[NOTE from Modemac: Would this be a real story, I wonder, or one of those

urban legends passed on from generation to generation?]

 

Sawney Beane

The People Eaters

From time to time in the course of human history natural depravity plumbs

new depths - and not only during wars. The Sawney Beane case in the early

seventeenth century concerned a family that lived in a cave and chose

murder, cannibalism, and incest as its way of life. For twenty-five years

this family, rejecting all accepted standards of human behaviour and

morality, carried on a viscious guerilla war against humanity. Even a

medieval world accustomed to torture and violence was horrified.

 

Because over the years a large family was ultimately inolved, most of whom

had been born and raised in fantastic conditions under which they accepted

such an existence as normal, taking their standars from the criminal

behaviour of their parents, the case raises some interesting legal and

moral issues. Retribution when it finally came was quick and merciless, but

for many of the forty-eight Beanes who were duly put to death it may have

been unjust.

 

The case is simple enough, though scarcely credible, and has been well

authenticated. Sawney Beane was a Scot, born within a few miles of

Edinburgh in the reign of James VI of Scotland, who was also James I of

England. His father worked the land, and Sawney was no doubt brought up to

follow the same hard working but honourable career. But Sawney soon

discovered that honest work of any kind was not his natural metier. At a

very early age he began to exhibit what today would be regarded as

delinquent traits. He was lazy, cunning and viscious, and resentful of

authority of any kind. As soon as he was old enough to look after himself

he decided to leave home and live on his wits. They were to serve him well

for many years. He took with him a young woman of an equally irresponsible

and evil disposition, and they went to set up "home" together on the

Scottish coast by Galloway.

 

Home turned out to be a cave in a cliff by the sea, with a strip of yellow

sand as a forecourt when the tide was out. It was a gigantic cave,

penetrating more than a mile into the solid rock of the rather wild

hinterland, with many tortuous windings and side passages. A short way from

the enterance of the cave all was complete darkness. Twice a day at high

tide several hundred yards of the cave's entrance passage were flooded,

which formed a deterrent to intruders. In this dark damp hole they decided

to make their home. It seemed unlikely that they would ever be discovered.

 

In practice, the cave proved to be a lair rather than a home, and from this

lair Sawney Beane launched a reign of terror which was to last for a

quarter of a century. It was Sawney's plan to live on the proceeds of

robbery, and it proved to be a simple enough matter to ambush travellers on

the lonely narrow roads connecting nearby villages. In order to ensure that

he could never be indentified and tracked down, Sawney made a point of

murdering his victims.

 

His principle requirement was money with which he could buy food at the

village shops and markets, but he also stole jewellery, watches, clothing,

and any other articles of practical or potential value. He was shrewd

enough not to attempt to sell valuables which might be recognized; these

were simply stock-piled in the cave as unrealizeable assets.

 

Although the stock-pile grew, the money gained from robbery and murder was

not sufficeint to maintain even the Sawney Beanes modest standard of

living. People in that wild part of Scotland were not in the habit of

carrying a great deal of money on their persons. Sawney's problem, as a

committed troglodyte, was how to obtain enough food when money was in short

supply and any attempt to sell stolen valuables taken from the murdered

victims might send him to the gallows. He chose the simple answer. Why

waste the bodies of the people he had killed? Why not eat them?

he and his wife proceeded to do. After an ambush on a nearby coastal

road he dragged the body back to the cave. There, deep in the Scottish

bedrock, in the pallid light of a tallow candle, he and his wife

disembowelled and dismembered his victim. The limbs and edible fish were

dried, salted and pickled, and hung on improvised hooks around the walls of

the cave to start a larder of human meat on which they were to survive,

indeed thrive, for more than two decades. The bones were stacked in another

part of the cave system.

 

Naturally, these abductions created intense alarm in the area. The

succession of murders had been terrifying enough, but the complete

disappearance of people travelling alone along the country roads was

demoralizing. Although determined efforts were made to find the bodies of

the victims and their killer, Sawney was never discovered. The cave was too

deep and complex for facile exploration. Nobody suspected that the unseen

marauder of Galloway could possibly live in a cave which twice a day was

flooded with water. And nobody imagined for a moment that the missing

people were, in fact, being eaten.

