We occupy a uniquely privileged position in human history. For more and more people, the prospect of wild animal attack or death through starvation is remote, even laughable. For our ancestors however, these were very real and ever-present threats. All over the globe, huddled around campfires, people spun stories transforming wolves and the desperate actions that some resort to in the grips of famine, into chilling tales of the supernatural. As with all horror, the terrifying masks we conjure by firelight hide something far uglier.
The cannibal family, or clan, is familiar to most horror fans from mid-70’s films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, but the folkloric roots of the cannibal family go much deeper.
It is said that in the mid-16th Century, Southwest of the burgh of Giran, Scotland, a curious spate of disappearances puzzled local authorities. Searches throughout the region yielded no clues, save for a coastal cave. But it was reasoned that no-one could possibly live in such a cave, with its entrance submerged for parts of the day.
Returning from a fair, some revellers made a startling discovery; the bodies of a married couple being dismembered and eaten by their attackers, who fled upon discovery. King James I ordered a search for this cannibal clan. Searchers decided to storm the coastal cave at Bennane head, following a trail of scattered human bones more than 60 metres down into the darkness.
Within, they found the family of Alexander “Sawney” Beane. The family, mostly the product of incest, had been surviving on a diet of villagers procured during midnight raids. The legends disagree on the 48-strong clan’s exact number of victims, although some place it as high as 1000.
The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth gaol in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial. the men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed, and were allowed to bleed to death. The women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive.
Legend also had it that one of Beane’s daughters escaped and settled in Girvan, where she was eventually discovered and hanged by the boughs of a Dule tree called “The hairy tree” that she herself had planted.
Historians consider the tale of Sawney Beane to be a legend, principally because of the lack of reports of death or disappearances from the region at the time. However, it shares several similarities with at least two other reported events in which criminals were arrested and killed for murder and cannibalism, only to have a daughter escape and be later convicted of the same crime, which suggests that there may be a kernel of truth to the Beane Legend.