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Exploring the SWC300

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The South West of Scotland has been dubbed Scotland’s Secret Corner, and with some justification.  Most tourists from the south hurtle past it on the A74, heading for the Highlands, whilst those from the north by-pass it for destinations in England and elsewhere.

What this companion volume to my Exploring the NC500 seeks to do, is give an insight into the history and culture of this neglected part of Scotland.  Because of its proximity to England, it suffered badly during the Wars of Independence.  Centuries later, there was religious persecution during what came to be known as the Killing Time.  And yet another threat came from the reivers.

A war-torn landscape it certainly was – but it was also a place of culture.  As well as being Burns’s birthplace, it also produced a good many people to be proud of such as the founder of the American Navy, the founder of the Trustee Savings Bank, scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell, writers such as S.R. Crockett, and a good many more men and women of distinction.

At the other end of the spectrum, it was home to a fair number of villains, one of the most notorious being Sawney Bean…

On the northern side of Bennane Head, halfway between Ballantrae and Girvan, there is, no, not another castle, but a cave that was inhabited by (Alexander) Sawney Bean.

He is thought to have been born towards the end of the 14th century to an agricultural labourer or ditch-digger in East Lothian.  Sawney tried following in his father’s footsteps but didn’t care for it much.  Too much like hard work.  There must be an easier way to earn a living, so he thought.  Bad boy, he ran away from home with a woman named “Black Agnes”, reputed to be a witch.

After thieving and robbing their way through southern Scotland, this charming couple set up home in the cave aforesaid. A des res, by no means, but beggars can’t be choosers.  They made a living by robbing and murdering passing travellers. Happily for the Beans, the entrance to their cave was cut off at high tide, which is why they escaped detection for their murderous misdeeds for so long.  It was assumed no human beings would live in such a place. But then the Beans were not really normal human beings.

And so they lived happily in their cave, and in due course along came a string of other little Beans – eight sons and six daughters.  Well, to be fair to them, there wasn’t much to do, stuck indoors waiting for the tide to go out.

Teenagers, as we know, tend to incline towards boredom.  It’s a stage they have to go though.  For the want of something better to do, Sawney’s teenagers turned to incest. Given their upbringing, they were hardly the sort who could be taken home to meet the intended in-laws for Sunday tea.  Anyway, Agnes and Alexander eventually became proud grandparents of thirty-two grandchildren!

At more than 600 yards long, with side passages which served as “bedrooms”, the cave was roomy enough for all.  But there was a problem: there was an awful amount of mouths to feed and they could hardly pop down to the corner shop for provisions.  In fact, their appearance in such a small community would be remarked upon.  They needed to keep their heads down.  

The solution was blindingly obvious: they turned the victims they robbed into protein. Indeed, they showed a measure of foresight too as they pickled body parts of their victims against times when passing travellers were few.

The beginning of the end came when a young man and his wife, on their way back from a fair, were attacked by the Beans.  She perished, but he was skilled in the art of self-defence and held them off until he was rescued by some people also returning from the fair.  It was the first time anyone had seen who was responsible for these mysterious disappearances and the body parts which were occasionally washed ashore.  The hunt was on to find their lair.  It is said that James I personally took charge at the head of four hundred men.

Eventually the Beans were tracked down to the cave by bloodhounds, where the hunters found, amongst items of jewellery and other valuables – piles of human bones, dried body parts hanging from the ceiling and others picked in barrels.  Never, in their wildest nightmares, did they expect to see that.

Exploring the SWC300 by David M. Addison: Video Promo

Read more about Exploring the SWC300 on the Extremis Publishing website.