Thursday, June 30, 2005

Sawney Bean, the Caledonian Cannibal

The view from the entrance of 'Sawney Bean's Cave'. That's Ailsa Crag in the distance...

Yes, I'm back! Let the lyres of joy be heard across the land, let nymphs cavort on the greensward of happiness, let angels parp their trumpets of glee, let.. etc etc etc.

To celebrate my return, here is a longish post. It's a piece of mine that recently appeared in the Fortean Times (and yes I know that rehashing journalism isn't strictly 'blogging' but what the hell, it's MY journalism, and few people read the Fortean Times, despite its being the finest mag on the globe). Ciao!

The Legend of Sawney Bean

I am standing on a grey slate star, embedded in the pavement of Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Today, this spot looks like any other bit of Heritage Britain, only with extra shortcake. Five hundred years ago, if legends are to be believed, it was very different: this was the site where Britain's first and greatest mass murderer was imprisoned; a man so evil his entire family was burned alive, alongside the psychopathic paterfamilias.

This notorious fellow was Alexander 'Sawney' Bean. Gazing down at the sidewalk star, I think back to where I first encountered him.

I was ten years old, and thumbing through my Christmas present – a copy of the 1973 Guinness Book of Records. Amidst the entries on tallest men and swiftest surgeons, I found a chilling and tantalising snippet, claiming that Britain's worst ever serial killer was one 'Sawney Bean'. The Guinness Book's laconic prose told me little more than that, although it did mention that Sawney was a cannibal who lived in a cave.

A Scottish cannibal in a cave? To a 10-year-old boy, that's about as cool as it gets. My interest duly piqued, I spent a fair chunk of my teenage years researching this Sawney Bean character. I did this, first, by tracking down the 'contemporary' accounts of his doings. Eventually, I pieced together a standard version, which goes something like this:
"Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, near Edinburgh, before King James VI became James I of England. His parents were hedgers and ditchers and brought up their son to the same occupation. Sawney, being very prone to idleness, left his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself. These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the shore of the county of Galloway, where they lived upwards of 25 years without going into any city, town, or village."

The narrative goes on to describe how the Beans had "many children and grandchildren", and how they were taught to steal and murder. And worse.

"The family's terrible and bloody method was this. As soon as the Beans had robbed and slaughtered any man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den, where, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled limbs and afterwards eat it, this being their only sustenance. And, notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had superfluity of this their abominable food; so that in the night time they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody habitation. The limbs were often cast up by the tide in several parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all the beholders."

Unsurprisingly, such bestial atrocities caused an outcry. The local 'police' suspected and arrested many men – the wrong ones. Spies were also sent into the wilderness – many of whom never returned. Meanwhile, the Bean family grew larger, as did the number of their victims. Some versions of the story claim that over 1,000 people were eventually eaten by the Beans. The narrative goes on:

"How was it possible the Beans should not be detected? The place they inhabited was quite solitary and lonesome, and when the tide came up, the water went for nearly 200 yards into their subterranean habitation, which reached almost a mile underground, so that when people who had been sent armed to search had passed by the mouth of their cave, they had never taken any notice of it, not supposing that anything human would reside in such a place of perpetual horror and darkness."

But, finally, the Beans went too far. One evening, they attacked a man and his wife, who were making their way home from a local fair on the same horse. The man drew "sword and pistol" to save himself, then rode his horse upon the Beans to drive them away. At the same time, the poor woman fell from behind her husband, and was "instantly murdered before her husband's face, for the female cannibals cut the woman's throat and fell to sucking her blood as if it had been wine". This done, the Beans ripped open the woman's belly and pulled out all her entrails, while the husband looked on aghast. Then came the crucial blow for the Beans. As the family was devouring the woman, "twenty or thirty" fairgoers came down the road. In the face of so many witnesses, Sawney Bean and his clan were, for the first time, forced to withdraw – fleeing through the moors and woods to their cave.

"The man, who was the first that had ever fallen in the Beans' way and come off alive, told the whole company what had happened, and showed them the horrid spectacle of his wife's corpse, which the hungry murderers had dragged to some distance. The company, struck with stupefaction and amazement, took the man with them to Glasgow, and told the affair to the provost of that city, who immediately sent to the king. In about three or four days, his Majesty, with a body of about 400 men and dogs, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was acted. The man who had been attacked was the guide."

For a long time, even the king couldn't find the Beans' hide-out. When he and his soldiers came to the cave, it seemed too bleak and inaccessible to be a 'home'. But then the dogs began barking, wildly. Something was up. The king sent for torches, and prepared to enter the cave. The narrative concludes:

"Now the whole body of soldiers went in, and they were all so shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into the Earth. Human legs, arms, hands and feet were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs, of men, women and children, lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, and an infinite number of other things, which had been taken from those murdered, were also thrown together in heaps.

