery girl of about his own age. She was quite the most beautiful creature Sawney had ever seen, her greasy hair was dishwater blonde, the same colour as her eyes one of which had a pronounced squint (s-q-u-i-n-t; pronounced squint) and she had a hare lip. But Sawney was no oil painting either and the pair fell in love and approaching their twelfth birthdays they decided to run away together and be outlaws. Wisely they waited until the spring then with great presence of mind Sawney stole flint and tinder to make fire, as many pies as he could fit into his pockets and a large knife, Aggie brought blankets from the laundry and other things that she thought a lady outlaw would need and they fled through the streets of the city and away into the forested hills.
Escape To The Country
It was a few days before the reality of life in the country hit the fugitives.
Reality one; far from posting job adverts on trees “Prosperous and successful outlaw requires apprentice to learn all aspects of outlawing” outlaws are actually hard to find. Reality two; pies do not last forever.
Reality three; Rabbits and Pheasants a, when they are not hanging on hooks in butchers’ shops are surprisingly nimble.
The cows were more co-operative however and the pair managed to get a few mouthfuls of milk each day once they got the hang of squeezing the teats properly. To add to Sawney’s troubles Aggie was turning into a wife. She was not going to put up with sleeping in the forest, she wanted a roof over her head, if Sawney to find employment with a respectable outlaw she wanted him to get a job as a farmhand and at least bring in a regular wage. Aggie wanted curtains in her woodland bower.
One day, in desperation Sawney said "perhapst there is nae ootlaws guild and nae apprentice ootlaws ye ken. Perhaps ye jes set up as an ootlaw like I did as an errand boy."
"Onest ye've takken an idea in yer heid Sawney Bean there's nay shiftin' o' it. Ye'd better gi' et a try then if ye've the first idea what ootlaws dae that is."
"So ah dae as it happens, hien. Wez gan doon tae the road and wait for a traveller."
"Aye, and then wha?"
"Ah jumps oot in front him an sez 'gi' us yer money Jimmy.' "
"And yer man is gannae kak his pants at th' sight o' yer clarty face and gi' ye his purse ye reckon."
"Aye, that's the way it works. Simple, nae wonder ootlaws dinnae need apprentices."
When the first traveller approached their hiding place the flaw in Sawney's business plan became obvious. The intended victim was a gentleman armed with a sword and mounted on a good horse."
"We could awways wait the next one," Sawney said, confidence draining from his voice as he spoke.
"Awa' wi ye, I need pots and pans and curtains and…..women's' things," Aggie scolded. "Ye get oot there on the road an' rob yon."
"Dinnae be impatient, ah've tae think aboot ma strategy." Sawney dithered.
"Strategy ma end," Aggie said, picking up a stout stick, "ye get doon there and whack yer mon roon the heid wi this."
Sawney took the stick, gulped two or three times. "Ah could dae wi' a swallae Aggie, ye got ony whisky left?"
"Ye're nay getting a swallae 'til ye've done the business," Aggie commanded kicking her boyfriend on the shin. Sawney knew he had lost the argument and charged. Realising that the sight of an undersized, pasty - faced twelve year old would not frighten an armed man Sawney tried to make himself terrifying.
"Gi' us yer purse or dee, wee scabby milksop that ye are," he shouted leaping into the road ahead of the man,. The gentleman's horse took fright and bolted. The rider drew his sword and charged the would be assailant. A low branch that overhung the road caught him on the temple and he crashed to the ground.
"Is he deid Sawney?" Aggie asked nervously as they approached.
Sawney, filled with confidence by his easy victory bent down and with the stolen knife slit the man's throat.
"He is the noo," he said.
"Then get his gold and let's be awa' to buy food and clothes afore onyone else comes by."
"Wait," Sawney said. "If we take the gold and go to the village the constable will be looking for murderers and tramps like us wi' gold tae spend will arouse suspicion. We need tae lie low. I'll kill the horse an' we can lie low and eat that." "Kill the horse, wee blethrin' scunner that ye are. Hoo the hell we gonnae carry a horse. Ah've got a better idea."
And so between them they hoisted the body onto the horse and led it away to a cave they had planned to move into as soon as Aggie got her curtains. By the time they had finished eating the traveller the hue and cry had died down. When they went into the nearest village a pedlar told them it was not uncommon for travellers to go missing in the forest and with such a huge area of trees and scrubland to get lost in, nobody bothered to look very far. Sawney and Aggie lived for a while on salted pork, salted beef, salted everything but they agreed the diet provided by their roadkill had been far more appetising.
They took to the forest again and were rarely seen in town. Nobody thought much about the unfortunate travellers who regularly went missing on the forest roads and were never seen again.
In time Aggie got get cave and learned the difficulties of hanging curtains in such a dwelling. She did have some nice cushions though. Years passed.
Eventually a young English nobleman who had sailed to Edinburgh to marry the daughter of a Scottish Theign decided to return by land with his bride as she was prone to seasickness. Dark tales were told of the forests to the south of Edinburgh and the fates that might befall unwary travellers but the young knight, with all the arrogance of the English upper class, decided there was nothing Scotland could throw at him that he could not handle. (Billy Conolly was not around then of course) The two young lovers set off with their entourage but decided to dawdle and stray from the main road, telling the escorts they would catch up later. They were only a few hundred yards off the track when they dismounted and tethered their horses intending to indulge in a bit of horseplay.
