Interesting If True - Episode 38: That One Time In Scotland
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that makes you hungry.
I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me is:
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that if everyone who smelled it is dead, ‘twas Poseidon who dealt it. More on the depth’s smelly gasses in the patron segment.
That one time in Scotland
The pandemic and the incompetency of our last administration has made it harder and harder to make ends meet. Our unemployment rate is higher than ever before and access to good healthy foods is near impossible without being loaded. I decided to look back through history and find a story of perseverance, a story of people, who, when the chips were down picked themselves off and made a new life for them and their family. This story comes from Scotland back in the 1700’s when life wasn’t nearly as fun and easy as it is now, this story recounts the life, love, and eventual destruction of one Sawney Bean.
Alexander “Sawney” Bean was born the son of a poor farmer in the late 17th century. Growing up a poor farmer Sawney felt like his talents were being wasted. His talents, by the way, were being incredibly lazy. So he ran away from home and took to the streets to see if he could make some easy money. During this time he fell in love with a woman named Agnes Douglas who was into the same things as him, being lazy, it was kismet! Not long after their marriage Swaney and Agnes were run from town, though exact reasons why are unclear, though one source claims Agnes was accused of witchcraft. Now on their own, destitute and alone their luck was about to change. While searching for a place to stay the couple found a great abandoned cave off the coast of South Ayrshire, kind of South West of Glasgow. The cave stretched about a mile into the earth and had a single entrance that disappeared with high tide, a perfect place to build a new family.
Lacking a trade, it was Sawney’s plan to support his new wife on the proceeds of robbery. It proved a simple enough matter to ambush travellers on the lonely narrow roads that connected the villages of the area. You remember Sawney was quite lazy, this seemed like the easiest method for making money. They fed themselves by living off the land. Lest images of wheat, turnips, fish and rabbits come to mind. Disabuse yourself of that notion. Old tales claim the means by which the Bean’s sustained themselves was by robbing any man, woman or child unlucky enough to cross their paths.
Swaney soon worried he could be identified by his victims and made the decision, not to stop, but to kill his victims. A lot harder to finger someone when you’re dead. After the bodies were looted and carefully searched Swaney had another brilliant idea, why let this meat go to waste…
Once dead, the Beans removed the corpses to their lair and chopped them up. They satiated their immediate hunger before prudently pickling some leftovers for when times were lean.
The years passed and the family grew. The eight sons and six daughters needed feeding so they continued in their barbarous practices, hunting in a pack to ensure that their quarry could not escape. One estimate puts the amount that the family killed at around 1,000 souls.
The high protein diet seemed to have been effective as Mrs Bean started to produce little baby Beans. Fourteen little Beanie babies in total, each with a very unhealthy appetite for human flesh. As the Beanie babies grew up and in turn, through incest, produced Beanie babies of their own, their cooking pots increased in size dramatically. Over two decades, generations of Beanie babies grew up in Bennane Cave, refining their skills of murder and cannibal cuisine including, the now lost art of salting and pickling the flesh, they prepared for leaner times. When their rations would eventually spoil, we all forget stuff in the back of the fridge, they would toss the meat into the sea leading to curiously preserved but decaying body parts discovered washed up on the surrounding beaches.
The local authorities had by now established what must have been, and what must still be to this date, the longest missing persons list ever produced. Although mass searches of the area were carried in order to locate either the missing people or their murderers, nobody ever thought to search the depths of Bennane Cave.
As the years went by the family grew older and thanks to their high protein diet, bigger. And as the family grew so did their appetite. As many as half a dozen victims would be ambushed and killed at a time in military style operations by the Sawney Bean army. The bodies were taken back to the cave to be carefully prepared for the larder by the women folk. I’m serious about the military operations, the family posted lookouts to signal when travelers approached and the family waited in ambush. No one survived a Bean attack as the family would leave guards to kill anyone who escaped.
The Bean’s kept their bellies full while stories of vicious beasts and hungry ghosts swirled around the village. Local innkeepers became suspects as they were usually the last people to have seen the missing person in question. Many innkeepers grew fearful of being wrongly accused and several of them abandoned their inns for other occupations entirely. The Bean’s kept eating.
Even in the best-planned operations however, things sometimes go wrong. It happened one evening for the Sawney Bean army, when they attacked a man and his wife as they were returning home from a nearby fair. One group pulled the woman from her horse and had her stripped and disemboweled before the other group had a chance to wrestle the man to the ground. Realising the fate that was about to fall him he fought desperately to escape, driving his horse into and over his attackers. As he fought for his life, a group of twenty or so people also returning from the fair happened upon the scene. After a brief and violent exchange the Sawney Bean army found itself, for the first time ever, at a numerical disadvantage and promptly retreated back to the cave to consider this situation. As they retreated they left behind the mutilated body of a woman as evidence, a score of witnesses and one very angry husband.
The man was taken before the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow, who after hearing the tale and putting this together with his longest missing persons list ever and the many reports of the mysterious pickled body parts, decided to take the matter straight to the top. King James I promptly arrived in Ayrshire with a small army of four hundred men and a pack of tracker dogs, and together with a band of local volunteers, launched one of the biggest manhunts the country had ever seen.
Like before, the search extended through the Ayrshire countryside and coastline and like before, nothing was discovered. That was however, until the dogs picked up the scent of decaying human flesh whilst passing a partly waterlogged cave. The manhunt was closing in!
By torchlight the troops entered Bennane cave and with swords drawn, they proceeded down the mile-long twisting passage to the inner depths of the Sawney Bean family lair. Nothing could have prepared them for the sight they witnessed that day. The damp walls of the cave were strewn with row upon row of human limbs and body parts, like meat hanging in a butchers shop. Other areas of the cave stored bundles of clothing, piles of watches and rings and heaps of discarded bones from previous feasts.
