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Ghost of Sawney Bean

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.

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