We could all use a little light heartedness I think.This is my retelling of the Scottish folk legend of Sawney Bean and his clan. There are many versions, some of them may even have a grain of truth in them, who knows? The story starts in the style of a tour guide taking a party into the underground city and goes downhill from there …
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 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 Medieval Scotland was a wild place and the rule of law was often superseded by clan squabbles, religious conflict and wars with the English which were something of a national sport for both countries.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, clerks, the waged workers, the hired help, below them the day labourers, chimney sweeps, stable hands, fetchers, carriers 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 singing, as they made their rounds, their night soil mens’ song: “We are the night shite shifters, shifting shite by night.”
But not all was shifted by the night sh — sorry, the night soil men, for the servants of those posh people who lived on the upper floors of those tall, narrow houses it was a long schlepp down many flights of narrow, winding stairs to where buckets could be left full and would mysteriously be empty the next morning, so if there were no solids the lazy servants would save themselves a trip. Have you ever wondered where “loo” the most polite British slang word for whatever you call the smallest room originated?
Well those servants in the tall houses, who all spoke French because Scotland’s was allied with France in the wars against England and the posh people insisted on speaking what they though was a more sophisticated language, would open an upper floor window and with a cry of “Gardez! L’ eau,” would empty the contents of their master’s or mistresses piss pot into the street below.
There was no chance of the people who lived in the underground city doing that of course, but most of temn were so poor they didn’t have a pot to piss in anyway.
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 level of the Niddrie Wynd was a lad of about twelve 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. Saweney talked to other servants and to labourers and carters, he 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. In Sawney’s mind it was a magic kingdom, a different world from the dark, smokey, stinking passages where he spent his days.
Having 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 Sawney developed a plan. It was not a good plan but where would a boy from the wynds learn to make think intelligently and make feasible plans.
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 thirteenth birthdays they decided to run away together and become 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 a bar of soap. Neither of them knew what soap was for but they knew it was greatly prized among people higher up the Edinburgh higherarchy. Together they made their way up to street level and making sure nobody saw them, fled through the streets of the city and away into the forested hills.
They were so piss poor they did not have a pot to piss in, not that such things mattered in the greenwood, any tree, bush or rock would do as a toilet. Most importantly they had each other and they had their freedom. They even had blue faces though that was due more to the chilly nights than the influence of William Wallace.
It was a few days before reality hit the fugitives. Reality one; Far from posting job adverts on trees “Prosperous and successful outlaw requires apprentice to learn all aspects of the outlawing business”, outlaws are actually quite hard to find. Reality two; pies do not last forever. Reality three; Rabbits, 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 from an outlaw’s Moll into a Scottish wee wifey. She was not going to put up with sleeping in the forest, she wanted a roof over her head, a pot to piss in and a place to hang curtains. And she wanted Sawney to find employment with a respectable outlaw and bring in a regular wage. Aggie wanted curtains and other soft furnishings.
One day, in desperation Sawney said “perhaps there is no outlaws guild and no apprentices. Perhaps you just set up as an outlaw 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, ye ken.”
“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’ a wee scuggan like ye wi’ yer clarty face, and gi’ ye his purse ye reckon.”
“Aye, that’s the way it works, ye ken. 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 o’th next yin,” 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 yon roon the heid wi this, noo gaun yersel’.”
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. 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 noo, ye ken,” he said.
“Then get his gold and let’s be awa’ to buy food and clouts an’ some nice curtains fer yon cave 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 moron that ye are. Hoo the hell we gonnae carry a horse. Ah’ve got a better idea.”
And so between them they hoisted the dead man’s body onto the horse and led it away to a cave they had moveed into and planned to decorate 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 they did turn their rudimentary dwelling into a desirable and stylishly decorayed cave though Aggie was disappointed to learn the difficulties of hanging curtains in such a dwelling due to lack of windows. She did have some nice cushions to console her though. Wayfarers continued to go missing in the forest and the well fed young couple matured. Inevitably, as well fed young men and women with time on their hands will, they started a family.
More travellers went missing.
The Bean family grew and became an unusually close knit family unit.
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 the girl 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 and one’s weak rrrs inviting mockery. “Be away with you now wogues or I like Woland at Woncevalles shall sound my hawn and summon my men.”
“And arrrrre ye gaein tae fight us a’ wi yer todgerrr a dangling like a rrrrat’s tail, pustulatin’ wee sassernach gobshite 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. Leaping into the saddle and slapping the beast’s flank with the flat of her husband’s 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 daughter’s 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 todg — er Roger’s dear 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, who’s your father, or incest as it is known in England. 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 potted brains, smoked tongues, soused pancreases, eyeballs looking very like pickled eggs, livers (delicious with fava beans and a good Chanti I’m told) and stuffed hearts. There were large rump steaks taken from a pirate’s wife (avast behind,) and sausages made from the bits we all have but would rather not think about Battle hardened soldiers felt faint.
Had Morag accompanied them to the cave she would have seen her dear Roger’s face again for, with an apple in the mouth, his body 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 long 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 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, the stretch of water that once filled the valley between Castle Rock and the new town, to be scattered on a site where now a famous fast food chain has an outlet. So if you are ever dining in an Edinburgh eatery that has an impressive view of Castle Rock and the old town, think twice before you order a spicy beanburger.
This story is also available at Greenteeth Digital Publishing and on my Authors Den fiction pages. It was originally published in the Kedco anthology Millennium Dawn. It may be reproduced but please credit me as author and link my name back to my Medium profile page