Tuesday, 30 June 2020

From Sawney to Spain—part 1

Sawney at his work.

Alexander “Sawney” Bean was a caring paterfamilias. Born near Edinburgh sometime in the early fifteenth century, Sawney apparently married a witch, Black Agnes Douglas. This offended the locals who drove them away. Eventually the wandering Sawney and Agnes arrived at Bannane Head near Ballantrae in Ayrshire. There they discovered a large cave in the cliffs above the beach and decided to set up house. For twenty five years, so the story goes, despite the cave mouth being cut off at high tide, the Beans struggled to raise a family.
Disinclined by nature to undertake honest work, Sawney and Agnes took to a life of crime. Venturing out of their rather dank home at night, they waylaid solitary travellers, murdered them, and stole their money. As time went on, the family grew and ultimately, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters shared the cave in a web of relationships that I hesitate to think too hard about. The growing family presented certain practical problems, not least of which was how to purchase enough food with their ill-gotten gains without attracting too much unwelcome attention. Caring father that he was, Sawney overcame this difficulty in an ingenious way: the Beans would eat their victims, pickling what they couldn’t manage at one sitting. This, as it were, killed two birds with one stone, solving the food crisis, while conveniently disposing of the evidence.
Of course, the people in the surrounding area became suspicious as the numbers of disappearing travellers mounted and partly dismembered body parts washed up all along the coast. Searches were mounted, but the cave remained hidden. In frustration, the locals lynched various innocent strangers without much effect. However, things were doomed to go wrong for the Bean’s unorthodox lifestyle. 
Bannane Head with the (in)famous cave.
One night, the family surrounded a couple returning from a local fair. They murdered the woman, but the husband put up unexpectedly vigorous resistance, holding the family off with his sword until help arrived. Four hundred men and bloodhounds soon discovered the Bean’s happy home and led the forty-eight family members away in chains while they tried to prevent their shocked minds dwelling on the sights they had seen in the cave.
Sawney and the male members of his clan were killed by having their hands and feet cut off and being allowed to bleed to death in front of the womenfolk. The women were then burned alive.
Serious historians have cast doubt on the Sawney Bean story, not least because there are no written records and it does stretch credulity to imagine a family of forty-eight cannibals living undetected in a cave for a quarter century while they happily murdered and ate hundreds of people. Of course, that didn’t bother my fourteen-year-old mind on a family holiday to Ballantrae in 1965 and I shuddered deliciously as I peered into what legend identified as Sawney’s cave. It apparently also didn’t bother movie director Wes Craven, who used the tale as the basis for his 1977 horror film, The Hills Have Eyes. Craven revelled in the cannibalism, incest, and violence, but balked at the Scottish weather and set his version in the desert of the America southwest. Wes Craven was smart to avoid the bracing elements of the Sawney Bean story.
Ballantrae Beach on  a calm day.
One of the many meanings of “brace” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is “invigorate.” This is what my mother meant by her favourite word on family holidays in Scotland. It was usually brought out when I was dressed in every stitch of clothing I possessed, bent double against a force eight North Atlantic gale as the foaming rollers crashed on the shingle at my feet. I would beg to go back to our cozy bed-and-breakfast and be told, “Don’t be silly, it’s bracing.” I never understood what she meant because it was the opposite of what I was told at home, “Put a jacket on, you’ll catch your death of cold out there.” Why freezing half to death should be a bad thing at home and a good thing on holiday always escaped me but, despite being braced to excess, I enjoyed these holidays.
I don’t remember us having a family car before moving to Paisley, but at Ferguslie Villa we owned a large, black, square four-door Morris Ten Four, one of the 49,000 or so built between 1933 and 1935. This was back in the days when cars were still such a novelty and roads so quiet that people used to go for a relaxing drive on a Sunday afternoon. On many Sundays we piled into the old Morris and drove aimlessly around the Renfrewshire countryside. Sometimes we would pack a blanket and recreate an Indian Raj picnic. We didn’t have servants or hot weather, but Eve would enthusiastically pack tuna sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, some recent baking and flasks of tea and we would stop at a likely spot, walk into a field or convenient small wood, spread out the blanket and sit and eat while Mac and Meg explored the countryside round about in search of rabbits. It was all delightfully pointless.
More purposefully, the car was also used to take us on holidays. Sometimes this was simply a day trip to Largs on the coast, but some years, like 1965 in Ballantrae and 1963 in Troon, it was a proper summer holiday. In 1961 we went to a bed-and-breakfast on the tiny island of Lismore in Loch Linnhe off Oban. The island is only 9 miles long and 1 wide, but there are several good lochs where Jim taught me fly fishing. I had my photograph taken with two small trout, which the landlady of the B&B kindly cooked up for me as an addition to her already vast breakfasts.
An early interest in rocks
(or golf balls) on Lismore.
