Even though Robert Louis
Stevenson did visit the coastal village of Ballantrae in 1876 — and
claimed that the populace stoned him out of the place for the eccentricity
of his dress — he did not set his book The Master of Ballantrae (1889)
in the neighbourhood. At the date of his visit, however, a popular ghost
story was going the rounds. The tale concerned the ghost of Sawney Bean,
a celebrated seventeenth-century murderer who ate his victims. Bean was
thus famous in the history of Scottish folklore as instances of
cannibalism are rare north of the Tweed/Solway line.
Bean’s ghost is said to
haunt the family’s cave beneath Bennane Head, north of Ballantrae. Here
the Beans had taken up residence when Bean’s common-law wife, Black
Agnes Douglas, had been driven out of Ballantrae as a witch. For
twenty-five years, folklore says, they and their family lived in the cave
and survived by eating the cadavers of waylaid travellers.
At last King James VI and I
sent a posse of men with bloodhounds to flush them out, and in the cave
the posse discovered human limbs hanging from the roof and an assortment
of mortal flesh pickled in barrels. Bean, Agnes and their forty-six
assorted family were rounded up and taken to Edinburgh for execution.
Before he died, Bean put a curse on the cave and thereafter strange
incidents have been recorded nearby. Even up to modern times the police
have logged reports from drivers along the nearby roads having to break
sharply to avoid ghostly figures.