The little known tale of Sawney Bean’s daughter

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When I write these articles I am conscious of the fact that, in Girvan, there are a lot of inhabitants who are very familiar with the local history of the area.

I look for tales that perhaps have not been fully appreciated and I bring out and exploit parts which may have been overlooked, but could be of significant interest. Into this category falls a tale relating to Sawney Bean. Now we all are very conversant with the tale of Sawney Bean, which has apparently been in circulation for centuries. This tale, whilst being of long standing, has never been fully authenticated. There are various tales relating to the caves between Lendalfoot and Ballantrae but none as disconcerting as the one in question.

That Sawney Bean and his wife fled from the law to a cave in Ayrshire has been generally accepted in all the tales, but here let me surmise on what drove him to his fateful conclusion. In order to provide for his wife and the children she bore, he would have to resort to stealing. However, there would be small pickings from the local farms without drawing attention to himself, so he turned to mugging travellers along the route to and from Ballantrae. In order to stop them reporting the mugging on reaching the next town, it would be necessary to kill his victims and dispose of the bodies, which brings us to the point where all the tales concur regarding this growing cannibalistic tribe.

But now we come to a tale within a tale as, apparently, one of Sawney Bean’s daughters named Elspeth despised the life they were living and fled to Girvan. She moved in to property in Dalrymple Street, which, at that time, overlooked the sea and kept her nefarious past a secret from the friendly Girvan folk. In her garden a seed took root which grew into what became known as the ‘Hairy Tree’.

However when the exploits of Sawney Bean and his evil family eventually came to light and her past connection revealed, she was hanged from that same hairy tree. A little rhyme came out of this;

‘Under the bough of the hairy tree poor Elspeth choked to death,

The branches that she grew from seed helped steal her final breath

The tree is now a legend, but someday soon I’m sure

We’ll find the spot where Elspeth died and see the tree once more.’

So you can see that this is a tale within a tale and one which some of the local historians may have found interesting. Hope to see you next week.