Most of the two weeks on Lismore it rained and I sat in a window alcove betting against myself on raindrops racing each other down the glass. There was a bookcase in the house and I read Robert Falcon Scott’s diary and was fascinated at Edgar Evans going mad, Lawrence “Titus” Oates saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time,” and walking nobly out into the snow, and Scott’s descriptions of himself, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson dying in their tent. Even through Scott’s imperial self-aggrandizement and his widow’s careful editing, I sensed that mistakes had been made and things could have been better done. Later reading has convinced me of this, but I still hope that Oates said his iconic sentence.
I was also impacted by two local stories about Lismore. One was of a piper who, with his dog, planned to walk underground between two caves. He played his pipes and they could be heard all over the island, then the sound ceased. The piper’s dog emerged, blind and hairless, but the piper was never seen again. I shivered at the description of the pipers end in his lament, “I was drowning and howling amongst the horrid pools.
Oddly, there is an almost identical story from St Andrews on the other side of the country. There a piper went into a tunnel near the castle to trace old coal workings. People on the ground above followed the sound of his pipes until they stopped. The piper was never seen again and a pattern in the cobbles of the main street is said to be where his pipes fell silent. 
The other Lismore tale was about the time two early christian worthies, St Molaug and St Mulhac, argued about who should build a monastery on the island. They decided to settle it by having a boat race. The first to Lismore got monastery rights. As they neared shore, it became obvious to Molaug that he was going to lose. Resourcefully, if somewhat extremely, he cut off a finger and hurled it ashore thereby claiming that a part of him had won the race. Founding a monastery was a very big deal in those days.
Car journeys in the old Morris were always an adventure, not least because Mac had a weak stomach and would throw up after the first two or three miles. This was a problem until my mother worked out what fraction of a sleeping pill would safely put Mac out for the requisite number of hours. 
Mac wasn’t the only problem. Occasionally I was. One time, deciding that it would be a good father/son bonding experience, Jim suggested that he and I go camping for a weekend. Eve prepared some food, Jim checked the car and I collected the sleeping bags, stove, tent, etc. With me feeling thrilled and very adult, we set off. In those days there were few campsites and it was common to simply camp wherever looked suitable beside the road. As dusk thickened, we pulled into a field and began unpacking. 
“Where’s the tent?” Jim asked.
“It’s…” I said before the slow hideous realization dawned that it was lying on the couch in our living room back in Paisley. I had forgotten the tent and all my misplaced pride in being an adult vanished. Fortunately it wasn’t raining and the old Morris had a high clearance. Jim slept under the car and I scrunched miserably into the back seat. We went home the next day.
Me and the trusty Morris.
On another occasion we were driving at night down to the south of Scotland to visit my aunt. With a surprisingly loud thump we hit a pheasant, which shot up in the air and landed stunned on the road behind us. Jim stopped, ran back, wrung the bird’s neck and with a “Pity to waste it,” threw the limp body onto the back seat beside me. 
Several miles farther on, Jim was broadening my education. “It’s a shame we didn’t hit two,” he said.
“Why?“ I asked loyally.
“Game meat has to be aged to taste its best,” he said. “To do that properly with pheasant you need two, a brace. You hang the birds in a cool shed and leave them. When one rots enough to fall off, you eat the other one.”
While Eve said, “Jim, don’t tell him things like that,” I silently gave thanks that we only had one pheasant. The pheasant itself, which had apparently only been feigning death, decided that now was the time to begin trying wildly to avoid this unpleasant fate. Now, you may not think that a pheasant is a particularly large or threatening bird but, if you are a small boy and one is hysterically flapping around in the back seat of a Morris Ten Four with you, it appears immense and deadly. While my mom attempted to calm me down, my dad stopped and dispatched the pheasant again, this time efficiently.
I used to love the visits to my father’s sister Helen’s place down near Newton Stewart. It was a small cottage called Banks of Dee, but it was set on a large estate, of which I had free run. Jim taught me to shoot his .22 rifle there and I would hunt pigeon whenever I had the chance. I used to dream of coming upon a deer but, given that I only had a .22 and no idea how to clean a deer, it was probably just as well I didn’t encounter one. My cousin, Ken, did, however, and presented my dad and I with a complete haunch. This coincided with Eve spending a week in hospital and Jim and I roasted the haunch and, in fine medieval fashion, cut off hunks of venison whenever we felt hungry.
Eventually, as it approached its fourth decade of life, the Morris faltered. It wasn’t worth much, but Jim decided that he might get a little more for it if it was repainted. He hired me and a school friend to do the job. Unfortunately he gave us too much leeway with the colour. We could see no reason why cars should be black and so decided on a pleasing powder blue. When Jim came back from work, I took him into the garden and proudly showed off the careful job we had done. To his credit he took it very well, commenting only that the car looked like an ice cream van. In retrospect, I was ahead of my time, but I doubt if, back in the 60s, my colour choice added much to the car’s value.

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