The bride's bodice was no more than half unlaced and not the least bit ripped when the couple were surrounded by ruffians.
"Be off you wuffians, give us some pwivacy" the knight commanded.
"Be careful, his bride appealed, don't make them angry."
"Don't be silly dawing, they are nothing but low - wanking peasants, they will obey the voice of authowity." Now the idiosyncratic version of the Atkins diet favoured by the Bean's, low in carbs, high in protein had kept them lean and mean and productive. Aggie's first daughter had been born when she was thirteen and the mother of the clan was only in her twenties with plenty of childbearing years left when Sawney had fathered his own grandchild. By the third generation the Beans were multiplying exponentially and all of them were somehow closely related to themselves.
Understandably they were not drilled in the social niceties of dealing with newly wedded aristocrats.
The bridegroom tried to summon up all his authority, but one cannot muster much dignity with chain mail breeches round one's ankles. "Be away with you now wogues or I wike Woland at Woncesvalles I shall sound my hawn and summon my men."
"Wad that be Roncesvalles ye ig'rant wee scunner? And arrrrre ye gaein tae fight us a' wi yer todgerrr a dangling like a rrrrat's tail, pustulatin' wee sassernach that ye are?" the chief Bean enquired.
"I warn you I am a fully twained wawwior, I went to Knight school and passed my diploma. I can handle anything you Scots wuffians can thwow at me. "
“ 's that rrright Jimmy," said the chief Bean, then catch this."
"Aw nice one Da', straight in wi' the heid," said another Bean appreciatively as the headbutt crunched on noble nose. Faced with a challenge from a man who rrrolled his rrrrs and the sight of his own blood the young man did what any noble knight would not do. He fainted. The bride, being a Scots lassies was made of sterner stuff. Pushing her boobies back into her bodice she grabbed her husband's sword and using it to keep the Beans at bay edged towards her horse. Slapping the beast's flank with the flat of the sword the young woman whose name was Morag, leaped into the saddle and galloped away to find her armed escort.
When the bride's father heard of the outrage he went straight to King James and demanded that a troop of soldiers be sent to apprehend the villains and rescue his daughters husband. The girl bravely offered to lead the search though she confided to a lady in waiting "I fear I shall never see Woger's - er Roger's - face again."
Once Morag had led the soldiers to where the attack had taken place she was taken away to safety.
It did not take the armed men long to find the cave of the outlaw clan where the Bean's were inside playing their favourite family game, Incest. The outlaws were put in chains and a search of the cave began. It was horrific. In a large store at the back there were smoked and salted limbs, and all sorts of organs, pickled in barrels of vinegar. There were braised brains, smoked tongues, eyeballs in jars of vinegar looking very like pickled eggs, livers (delicious with fava beans and a good Chianti I'm told) and hearts. Battle hardened soldiers felt faint.
Had Morag accompanied them to the cave she would have seen her Roger's face again for, with an apple in the mouth, his head turned slowly on a spit over a wood fire.
Once the Beans were back in Edinburgh the King wasted no time in organising trial by ordeal, a wonderful way of administering justice because if the ordeal does not kill the accused the sentence will. One by one the clan members would be tortured until they confessed to murder and if they survived that they would be executed for lesser offences.
Medieval torturers took great pride in their work, for Aggie they had the ordeal of the stones, piling great stones on the accused's body until every bone was broken but no vital organs damaged. When the torturers were satisfied they would release the prisoners and invite them to walk away on broken legs if innocent, or else confess. Confession earned a quick death for Scotland was a civilised country and the King was a humane ruler. Those who maintained their innocence however were thrown into a ditch and left to their fate.
Aggie was the opening attraction, guaranteed to warm up the large crowd of paying customers because public torture and execution were showbiz as much as justice.It might seem unfair to us in these politically correct times but everybody knew criminals were guilty of being accused because if they hadn't been accused they would not be on trial.
After Aggie's bones had been crushed the chlidren and grand-children, all each other's parents,, uncles, aunts and cousins as well as siblings were dealt with. Finally they reached the star attraction, Sawney himself. He was stood under a high gibbet, his arms tied behind his back. A rope was thrown over the gibbett and hooked through the bond that held the man's wrists. Then he was hoisted aloft. The weight of his body dislocated both shoulders leaving him hanging in extreme agony. Then the torturers began to attach weights to his ankles, continuing to increase the load until the cannibal's arms were torn from his body.
With the last of the Bean's dead all that remained was to bring on the musicians and start the dancing. The good people of Edinburgh all agreed they had never seen such a fine execution and the party went on until the first light of dawn.
The next day all the Beans' body parts were gathered up (except for a few hands and feet that could not be found) and thrown onto a great fire. When this had burned down and the ashes had cooled they were gathered in sacks, rowed across the Norrloch and scattered on a site where now a famous fast food chain has an outlet. So if you are ever dining in Edinburgh think twice before you order a spicy beanburger.
Footnote: This tongue in cheek telling of the story of Sawney Bean is greatly fictionalised to emphasise the comical rather than ghoulish aspects of the tale. The characters are loosely based on real people but historical details of their alleged crimes are vague though cannibalism was involved. Details of the Bean family trial and execution are documented (some details had to be toned down a tad as the tortures used for the clan were ingenious in the extreme). What happened to the remains is a mystery, most likely they were buried in lime in unconsecrated ground.