 

The Sawney way of life settled down into a pattern. His wife began to

produce children, who were brought up in the cave. The family were by no

means confined to the cave. Now that the food problem had been

satisfactorily solved, the money stolen from victims could be used to buy

other essentials. From time to time they were able to venture cautiously

and discreetly into nearby towns and villages on shopping expeditions. At

no time did they arouse suspicion. In themselves they were unremarkable

people, as in the case with most murders, and they were never challenged or

identified.

 

On the desolate foreshore in front of the cave the children of the Beane

family no doubt saw the light of day, and played and excercised and built

up their strength while father or mother kept a look-out for intruders -

perhaps as potential fodder for the larder.

 

The killings and cannibalism became habit. It was survival, it was normal,

it was a job. Under these incredible conditions Sawney and his wife

produced a family of fourteen children, and as they grew up the children in

turn, by incest, produced a second generation of eight grandsons and

fourteen granddaughters. In such a manner must the earliest cavemen have

existed and reproduced their kind, though even they did not eat each other.

 

It is astonishing that with so many children and, eventually, adolescents

milling around in and close to the cave somebody did not observe this

strange phenomenon and investigate. The chances are that they did, from

time to time - that they investigated too closely and were murdered and

eaten. The Sawney children were no doubt brought up to regard other humans

as food.

 

The young Sawneys received no education, except in the arts of primitive

speech, murder and cannibal cuisine. They developed as a self-contained

expanding colony of beasts of prey, with their communal appetite growing

ever bigger and more insatiable. As the children became adults they were

encouraged to join in the kidnappings and killings. The Sawney gang swelled

its ranks to a formidable size. Murder and abduction became refined by

years of skill and experience to a science, if not an art.

 

Despite the alarming increase in the number of Sawney mouths which had to

be fed, the family were seldom short of human flesh in the larder.

Sometimes, havign too much food in store, they were obliged to discard

portions of it as putrefaction set in despite the saltling and pickling.

 

Thus it happened that from time to time at remote distances from the cave,

in open country or washed up on the beach, curiously preserved but decaying

human remains would be discovered. Since these grisly objects consisted of

severed limbs and lumps of dried flesh, they were never identified, nor was

it possible to estimate when death had taken place, but it soon became

obvious to authority that they were connected with the long list of missing

people. And authority, at first disbelieving, began to realize with

gathering the nature of what was happening. Murder and dismemberment were

one thing, but the salting and pickling of human flesh impled something far

more sinister.

 

The efforts made to trace the missing persons and hunt down their killers

resulted in some unfortunate arrests and executions of innocent people who

se only crime was that they had been the last to see the victim before his,

or her, disappearance. The Sawney family, securing in their cave, remained

unsuspected and undiscovered.

 

Years went by. The family grew older and bigger and more hungry. The

programme of abduction and murder was organized on a more ambitious scale.

It was simly a matter of supply and demand - the logistics of a troglodyte

operation. Sometimes as many as six men and women would be ambushed and

killed at at time by a dozen or more Sawney's. Their bodies were always

dragged back to the cave to be prepared by the women for the larder.

 

It seems strange that nobody ever escaped to provide the slightest clue to

identify the domicle of his attackers, but the Sawney's conducted their

ambushes like military operations, with "guards" concealed by the road at

either side of the main centre of attack to cut down any quarry that had

the temerity to run for it. This "three-pronged" operation proved

effective; there were no survivors. And although mass-searches were carried

out to locate the perpetrators of these massacres, nobody ever thought of

searching the deep cave. It was passed by on many occasions.

 

Such a situation could not continue indefinitely, however. Inevitably there

had to be a mistake - just one clumsy mistake that would deliver the Sawney

Beane family to the wrath and vengance of outraged society. The mistake,

when it happened, was simple enough - the surprising thing was that it had

not happened earlier. For the first time in 25 years the Sawney's, through

bad judgement and bad timing, allowed themselves to be outnumbered, though

even that was not the end of the matter. Retribution when it finally came

was in the grand manner, with the King himself talking part in the end game

- the pursuit and annihilation of the Sawney Beane tribe.

 

It happened this way. One night a pack of the Sawney Beanes attacked a man

and his wife who were returning on horse-back from a nearby fair. They

seized the woman first, and while they were still struggling to dismount

the man had her stripped and disembowelled, ready to be dragged off to the

cave. The husband, driven beserk by the swift atrocity and realizing that

he was hopelessly outnumbered by utterly ruthless fiends, fought

desperately to escape. In the vicious engagement some of the Sawney's were

trampled underfoot.

