[NOTE from Modemac: Would this be a real story, I wonder, or one of those
urban legends passed on from generation to generation?]
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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