Is this the real Sawney Bean?

During the reign of David II (1329-71) Scotland as a nation was in a state of devastation. With the exception of a short period in the reign of Robert the Bruce she had, for the previous fifty years, scarcely enjoyed a year of peace and quiet. Instead the country was repeatedly harried firstly by Edward I and then by his son Edward II. The land had gradually got out of cultivation and many of the sheep and cattle, on which the people relied, were either driven into England or slaughtered to feed the invading armies.

In much of the country food simply could not be purchased and many of those who could afford to fled and took refuge in Flanders. Those who had no money to pay for their passage left their homes in favor of the woods, where many, to appease their hunger, lay on the ground and like the native animals fed on the acorns and nuts that fallen from the trees. Where these meager pickings could not be found the very branches of the trees were gnawed, and many poor creatures were found with the half-masticated boughs in their clenched hands. It seems almost strange to state that the growth of dysentery and intestinal diseases were almost a godsend as they swept off thousands who would otherwise have died of protracted famine.

It would be difficult to draw a picture of the misery and desolation present in Scotland at that time, the imagination falls short.

At a wild spot in the foothills of the Grampians a number of destitute beings had gathered with the aim of catching what little animal life that remained. They agreed to associate together and divide they prey equally in the small mountain cave where they had gathered.

Every morning both women and men ventured forth, at first they managed to catch a few animals, mostly hares and foxes, and occasionally wolves as ferocious and hungry as themselves. On the few occasions when they were successful they sat down on the spot where the animals were caught, divided them among their number, and devoured them without any culinary preparation. However, it was increasingly becoming a futile search.

The band of hunters turned gatherers and searched the woodland floor for acorns, but the time of year had passed and no nuts were to be found. Weakness preyed on their limbs and several of their number, being unable to search further for food, simply lay on the floor of the cavern in the agonies of starvation. All ties between the members of the association began to give way before the despair of absolute famine. No notice was taken of each others agonies, nor were the groans, which sounded hollow through the cavern, capable of attracting more then a moments attention before individual pain once again laid hold of their tortured feelings.

Andrew Christie, a butcher from Perth had endeavored at first to organize the society, with a view to saving both himself and his fellow sufferers. He was a strong, hardy man and if any of the number could be said to retain a small portion of self-command in the midst of the horrible scene of suffering it was this man. He was still able to walk, although with difficulty, occasionally going outside and seizing on any grubs that were to be found at the mouth of the cave. The others were too weak to follow his example and laterally even he became unfit for his loathsome search.

At Christie’s side a woman ceased to groan. The thought struck him that the woman may be dead and he put a hand over her mouth to confirm the fact. She was no more. The dead body was a talisman in the temple of misery – in a short time that body was gone. A prejudice overcome is an acquisition of liberty, though it may be for evil, and the death of this one woman had saved the lives of them all.

Christie saw the predicament of his friends and proposed in the hollow, husky voice of starvation, that one of their number should die by lot. Then having recovered strength they should proceed to the mountain pass and procure victims. The lot of death fell on another woman. They proceeded to the pass headed by Christie where they killed a traveler by knocking him on the head with a hammer and this operation was repeated whenever their hunger returned.

No selection of victims was made unless there was a choice between a foot passenger and a horseman, the latter of whom was always preferred for the added food provided by the horse. The unsuspecting rider would be dragged from the saddle with a large iron hook fixed to the end of a pole, an invention of Christie’s which afterwards gave him the dreadful name by which he became known (Cleek is the Scots word for "hook"). That which hunger at first suggested now became a matter of choice – a feast of cannibals.

It was not long before news reached the ears of the government and an armed force was dispatched to the hills to capture the cannibals. After several days search they found their quarry and in the early evening twilight they attacked the cavern. The fight was short but bloody as the group fought for their very lives. Most were either killed in the fight or taken prisoner, but some, including Christie, escaped capture and fled into the mountains. The bones of the victims were collected and taken with the prisoners to Perth, where, upon being counted, it was estimated that the cannibals had killed no fewer than thirty travelers.

There is a well documented case of a cannibal couple in Perth during this same period of time, but according to the court records that are available, both of these creatures were captured and put to death. It is probable that Christie-Cleek is indeed the same fellow - and perhaps his escape from justice as related here is an historic embellishment added at the time - a nightmarish coda to teach a lesson for generations to come - to scare children, and adults, on a dark and rainy night.

Or perhaps Perth was merely a hotbed of cannibals, and Christie-Cleek was not unique!

Tom Doran

"Christiecleek! Christiecleek!" quickly became the national nursery bugbear. No child dared to cry after that charmed name escaped from the lips of the nurse and even grown men shuddered at the mere mention of the term.