"Sawney's family was found at the back of the cave. After a struggle, they were seized and pinioned by His Majesty's order. The soldiers took what human flesh they found and buried it in the sands. Then the soldiers and the king returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners. All the country, as they passed along, flocked to see the cursed tribe.

"When the procession came to its journey's end, the wretches were all committed to the Edinburgh Tolbooth, whence they were the next day conducted under a strong guard to Leith, where they were all executed without any process. The men had their privy-members cut off and thrown into the fire; their hands and legs were severed from their bodies, by which amputations they bled to death in some hours. The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators of this just punishment, were afterwards burnt to death in three several fires. They all in general died without the least signs of repentance, but continued, to the very last gasp of life cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations upon all around, and upon all those who were instrumental in bringing them to such well merited punishments."

Even as a child, this story induced in me a degree of scepticism. Could such an extraordinary narrative really be true – or was it made up? If the latter, why would anyone concoct such a gruesome account?

Flash forward 20 years. Here I am in Scotland, searching for the 'truth' about Sawney Bean.

Retiring to a Starbucks just down the Royal Mile, I take up a book. This is one of the most thorough investigations of the Sawney Bean story, by witchcraft expert Ronald Holmes. In his book, Holmes traces the legend back to its earliest publication in about 1700, when it appeared in a fold-it-yourself pamphlet (technically an early 'broadsheet'), printed in Carlisle.

As Holmes relates, the broadsheets of the day favoured gory or heroic stories, simply because these sold best. Unsurprisingly, the Bean story was a great and ongoing success: following the Carlisle publication, the tale of Sawney Bean was then printed in Hull, in Birmingham and then – very many times over – in London.

Thus the story was established in the popular imagination. And, as the centuries passed, the terrifying story of Sawney Bean the Scottish cannibal gained more currency, in fiction and film. Over the years, it has been turned into lurid novels (The Grey Man, by S R Crockett, 1896), and peculiar plays (Sawney Bean, by Robert Nye, 1969); it provided the plot for Wes Craven's 1973 The Hills Have Eyes, it is said to have inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So much for the genesis, dissemination, and ongoing appeal of the Bean narrative. Is there any evidence to back it all up? Well, as I stand on the ancient Royal Mile, site of the now-demolished Edinburgh Tollbooth and marked by that stone star, I have to admit that this location doesn't support the legend. During Sawney's supposed reign of terror, Edinburgh Tollbooth was in no fit state to house prisoners. Furthermore, as Holmes points out, the Glasgow provost, 50 miles from here, would be a very unlikely person to hear reports of criminals in distant Galloway.

The same problems, and more, attach to the supposed site of the bloodthirsty Bean executions. A quick drive from the prosperous heart of Edinburgh takes me to the place where Sawney was allegedly tortured and killed: Leith Docks. These days it is a busy entrepôt for Scandinavian ferries and sits alongside a shopping mall.

Were Sawney & Co. executed here? As with the rest of Sawney's story, there is a paucity of contemporary documentary evidence. What's more, there should be such records: throughout Scottish history, the various doings of the monarch were minutely recorded. From the comings and goings of ambassadors, to trials of traitors and brigands – all were grist to the archivist's mill. Yet in the entire royal records of Scotland there is not one mention of the sensational Sawney Bean arrest and execution. This absence is particularly stark in the case of James VI, as he was a paranoid man obsessed with demonology and witchcraft: he would have found a truly Satanic case like Sawney Bean's as satisfying as it was disturbing – yet he published nothing on the subject.

A definite blank then. Climbing into my car, I pensively head south out of Edinburgh, towards the wild Dumfries and Galloway region. Perhaps there I will find a little more evidence.

As I approach Sawneyland, the Edinburgh road crosses some bleak and forbidding high moors. It is easy to imagine travellers being waylaid here, even now, so imagine what it must have been like in the 17th century.

Or perhaps the 13th century. Or the ninth? One of the most curious aspects of the Sawney Bean story, in all its incarnations, is that the legend's details remain fairly constant - apart from the dating of the actual crimes. From broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI, or the reign of James I more than 150 years before. Other versions claim the Beans thrived "hundreds of years ago" - which could place the murders back in the days of Bruce, or even Macbeth.

Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years. Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership (any Fleet Street journalist, like this writer, knows the process well). To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediæval Scotland, and that Galloway was in mediæval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place, but every story grows and is embroidered over time.

