Monday, 28 October 2013

Putting Meat on the Table!

Scotland in the early 16th Century was largely a lawless place once you left the perceived security of the towns and cities. Out in the wilds of the countryside all manner of unpleasantness was rumoured to lurk and only the very brave or the very foolish would dare to travel far from the beaten track without the safety of a large group. One part of Scotland however had a reputation so fearful that travellers would go far out of their path to avoid crossing this portion of land; that area was Girvan in the south-west of Scotland on the Ayrshire coast.
Today it is an area of exquisite natural beauty beloved of both nature lovers and golfers as well as those seeking to follow in the footsteps of Scotland's bard Robbie Burns. Back in those long gone days not all of the locals were as welcoming to visitors as they are today.
Over the course of 25 years a hundred, possibly as many as several thousand people vanished while travelling through the rolling hills and fields and while the authorities did what they could to solve these mysterious disappearances, and indeed several innkeepers were tried and executed on suspicion of being involved, people continued to go missing!
Dismembered limbs washed ashore
The only clue as to what had happened was the dismembered limbs which were washed ashore from time to time along the Ayrshire coast to horrify the locals and reignite the calls for action to be taken. In response to these calls local magistrates turned to the highest powers in Scotland demanding that assistance be given. Soldiers were dispatched to find and capture those responsible but they returned empty-handed. There was no trace of the guilty to be found.
The disappearance may well have continued for another 25 years were it not for a mistake made by the killers when they ambushed a young couple returning from a market and fair. The couple, on horseback, were set upon and the unfortunate wife dragged from the back of their mount to be immediately murdered and torn asunder by a mob of wild men and women more animal than human. The husband using pistol and sword managed to win free from their clutches but could do no more than ride for his life pursued by the shrieking blood crazed savages.
This time the authorities were determined to put a stop once and for all to the crimes and once again they set forth to Edinburgh to demand help. Their pleas came to the ears of King James IV who was as outraged by the bloody crimes as the people of Ayrshire were. He ordered a small army of 400 soldiers be assembled and led them personally to put an end to these murderous bandits himself.
Aided by a pack of trained hounds the king and his men found a deep cave on the very shore itself where the murderers lived and from where they surrendered when the King demanded they do so.
The criminals numbered 47 in total and it quickly became obvious they were the incestuous results of decades of inbreeding led by the head of the family and his common law wife.
His name was Alexander Beane, a former labourer from East Lothian near Edinburgh who had decided that hard work was not for him. He had headed off in search of pastures new in the company of a woman named Agnes Douglas. Unwilling to earn a living by honest means they instead took to robbing and murdering travellers on the roads of Ayrshire and soon discovered the most profitable way to dispose of the bodies of their victims was to eat them!
They raised a family in their home which was a cave on the shoreline whose entrance was below water at high tide and meant that no'one ever thought to look for them there. These children as they grew to adulthood were bred with by the parents and between themselves until a great gang of murderous cannibals roamed the dark roads around Girvan and brought terror to all until they were finally captured. Their cave was found to contain the smoked and pickled remains of dozens of men, women and children! The king ordered the whole clan be shackled in heavy chains and taken to Edinburgh.
There was no question as to their guilt and it was decided that the punishment should fit the crimes. On the cobbles of the Royal Mile outside St Giles Cathedral the male members of the family had their arms and legs hacked from their bodies and they were left to bleed to death. Once the last man had expired the women, who had been forced to watch the death of their menfolk, were bound together around a stake and burned to death in front of a jeering crowd of thousands.
That then was the end of the reign of terror of Alexander (Sawney) Beane and his murderous family.
That, at least, is the legend of Sawney beane but just how much of it is true?
Probably none of it.
There are no records of any of those hundreds of missing people. No court records to show the trial of innkeepers thought to be involved and even the identity of the King varies from version to version. King James I, the IV and the VI are all named as being the one responsible for solving the problem. Even the name 'Sawney' is a clue as to where the story originates: England. Sawney was an old and derogatory term for the Scottish and the story first saw the light of day in the early 18th Century when English suspicions of Scots and their Jacobite leanings were always at the forefront of suspicion minds.

One interesting footnote to the legend is that the tale of a murderous cannibal family inspired Wes Craven to make the movie The Hills Have Eyes!

So from the Ayrshire hills to the Hollywood hills the story of blood, incest, greed and murder stretched across the centuries.

This post is written by Stuart S Laing - Review Blog author and writer of 18thc Scottish mysteries


  1. Very interesting. Strange that if it is Hanovarian propaganda that it would feature King James (of the supplanted dynasty) personally sorting out the murderers? Seems to shoot itself in the foot somehow!

    1. True, but the main thrust was to show the barbarity of Scotland and the Scots and reinforce the idea that the whole place was less civilised than England. While it shows a Stewart monarch capturing the killers it did stress his disregard for law by ordering the barbaric method of execution (not the type of behaviour you would get from the trustworthy Hanoverians)

  2. Great post! Could there also have been a connection with the Covenanters and all the grisly stories that emerged from south-west Scotland during that period?

    1. It's a possibility. The south-west of Scotland seems to have suffered more than most areas during the 'Killing Times' with summary executions and kangaroo courts. The Wigtown martyrs are a grim example of the brutality displayed against the Covenanters.