It had been one of the best days that they had ever had but it was about to end in tragedy and one of the most shocking discoveries not only in Ayrshire but in the whole of the civilised world.
It was the last Sunday in October in the year 1512 and the sun had been shining when Blacksmith Gilbert and his wife Helen arrived at the Feein’ Fair in Kirkdandy. People had come from near and far and the market was well underway by the time that they got there. There must have been around fifty tents spread up and down the field, and the travelling merchants were doing a rare trade in selling their sheep and bartering their wool. A score of domestic servants and farm hands chatted in a corner of the field before being auctioned off to the highest bidders for a year’s toil. But today Gilbert wasn’t there to hire anyone; he was there to meet up with some auld friends and to enjoy their company. Connell the Tanner and his wife Robina, Big Tam the Flesher, Rab the Souter, Farmer John and his bean-chèile Sandra, Willie the Weaver and his bydie-in Bessie and Shepherd Jim were already there and welcomed their dear friends with open arms and warm ale.
They filled their bellies with cold haggis, ham, cheese and bread to the sound of pipes and fiddles, ballad singers and wandering minstrels. Helen and Robina left the others and joined the queue of women, young and old, waiting outside of Egyptian Ethelinda’s tent to get their fortunes told. When Helen’s turn came around she cautiously entered the unlit tent where an olive coloured face with huge bright eyes and golden earrings awaited. She handed over the silver coin and fortune teller took her hand gazing along the lines on her palm before speaking in an accent that she found hard to understand.
Although the words may have been unclear there was no doubting the message and she ran out of the tent and back into the light as fast as her feet would take her.
She didn’t want to upset anyone though so she tried to compose herself before joining her husband and friends.
“Are you alright?” asked Gilbert, “You’re looking helluva peely-wally, huv ye seen a ghost or somethin’?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine” she replied, avoiding eye contact. “I’m jist a wee bit tired that’s a’”
“Well I guess that it’s aboot time to be heading hame oanywie” her husband suggested. “Some of the young lads are getting a bit fu’ wi’ the drink and we don’t want to be here when the fighting stairts”.
After saying their goodbyes, they collected their horses and started the fifteen-mile ride home along the Devil’s Trail to their Blacksmith’s Cottage in Kirkcudbright-Innertig. They had been riding for almost an hour when they reached Craigneil Castle. Perched high on a rocky crag above the River Stinchar with its tall rectangular tower, it was an imposing sight at any time of the day but as night approached it became a scary looking place. Helen peered up at where the castle should have been instead she saw a giant coffin with a long arm stretching out reaching into the darkness of the low clouds. And then she heard a noise among the willow trees. It was only the sound of a twig breaking, it was probably caused by a red deer but it could have been a grey wolf or something even more macabre. Spooked by her earlier encounter with the fortune teller, she wasn’t waiting around to find out. Instead, she darted off along the trail, her horse broke into a gallop and faster and faster she rode until all of a sudden, crash!
Down went her horse throwing her into the bracken. She was stunned only for a few seconds but when she opened her eyes she was surrounded by strange creatures. In the darkness, she initially thought that they might have been wolves or wild boars but then she realised that the animal skins she could see were covering the bodies of what were presumably men, although men like these she had never seen. They looked grotesque, there must have been more than half a dozen of them, but none of them stood upright, instead, their bodies bent forward their long arms reaching the ground on either side of them. Although they were caked in mud she could see that their bodies were little more than skin and bone. She was beginning to wonder when these creatures had last been fed when they started to get closer and closer to her. One grabbed her by the hair and pulled her towards him, she looked into his eyes but saw no sign of humanity. She braced herself fearing the worst but she was not prepared for what was to happen next. He bit her! He bit her right in the face taking a chunk out of her cheek. “Whit the ……” but she never got to finish the thought as all of the others joined in biting her and eating her raw flesh.
