Sunday, 3 February 2008

Fleshing out the cannibalism myth

It is the creative marriage from which dreams – or more probably nightmares – are made. One of the most celebrated but macabre of modern novelists has fleshed out the story of Scotland’s most terrifying cannibal, Sawney Bean.

Louise Welsh, the author of such dark tales as The Cutting Room and The Bullet Trick, has researched and scripted a new radio documentary about Sawney, the brutal man-eating thug who is said to have terrorised a swathe of South-east Ayrshire for more than 20 years in the late 16th century.

Presenter and subject seem brilliantly matched. Sawney is one of the most enduring myths, partly because people are fascinated by stories of cannibalism, said Welsh. And she should know. The author recently wrote an essay about Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, and is fast becoming an expert in the field of human-on-human dining.

According to legend, Alexander (‘Sawney’) Bean and his wife lived in Bennane Cave, on the cliffs south of Girvan. From this dark and terrible place, the couple and their children terrorised the local countryside, laying ambushes for travellers whom they robbed and murdered, removing the corpses to their cave where they were dismembered and eaten.

It is said that Sawney was hunted down and brought to trial on the orders of James VI but “there is no paper trail” said Welsh and these supposedly real events are all part of the Sawney legend.

“Like all myths there might a germ of fact in there, but the Sawney Bean story that we know now is a construct. Whatever inspired it has been lost, but the reason it survives is that it speaks to quite elemental things within us, taboos, fears, fascinations with things which might go wrong – and we know that cannibalism from time to time might happen,” she said.

The legend was vivid enough for English cartoonists who used images of Sawney to characterise the Scots, particularly during the 1745 rebellion. However, Welsh believes that the myth had existed in Scotland long before their neighbours latched onto it and said it was more significant that the English had cannibal legends of their own.

“There was a cannibal, like Sawney, who was said to live in Cornwall. The story of Cinderella had an element of cannibalism before the Victorian cleaned it up. It’s fascinating that these myths persist,” said Welsh.

“Part of this is about breaking taboos, because these sorts of stories are ways of exploring things that we are frightened of. But they also appeal to something quite base in us as well. There is a kind of thrill – I don’t mean that people are sexually excited by cannibalism, but I think there is a thrill from facing our fear.”

Readers and viewers find something cathartic and even pleasurable in stories about cannibalism, she added, which in turn fuels sales of true-life crime stories and builds audiences for films such as Alive – centred on acts of cannibalism among the survivors on an air crash in the Andes in 1972. There was nothing morbid about an interest in these stories, said Welsh.

“I don’t subscribe to the theory that if you watch lots of horror movies then you will go out and commit some kind of outrage. When you get frightened in those kind of ways, endorphins are released – it can be a pleasurable kind of experience. That’s why horror movies are popular – you get frightened in a kind of pleasant way, and there’s a kind of excitement.”

We should be thankful that Sawney did not exist, but not feel too guilty even if we found ourselves laughing at his supposed exploits, said Welsh.

“Sweeney Todd is macabre, but quite funny as well. He puts people into pies, not any old pies, but the most popular pies in London. People enjoy them – they really taste good. There is maybe another fear, that if we tasted it, perhaps we’d like it. When you’re teasing children you say: ‘And the ones that tasted the best were the children’.”

Cannibalism jokes had even found there way into Billy Connolly routine, she noted. “Sawney is Scotland’s version of Robin Hood. He steals from the rich. And then eats them.”

* Case Reopened, BBC Radio Scotland, 1130am, February 4.

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