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Scottish Folklore

The Kilted Ancestors Topic for January 2022 is 'Scottish Folklore'

Ok, so this topic has been a bit of a difficult one for me as I am more likely to be interested in hearing Ghost Stories than I ever would tales of fairies, giants or monsters. But then Scotland has masses of stories & tales which centre around them, most of which were likely told by Scottish Storytellers in years gone by to entertain their audience with tales of the supernatural, legends or myths.

There is one Scottish story that has fascinated me since primary school & that is the Flannan Lighthouse mystery when 3 lighthouse men mysteriously disappeared in 1900. Ok, so its perhaps not the same as Folklore but it has always intrigued me!

So, in thinking about Folklore I thought I would consider my own family memories in relation to this so will list out a few of the things that stick in my head: -

The Brownies

From age 7 till 10 I attended the Brownies (a part of the Girl guides) in Scotland. When I think back the Brownies were steeped in things that related to Folklore. Firstly, there were teams within the pack who had names such as the Sprites, Pixies, Gnomes, Elves etc. Then there was the Toadstool which mostly stood in the middle of the room, where I would put my weekly fee of 10 pence. The Toadstool was also the place where you would place 3 fingers when you took your Brownie Promise & would recite the following to obtain your badge: -

I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God,

To serve the Queen & help other people & to keep the

Brownie Guide Law.

The Brownie leaders all had Owl names such as Brown Owl or Snowy Owl & you had to call them by these names whilst at Brownies.

I really did enjoy it & would proudly put on my brown cotton dress which had lots of front pockets, a brown leather belt and a yellow tie & brown bobble hat.

Activities ranged from working towards getting badges by learning activities such as First Aid, Sewing, Pet Care etc. Songs would also be sung, there would be remembrance parades, fitness activities, camping trips, day trips & all sorts of amazing things to do.

Interestingly Billy Connolly took the Village Peoples song ‘In the Navy’ & turned it into ‘In the Brownies’. I remember people singing this song to me as a child when was leaving for Brownies & it always makes me smile when I hear it now.

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Written in 1943 this book was presented to me at the Sunday School I attended as a child. It was the only book I read time after time & not too many years ago I retrieved it from my Mums loft & reread it. Although it is not a Scottish book it does cover stories about fairies, enchantment & mystical lands & was the only book of this nature that I ever liked.

The Book focuses on the adventures of Jo, Bessie and Fanny who have their cousin Dick over to stay with them, it is worth noting that the children’s names in later editions were renamed to Joe, Beth & Frannie & their cousin Rick. The children all take their cousin on an adventure up into the Magic Faraway Tree & along with their friends ‘Moon-Face’, ‘Silky’ the fairy & ‘Saucepan Man’ (who lived in the tree) would visit lands at the top of the tree that regularly changed. These feature the Land of Take what you want, the Land of Birthdays & the Land of Topsy Turvy to name a few & present the children with all sorts of fun, challenges & shocks along the way.

I loved this book so much that I just had to buy it for my niece as a child.

Sawney Bean

The Story of Sawney Bean also sparks a family memory for me & not because my family are cannibals as you will find out later!!

Believed to have been born in East Lothian in the late 1400s, Sawney Bean was a tanner. On marrying he moved to Bennane Cave close to Ballantrae in Ayrshire. This would perhaps not be anyones ideal first home but the cave provided the couple with lots of passages that could be extended to accommodate a growing family.

Life for Sawney & his wife was tough & lacking in trade Sawney turned to Robbery by ambushing passing travellers. This type of work presented the problem that he may be identified so he made the decision to murder his victims. Even today Ballantrae it rather isolated, so Sawney realised that to save on trips to purchase food for him & his wife they would be able to live on the meat butchered from his victims’ bodies.

His wife would go on to have 14 children & not surprisingly like their parents they all developed an appetite for human flesh.

Depiction of Sawney Bean - Public Domain - Wikicommons

As the children grew up, they would have incestuous relationships which would lead them all to produce their own families…. the increase in the size of the Bean Clan meant that more bodies had to be found & would see the family refine their skills when it came to murder & the cooking & preserving of these bodies. It was also said that body parts were found washed up on the local beaches in the area from time to time.

As you read this you may think of mass murderers & people who go missing never to be found again, but what happened at Ballantrae was on a different scale! It was said that the local missing persons list was the longest ever created & although searches for these people were carried out their Cave was never checked.

Over the years the family & their appetite for human flesh grew which ultimately called for bodies in larger numbers. These killings would be carried out by the Bean Clan before taking the bodies back to their women who would prepare the meat & place it in the larder.

Eventually something had to go wrong, right? On one evening the Bean family attacked a man & his wife as they returned home from a local fair. The woman was attacked first & with no chance of survival the Bean family started to disembowel her. The man however fought hard to try & escape from the Bean family. At the same time a larger group people who had also attended the fair came across the skirmish & after a violent battle in which they were outnumbered the Bean family were forced to withdraw to their cave leaving the poor woman, her upset & angry husband & the crowd of witnesses behind.

The husband appeared before the Magistrate of Glasgow who on hearing the story & putting this together with ever growing list of missing persons & washed-up body parts decided to take the matter to King James I who arrived in Ayrshire with an army of 400 men & dogs where he launched one of the largest manhunts ever seen in Scotland.

It was said that when the kings army found Sawney Bean & his Clan they surrendered with no fight. The were jailed & executed without trial with the men having their body parts cut off before being left to bleed to death & that the women were burned on stakes.

At no time did any of them show remorse!

There is another legend spoken about in Girvan a town next to Ballantrae that says that one of Beans daughters left the comfort of their cave & set up home in Girvan. She planted a tree in the area & was said to have been hanged from this tree when the family had been captured & that this tree would be known as the ‘Hairy’ Tree.

There is no proof of the existence of Sawney Bean & his family, many believe this to be a mythical story, but then others believe the legends to be true.

It is said that many films over the years have been based on the story of Sawney.

About 8-9 years ago I visited Edinburgh with my sister-in-law, niece & nephew & whilst there we visited Edinburgh Dungeons. My Nephew at this stage was quite young & still of that age that he would have been unsure what was true & what was not. As the actress talks the audience through the story of Sawney Bean, she singled him out, telling him that he was not to worry, that he would be okay & that she would keep him safe from Sawney & his Family. I can always remember his little eyes looking around the room not quite sure what to think about the situation…. would he be okay, would the rest of his family not? Was this scary murderous cannibalistic family going to eat everyone in the room?

Now weirdly when I think of the story of Sawney Bean it takes me back to that family day out & my poor wee nephews face unsure what to make of the story.


Why not join in with some of the amazing events taking place in my Kilted Ancestors Facebook Group which will also be embracing Year of Stories during 2022!

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