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The Ayrshire Cannibals

by Cassandra West



     Throughout history, men have used high vantage points in order to lie in wait for their victims. Never was such a tactic more expertly used by anyone than by the Ayrshire Cannibals, an incestuous, demented, atavistic family in the early sixteen hundreds.
      They made their ‘home’ in Bennane Cave, by Ballantrae in Ayrshire- a cave a good mile long, carved by nature into solid rock, with many winding passages…. A cave which flooded twice a day, and which no one suspected could ever be used as a dwelling place.
     Travel was dangerous in the best of weather and in the bright light of day during those times. No one ever knew when they might be thrown from a horse which would then abandon them, or if marauders or robbers might assail them.
     Still, people continued to take their chances along the narrow, rough roads, across very wild terrain, for people had business to attend to.

     Sawney Bean and his wife were roughians with no education and no morals. They discovered they could make a living by ambushing people and then dragging their bodies back to the cave to be stripped, robbed of their belongings and then cut up like animals to be hung on hooks and preserved as ‘meat.’
     The Beans spawned fourteen children, who quickly learned the family ‘business.’ There were more and more tales of people ‘disappearing’ in the area, and occasionally, strange bits of flesh or body parts or bones would be found washed up in the rivers. The Beans often had to dump some of the ‘meat,’ because regardless of their preserving techniques, some of it would always rot and have to be disposed of.
     This was a total puzzle to the magistrate. They realized something had happened to the people to whom those body parts belonged, but it never occurred to anyone that someone would be killing people and using them as meat.
     It is probable that at times, someone had seen children playing near the cave, or found something suspicious, but the Beans were skilled at killing and erasing any evidence that no one ever found them. They most likely killed anyone who ventured too close to their lair.

     As it is with almost any criminal though, they finally made their first and last mistake.
     After 25 years of the most hideous and unthinkable crimes, they had pounced upon a young couple riding home from the fair one day and killed the woman. The man was horrified and put up a good fight. The shock of seeing them so quickly strip and disembowel his wife gave him the strength to ward them off.
     More people returning from the fair happened upon them and rushed to his rescue. The Beans were predictable cowards when things were not in their favor. They fled to their cave to hide.

     The group took the rescued man to the Magistrate of Glasgow to relate his story. This was the breakthrough so long awaited. Now, there was an explanation for all the disappearances over the previous 25 years, and they might be close to capturing the culprits who caused them.
     The crime was considered so serious that King James VI himself went to Aryshire with four hundred men to help in the search.
     Still, just as many other times before, the searchers nearly missed the cave, and would have again if the hounds with them hadn’t smelled the scent of death and yanked at their chains in an effort to pull the men through the watery cave.

     After a long time of winding through the dank, forbidding tunnels, they finally reached the place where the Beans stashed their victim’s clothing and treasures. Not far from there, was a place where the bones were stacked, and not much farther, they reached a putrid, horrifying sight which proved once and for all, their worst suspicions of cannibalism were true.

Human carcasses had been cut up and lined the walls of the cave on hooks.

     They fought back their nausea and finally came upon the Bean family, whereby they fought them and dragged them outside.

     The crimes were so unspeakable that normal justice was cast aside. All twenty seven men and twenty one women of which all but the original parents being born of incest, were marched by the King and his entourage to Edinburgh and condemned in a haphazard trial.
     The general consensus was that the Beans had lived outside the mores of decent society- had broken every law known to God or Man, and as such, should be dispensed with forthwith.
     The men had their limbs cut off while they were still alive, and they were allowed to bleed to death. The women fared no better. They were burned at the stake.

An old Scottish Ballad ‘Sawney Bean’ is provided here.

The ballad of Sawney Bean

Go ye not by Gallowa
Come bide a while, my frein
I'll tell ye o the dangers there -
Beware o Sawney Bean.

There's nae body kens that he bides there
For his face is seldom seen
But tae meet his eye is tae meet your fate
At the hands o Sawney Bean.

For Sawney he has taen a wife
And he's hungry bairns tae wean
And he's raised them up on the flesh o men
In the cave of Sawney Bean.

And Sawney has been well endowed
Wi daughters young and lean
And they a hae taen their faither's seed
In the cave o Sawney Bean.

An Sawney's sons are young an strong
And their blades are sharp and keen
Tae spill the blood o travellers
Wha meet wi Sawney Bean.

So if you ride frae there tae here
Be ye wary in between
Lest they catch your horse and spill your blood
In the cave o Sawney Bean

They'll hing ye ap an cut yer throat
An they'll pick yer carcass clean
An they'll yase yer banes tae quiet the weans
In the cave o Sawney Bean.

But fear ye not, oor Captain rides
On an errand o the Queen
And he carries the writ of fire and sword
For the head o Sawney Bean.

They've hung them high in Edinburgh toon
An likewise a their kin
An the wind blaws cauld on a their banes
An tae hell they a hae gaen.

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