 

But he, too, would have been taken and murdered had not a group of other

riders, some twenty or more, also returning from the fair, arrived

unexpected on the scene. For the first time the Sawney Beanes found

themselves at a disadvantage, and discovered that courage was not their

most prominent virtue. After a brief violent skirmish they abandoned the

fight and scurried like rats back to their cave, leaving the mutilated body

of the woman behind, and a score of witnesses. The incident was to be the

Sawney's first and last serious error of tactics and policy.

 

The man, the only one on record known to have escaped from a Sawney ambush,

was taken to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow to describe his harrowing

experience. This evidence was the break through for which the magistrate

had been waiting for a long time. The long catalogue of missing people and

pickled human remains seemed to be reaching its final page and denouement;

a gang of men an youths were involved, and had been involved for years, and

they had to be tracked down. They obviously lived locally, in the Galloway

area, and past discoveries suggested that they were cannibals. The

disembowelled woman proved the point, if proof were needed.

 

The matter was so serious that the Chief Magistrate communicated directly

with King James VI and the King apparently took an equally serious view,

for when he went in person to Galloway with a small army of four hundred

armed men and a host of tracker dogs, the Sawney Beanes were in trouble.

 

The King, with his officers and retinue, and he assistance of local

volunteers, set out systematically on one of the biggest manhunts in

history. They explored the entire Galloway countryside and coast - and

discovered nothing. When patrolling the shore they would have walked past

the partly waterlogged cave itself had not the dogs, scenting the faint

odour of death and decay, started baying and howling and trying to splash

their way into the dark interior.

 

This seemed to be it. The pursuers took no chances. They knew they were

dealing with vicious, ruthless men who had been in the murder business for

a long time. With flaming torches to provide a flickering light, and swords

at the ready, they advanced cautiously but methodically along the narrow

twisting passenges of the cave. In due course they reached the charnel

house at the end of the the mile-deep cave that was the home and

operational base of the Sawney Beane cannibals.

 

A dreadful sight greeted their eyes. Along the damp walls of the cave human

limbs and cuts of bodies, male and female, were hung in rows like carcasses

of meat in a butchers cold room. Elsewhere they found bundles of clothing

and piles of valuables, including watches, rings and jewellery. In an

adjoining cavern there was a heap of bones collected over some twenty five

years.

 

The entire Sawney Beane family, all forty-eight of them, were in residence;

they were lying low, knowing that an army four hundred strong was on their

tail. There was a fight, but for the Sawney's there was literally no

escape. The exit from the cave was blocked with armed men who meant

business. They were trapped and duly arrested. With the King himself still

in attendance they were marched to Edinburgh - but not for trial. Cannibals

such as the Sawneys did not merit the civlized amenities of judge and jury.

 

The prisoners numbered twenty seven men and twenty one women of which all

but two, the original parents, had been convceived and brought up as

cave-dwellers, raised from childhood on human flesh, and taught that

robbery and murder were the normal way of life. For this wretched

incestuous horde of Scottish cannibals there was to be no mercy, and no

pretence of justice if every any one of them merited justice.

 

The Sawney Beanes of both sexes were condemned to death in an arbitrary

fashion because their crimes over a generation of years were adjudged to be

so infamous and offensive as to preclude the normal process of law,

evidence and jurisdiction. They were outcasts of society and had no rights,

even the youngest and most innocent of them.

 

All were executed the following day, in accordance with the conventions and

procedures of the age. The men were dismembered, just as they had

dismembered their victims. Their arms and legs were cut off while they were

still alive and conscious, and they were left to bleed to death, watched by

their women. And then the women were burned like witches in great fires.

 

At no time did any one of them express remorse or repentance. But, on the

other hand, it must be remembered that the children and grandchildren of

Sawney Beane and his wife had been brought up to accept the cave dwelling

cannibalistic life as normal. They had known no other life, and in a very

real sense they had been well and truly "brain-washed", in modern

terminology. They were isolated from society, and their moral and ethical

standards were those of Sawney Beane himself. He was the father figure and

mentor in a small tightly integrated community. They were trained to regard

murder and cannibalism as right and normal, and they saw no wrong in it.

 

It poses the question as to how much of morality is the product of the

environment and training, and how much is (or should be) due to some

instinctive but indefinable inner voice of, perhaps, conscience. Did the

young members of the Beane clan know that what they were doing was wrong?

 

Whether they knew or not, they paid the supreme penalty just the same.

 

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