Gilbert then arrived on the scene but at first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. What was he witnessing? He first thought that it was perhaps a sounder of wild boars attacking a stray sheep but then realised that it was something much more hideous, that was no sheep but his dear wife Helen and they were not wild boars but some kind of beings that he had never seen the like of. They were not animals nor were they human but instead some hideous mixture of the two. He dismounted his horse and ran towards the monstrous vermin, brandishing his small sgian-dubh as if it was a giant claymore. The blood-thirsty creatures ceased devouring his wife and turned their hideous heads at their assailant, revealing their gargoyle-like faces with raw flesh and blood dripping from their salivating lips. But it was too late, what was left of her body, little more than a pile of bones lay still on the ground. Within a few minutes, they had literally eaten her alive!
Gilbert lashed out at them with his small knife but to no avail. These creatures knew no fear and instead, they turned on Gilbert. Fearing for his life, he turned around and ran back along the trail towards the castle. He ran faster than he had ever run before but he couldn’t shake off the feral beasts that scurried after him in search of their next meal. Just as he thought that his fate would be the same as Helen’s he reached a group of young lads who were also making their way home from the fair. There must have been about twenty of the strapping young farmers, more than enough to match the ghastly pack pursuing him. The monstrosities immediately realised that the odds were stacked against them and quickly disappeared into the thicket. The lads gave chase but couldn’t find hide nor hair of the savages, after a fruitless chase they eventually gave up. They then accompanied Gilbert to the castle where he reported the horrifying events to its owner Lord David Kennedy the Earl of Cassillis. The Earl had heard repeated reports over the last twenty-five years or more of people travelling through his lands going missing. There had been over a thousand such reports but there had never been any evidence and not even one body had ever been found. Gilbert’s experience changed all this.
The Earl sent a messenger to his good friend King James IV and within the week, the King himself arrived at Craigneil Castle with an army of four hundred men and three packs of bloodhounds. They searched the Carrick countryside high and low for five days and found nothing but as they approached Bennane Head the bloodhounds barked and ran towards the sea.
King James sent a small party on foot to see what they could find. Five young soldiers scrambled over the treacherous rocks and down towards the stormy sea where behind a huge boulder they found a small entrance to a sea cave. As they approached the opening a powerful, pungent, disgusting stench caught them in the back of their throats causing them to choke and cough. The sound was enough to warn the cave dwellers and more than a dozen long-haired bearded filthy creatures emerged to confront them. The King’s men scrambled back up the rocks to safety and reported to the Regent. Several hundred men accompanied the King as he ventured down towards the cave. The creatures had disappeared back into their cave but the nauseating stench had not. Covering their noses and mouths the King and his men made their way through the entrance and into a labyrinth of underground passageways. Drying body parts were hanging everywhere and beside the decaying bodies, vast amounts of stolen jewellery and heirlooms were scattered on the ground. They were met by almost fifty repugnant troglodytes. But no fighting ensued; instead, their leader stepped forward and introduced himself to the King. His name, he said, was Alexander “Sawney” Bean.
The Caledonian cannibal and his wife, Agnes had raised eight sons and six daughters and through incest 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters. They were all bound in chains and marched over one hundred miles to Edinburgh where they were sentenced to death, the women and children were hung on stakes and before being set on fire, they were forced to watch the men of their clan being slaughtered. The male bodies were slowly dismembered and left to bleed to death as a reflection of their own cruelty.
During the entire execution, not one member of the Bean family showed any sign of fear or remorse they just spat obscenities towards their captors. Through it all, and up until his final breath, Sawney Bean continuously repeated the phrase, in as loud a voice as he could muster, “it isn’t over, it will never be over”.
In November 1512, Scotland rid itself of forty-eight cannibals but is it really over? Were all of Sawney Bean’s off-springs captured or is it just possible that some got away? Could there be descendants of Sawney Bean alive today continuing his sick and evil legacy? Will it ever be over?
Whenever you hear that someone is missing, or for a day or two hasn’t been seen, remember the tale of Sawney Bean!