From time to time in the course of human history natural depravity plumbs new depths—and not only during wars. The Sawney Beane case 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 vicious guerrilla war against humanity. Even a medieval world accustomed to torture and violence was horrified.
Sawney Beane was born in a small East Lothian village not ten miles from Edinburgh. His father worked the land, 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 vicious, and resentful of authority of any kind. He left his father and mother, 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 twenty-five years, without going into any city, town or village.
In time the clan grew to the size of forty eight children and through incest, grandchildren. The brood, brought up without and notions of humanity or civil society, supported themselves wholly through robbery. They murdered all from whom they stole, and sustained themselves on their pickled and salted flesh.
Hundreds went missing and it is estimated that over a quarter of a century the Sawney Beane clan murdered over a thousand men, women and children. They cast unwanted limbs to the sea, which washed up on distant and local beaches, much to the horror of the coastal communities. In time the areas reputation reached the ears of the authorities and, in these suspicious times, many innocent people were executed for Sawney’s crimes.
Several honest travelers were taken up on suspicion and wrongfully hanged upon bare circumstances: several innocent inn keepers were executed, for no other reason than that persons, who had been thus lost, were known to have lain in their houses, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them, and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent a discovery. Thus an ill-placed justice was executed with the greatest severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent, atrocious deeds; so many innkeepers, who lived on the western road of Scotland, left of their business, for fear of being made examples of, and followed other employments.
Galloway became a feared and depopulated place, and no one escaped their clutches…except one.
One night the clan 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 disemboweled, ready to be dragged off to the cave. The husband, driven berserk 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.
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 dyouths 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 disemboweled 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 he then went in person to Galloway with a small army of four hundred armed men and a host of tracker dogs.
The King, with his officers and retinue, and with the 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.
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 passages of the cave. In due course they reached the charnel house at the end of the mile-deep cave that was the home and operational base of the Sawney Beane cannibals.
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 civilized 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 conceived and brought up as cave-dwellers, raised from childhood on human flesh. For this wretched incestuous horde of Scottish cannibals there was to be no mercy, and no pretense of justice if every any one of them merited justice.
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- 05-Low // Sunflower
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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.
They died without the least sign of repentance, but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life.