Last week I did something out of the ordinary for me. I went to Scotland to do conduct research for a book. Usually I do research with libraries and archives remotely, but this book demanded feet on the ground. Why? Simply put, some of the materials I needed couldn’t be accessed or copied remotely, and if you are going to write about Scotland, you have to walk in the footsteps of key characters.
When I write a non-fiction WWI book, going to the locations of battles really doesn’t help. The changes to the terrain and geography doesn’t give a good representation of the same ground during battle. That, and the biographies I write tend to be about the people, not the locale.
My book on Sawney Bean is different. It is a piece of legend/myth/folklore. It is tied to the land and people here, which demanded being on-site. Yes, things have changed, but there is a part of Scotland, her bones, which hasn’t changed. If you don’t believe me, drive along the west coast. Yes, the road is new, but the land is almost exactly as it was during the 15th/16th centuries. So with my wife/aide in tow as my research assistant, I made the decision to track down this legend on the ground.
I began our trip at the end of Sawney’s life – in Edinburgh where he was allegedly tried with his inbred clan, and executed. I spent an afternoon at the Scottish Registry, combing the records for any hint of the Bean family tree. Records are scarce in the period I was researching but I did find some intriguing tidbits for the book.
The site of the Tolbooth in Edinburgh, actually on the Royal Mile
Day two was a long-planned day at the Scottish National Library. I’m used to accessing old records, it’s part of the business of a historian. This was different because I was holding paperwork that dated to the 18th century. This stuff dated to the time of the American Revolution and earlier. I discovered some wonderful material and arranged to have some of it copied for the book. I also tracked down the location of the Tolbooth where the Bean clan was imprisoned. I can tell you it was fascinating to walk the ground. Moreover I discovered some things about the origins of this myth that no other historian has unearthed to date. That felt good, it always does. We also managed to get in a tour of Edinburgh castle, which was great research for the fantasy book project I have been mulling over.
We then took the train to Ayr so that I could spend some times in the collections of the Carnegie Library. Ayr is a quaint working town with a wonderful history intertwined into the folklore of the Bean’s. I got several gems of material and some new areas to research. Did you know that King James I killed over 3000 witches during his reign? Wow. How does this tie into the Bean saga? Well, for that, you’ll have to read the book.
The next day we rented a car to go down and visit Girvan, the alleged site of the Hairy Tree (a corollary to the Sawney Bean legend). From there I drove down to the location of the alleged cave of Sawney Bean. We were in a driving rain (mostly horizontal, I’m told that’s a “good Scottish rain.”) only to discover that the locals had put up a barrier to us accessing the cave. I don’t blame them, too many people have allegedly been injured on such hijinks. I did see the location of the cave, through the blinding rain. We drove through Girvan but I didn’t get a good site for a photo for the book.
We drove the next day to Dumfries in the south of Scotland so I could go to the Ewart Library for some research. Again, it was fantastic. At the same time we walked all over Dumfries and even found a bar named Sawney Bean’s. The owner opened it up for me to get some photos. It was neat, and a little strange. Imagine naming a restaurant after Charles Manson’s family or Ted Bundy’s crime spree. There is something a little light-hearted about the Bean clan’s legend, almost tongue-in-cheek, with the locals. Yet at the same time, it is a perfect example of how this bit of folklore has embedded itself into the local mythos.
The author above Sawney Bean’s in Dumfries
Scotland is spectacular and we were off of the traditional tourist trails, which is something I always enjoy. We met some fantastic people who were warm, friendly, and very assistive in my research. I can’t wait to go back and see the country as a tourist. More importantly though, I surfaced some stunning material for the book! Keep posted to this blog for more information.