David Maxwell had a good wife, three young daughters and was a well-liked and prosperous merchant in the town of Dumfries. He was applauded for his charity and godly manner and he received great sympathy from those who knew him as it was reported that he had lost an only brother among the victims of Christiecleek. This fact had been carefully hidden from his wife until they quarreled one day over her constant use of the name to subdue their daughters when they were boisterous. The silence of the mother had, however, no effect upon the girls. To their fathers dismay the more they were requested to cease terrifying each other with its use, the more terrible it appeared and the more they used it. If they abstained from the use of the name in the presence of their parents then the more it was heard in the passages and dark rooms of the house, wherever the dreaded being might be supposed to be.

The pastime was general throughout Scotland and David Maxwell’s children only followed an example that was to be followed for the next five hundred years. "Christiecleek! Christiecleek!"

Time rolled on, the father became a very old man and the three daughters grew into beautiful and caring young women who took delight in helping their mother to care for the invalid. After they became entrusted with the family secret they replaced the cry of their youth with love and pity for the brother of the victim of the terrible fiend. At last, surrounded by his wife and family, it became David Maxwell’s time to pass on to his eternal reward. He seemed, however, to be wrestling with some dreadful thought which allowed him no rest, but wrung from him heavy groans and muttered prayers.

His wife pressed him to open his heart to her as he had throughout their marriage, or failing that to allow her to send for Father John of the Monastery of St Agnes and be shrived. The daughters wept to hear such melancholy statements and the old man sympathized with them, which gave him additional pain.

After a great struggle he turned to his wife and said, "Wha is to tak care o’ my dochters when I an consigned tae that cauld habitation whar a faither’s love and an enemy’s anger are alike, unfelt and unknown? My effects will be sufficient for the support o’ my household, but money, without a guardian, is only a temptation to destroyers and deceivers. If I could get this point settled to my satisfaction I micht die in peace."

"You’ve never tell’t me o’ yer freens, David," said his wife. "A circumstance that has oft grieved me. Why there’s hunners o’ Maxwell’s in Dumfries an’ the Stewartry, surely among them’s a relation, nae matter how distant, wha’s honesty ye trust tae act as guardian."

"Yet I dinna want relations," groaned the dying man. "I hae a brither."

"A brither!" chorused mother and daughters in astonished unison. "Was he no killed by yon monster, Christiecleek?"

"No," answered David with great pain.

"Whar does he live and what’s his Christian name?" speered the wife in something resembling a state of shock.

"Is it his Christian name ye ask?" said the old man.

"Surely David," replied the wife. "His family name maun be Maxwell."

"But, it’s not Maxwell," said the old man in great pain.

"Not Maxwell!" exclaimed his wife. "What is it then?"

"Christie!" uttered the old man with a loud groan. The mere mention of the name produced a strange effect on the minds of both wife and daughters. Now in place of the long lost Uncle they saw not a helpless victim but the hated Christiecleek himself, and also explained the horror that David Maxwell had shown whenever the name was mentioned in his presence.

Mother and daughters retired for a few moments from their father’s chamber, to allow their excitement to settle and to gather their thoughts.

By comparing notes the came to the conclusion that their father, having been ashamed of his connection with the being, had, understandably, changed his name and stopped all discourse with him. Now, on his deathbed, his feelings had overpowered him and forced him to make the awful confession – realizing that he had no control over who or what his brother was, the family resolved to console the father in his grief and shame and thus returned to his bedside.

"This brother," said his wife. "I fear is little worthy o’ your friendship, and the change o’ yer name is doubtless the consequence o’ virtuous shame at the connection. But can it really be true yer brither is that man o’ the mountain cavern wha’s name sae frightens the bairns o’ Scotland? Tell us, David, is this the burden that troubles ye sair? Yer wife and dochters will think nae less o’ ye for having been unfortunate."

This speech apparently contained the fatal secret for it had a great effect on the bedridden patient, who rolled fron side to side and sawed the air with his sinewy hands, as if in a state of madness.

"We were speakin’ o’ a guardian for my dochters," he said at last. "I said that I had a brither ca’ed Christie. Ye promised me consolation. Is this yer consolation tae a deein’ man? For twenty years I‘ve hated the very sound o’ that dreadfu’ name, and now, when I’m on my deathbed, speakin’ o’ curators for my bairns, ye rack my ears by tellin’ me that I’m the brither o’ Christiecleek! Would Christiecleek mak’ a suitable guardian for my dochters? Would Christiecleek tak’ care o’ their bodies and gowd as well as he tended tae his victims in the Highland cave? Speak, Agnes!"

His wife saw that she had gone too far and begged his pardon for having made such a suggestion. "Ye’ll forgive me, David," she said. "For the remark I made his dune ye a great injustice. For how is it possible to conceive that sic a guid man as yersel’ could be sae nearly related to a monster like him? But ye’ll hae tae explain tae me the change o’ name. How have you and yer brither got different surnames?"

"Because," said the dying man, turning around to stare with lackluster eyes into the faces of his loving family. "Because, I am Christiecleek!"

This article was written by David Morrison, and was adapted from "Tales Of The Border and of Scotland." It is used with the kind permission of the author.

This article is copyright © 2001 by David Morrison. All Rights Reserved.