Parking my car, I gaze over the bleak wooded Borderlands, and munch a pink saveloy. Then I take out the writings of another historian, the local historian R J Urquhart. But Urquhart is another sceptic. He points out that Sawney's parents, for instance, are referred to in most accounts as "hedgers and ditchers," and that these are very unlikely occupations for the Scotland of the 16th century, or, indeed, any previous one. The disappearance of "1,000 people" should also, as Urquhart says, be reflected in the private journals, diaries and letters of local inhabitants – no such reflections, from any period, have been found.

As I digest my lunch, I'm finally forced to accept that the legend seriously lacks credibility. But I'm still bothered by my earlier question: why, then, invent such a gruesome tale?

On this matter there appear to be two schools of thought. Ronald Holmes suggests that anti-Scottish feeling, at the time of the Union of the Crowns between England and Scotland, may have led to someone inventing the whole shebang as a way of putting down the Scots. But this idea, at least to my mind, is a bit feeble. For a start, the penny dreadfuls and broadsheets that tell of Sawney Bean are also full of hair-raising tales about highwaymen and pirates. Is the tale of Thaxted-born Dick Turpin an attack on Essex boys? Surely not. If the Sawney Bean story is to be read as deliberately anti-Scottish, how do we explain the equal emphasis on English criminals in the same publications? Wouldn't such an approach rather blunt the point?

The other main suggestion as to why the Sawney Bean story was invented, or at the very least 'sexed-up' from a real, but far less bloodthirsty, event, is a more universal and less historically specific one: that the story somehow satisfies a deep psychological hunger for such horrors. In this view, humans share a dark and morbid obsession with murder, cannibalism and sexualised torture, and therefore we keep on coming up with similar horror stories based on these themes – the ones that frighten and intrigue us the most. The Sawney Bean story is therefore, perhaps, just another inevitable and typical excrescence of our own diseased minds, a kind of psychospiritual acne expressed in the form of legend.

Such a theory does stack up better than the anti-Scottish one. Consider the long life of the Sawney Bean narrative: the way it has sent chills down the spines of so many generations. It has never gone out of print, it has been repeatedly novelised and dramatised and it has actually gained in power with the advent of the horror film. All this makes it a great story – but still a story, a splendidly bloody myth.

Back in the car, I head for my final destination: the supposed cave of Sawney Bean. The road comes off the Ayrshire moors, and heads through the bleak ex-mining towns of the Galloway coast. And still I keep driving. Even though the modern tourist authorities point the curious traveller to "Sawney Bean's Cave", I'm having great trouble finding the site. And maybe this is no surprise. As Holmes and Urquhart both point out, a cave as complex and roomy as the putative Sawney Bean domicile sounds more like the kind of long cavern made by an underground stream. Geologically speaking, there are no such caves in this particular part of the Galloway shoreline.

Eventually, I give up looking, and go into the little seaside burgh of Ballantrae. I ask in the first pub I find. At my question, the merrily pregnant bar girl smiles at me and says: "Oh aye, Sawney's cave!" She directs me a mile back up the coastal road, to Bennane Head.

Parking the car at the top of the Head, I climb out, a little wearily. It's been a long drive. Outside, the rainy air is cold, the wind whipping off the sea. Slowly, I edge down the cliffside, to the alleged site of Sawney's lair. The going is treacherous and more than once I have to grab at the greasy heather. By the time I reach the red sand I am, frankly, knackered. And feeling a little strange. All around me the light is fading; the seagulls are crying. In the distance, the great stone hump of the seabird island, Ailsa Craig, glowers darkly.

At the entrance to the cave I find a kid's graffito of a penis, aerosole-painted across the cave entrance. The great hole itself is blocked by an enormous boulder. So I reach up to take a photo of the cave entrance, holding the camera blindly above the boulder. I take the snap. The flash goes off. All at once, a weird growling noise echoes from the cave. The noise grows louder, and my heart races, my knees buckle, and I stumble backwards, half-expecting to see a kilted Scottish psychopath, his stubbled maw red with fresh human blood, roaring at me from the blackness of the cavern..

Of course, it's just bats and seagulls, disturbed by my flash. This particular cave is empty of human habitation. But as I walk away, I realise that I can't say the same for those deeper, darker caves of the human unconscious.

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John Dashwood said...

Greetings Sean, I enjoyed reading your
Sawney Bean post. Do you have pictures of the boulder blocked entrance? One wonders if it was not blocked by the powers that be, to keep if from being used by more robbers. Just a thought.
I think there must be some truth to this legend. It's just too detailed to
discount without a full investigation.
I think. But please feel free to E-mail me your thoughts on this if you want:



sean said...

Hey John

I did have some photos, but I appear to have lost 'em. Sorry! Bit crap.

Thanks for your comment. I agree the story merits further scrutiny.. certainly it's a curious case.