After a brief fight, the entire Sawney Bean family, all forty-eight of them, were arrested and marched off to Edinburgh by the King himself. Their crimes were considered so heinous that the normal justice system, for which Scotland is so renowned, was abandoned and the entire family were sentenced to death. The following day the twenty-seven men of the family met a fate similar to that of many of their victims, by having their legs and arms cut off and being left to slowly bleed to death, watched by their women. The twenty-one women were burned like witches in huge fires. It was said that Sawney’s last words were “It isn’t over, it will never be over.” Though I’m pretty sure his exact words were “Look at all the wasted meat.”
And so the ballad of Sawney Bean records their end:
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.*
And thus ends the ballad of Sawney Bean… If it was real that is. There is speculation on whether the Bean’s existed or maybe it was a product of anti-Scot propaganda Though the story has been told for hundreds of years and written up in major publications and studies but unfortunately factual documentation is lacking to validate the events. Though, interesting and true, the clan’s gruesome crimes are what inspired Wes Craven to create “The Hills Have Eyes,” the director reportedly saw this barbaric punishment by supposedly civilised people as the most intriguing aspect of the story, seeing them as matching the clan’s own savagery in their desire for justice.
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 o’ 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.
Text by John Nicholson of Kirkcudbright, 1843.
The Ballad of Sawney Bean.
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Welp, thanks for that great news Shea.
To help lift patron spirits I’m doing a science story. A sciencey, science story about how literally everything wants to kill you—and can—because nature is a WMD and we’ve been pissing in her Cheerios at an industrial scale for hundreds of years.
If, like me, you’re not a geologist—because I assume this is at least a footnote in their textbooks—you probably didn’t know that lakes can explode.
For your consideration, I give you the Limnic Eruption.
This wonderful horror of the natural world comes to us from the water-salable nature of carbon dioxide—yep, that lovely lethal gas we all enjoy in our drinks. See, any body of water is capable of holding a great deal of CO2.
They’re especially good at holding CO2 if they’re in the Oku volcanic field and large enough to have upper and lower thermal layers like lake Moroun or lake Nyos in Cameroon. Both of which, well, exploded.
The events, which I’ll come to, are known as Limnic eruptions, or more commonly “Lake Turnover”.
Basically… like, Art School basically, the idea is that sources of underground CO2, like volcanic activity, leech the gas up into a lake cool and heavy enough to hold the gas in suspension.
The thermal layers act to keep the gas building up in the lower layer under the massive pressure of the top layer as liquids hold more gas in suspension when colder, under pressure (Henery’s law), or both. Eventually, enough CO2 builds up in the water that the lake—much like a shaken up can of beer—explodes releasing tonnes of undetectable, lethal, gas in a tidal-wave of silent death.
Such was the case for Lake Monoun in West Province, Cameroon, in the Oku Volcanic Field. On August 15th, 1984, the just … exploded. Several people reported hearing a loud noice around 10:30 pm local time. Most of the deaths are assumed to have happened between 3am and down, when the CO2 would have settled in the area. Among the 37 dead were 12 passengers in the back of a truck whose engine died, starved for air, and the drivers when they got out to look under the hood.
So yeah, it’ll stop combustion engines too so here’s to hoping the air purifier is running on solar.
The area around the lake was later found to be, basically, flattened outward as if by an explosion… because that’s what happened. The trigger is unknown, but rain, earthquake, strong wind… something reduces the pressure on the lake such that it was no longer able to keep the gas in suspension and bubbles formed, creating buoyancy, which also creates bubbles, ultimately leading to the sudden rise of a column of water and gas displacing enough of the lake to create a tsunami that leveled all the plant life in the area. Most of the water would rush back into the lake bed, but the tonnes of gas are left above ground. As CO2 is heavier than air, it forms an invisible river of gas displacing the oxygen in its path. The boundary between breathable air and lethal gas is sharp, according to measurements done on Mammoth Mountain—where three skiers died in a CO2 flash flood—a single step’s height would have been enough.
The “main event” of limnic explosions is the Lake Nyos disaster. Nyos, also in Cameroon’s Oku Volcanic region, exploded on August 21st, two years later, in 1986.
The explosion released 1 to 3 hundred thousand tons of CO2 in an instant. There were more than gallons of gas per gallon of water in the lake. Now loosed upon the area the cloud-wave left the lake at approximately 100kph (or 62mph) settling into nearby villages in a 25 kilometer radius of the lake.
Most sources discount a volcanic eruption or earthquake as there were no reports of noticeable seismic activity. The articles I read all seem to favor the mudslide theory—that a mass of mud and water was enough to disrupt the delicate surface pressures containing the supersaturated water.
Whatever the cause, a wave of gas washed over the nearby town of Nyos. Of its 800 residents only six survived. Once settled the gas would kill a total of 1,746 people, more than 3,500 livestock, and pretty much any other creature that breathes, down to insects, in the area.
One survivor, Joseph Nkwain, tells of coming in and out of consciousness over the course of the day. Fading in and out as he found his family and neighbors dead until he was able to mount a motor bike and leave Nyos behind.
In the wake of the disaster the government has installed pumps in the so-called “killer lakes” to prevent CO2 build up. They look like pretty mid-lake fountains. If not for this story I would probably just assume it’s a water feature.
By pumping water from the bottom of the lake they’re allowing gasses to escape and forcing a kind of artificial lake turnover thereby preventing a bubble of supersaturated water from forming.
Nearby, on the border of Rwanda is Lake Kivu. It too is building up CO2 for the Oku Volcanic range but worryingly, it is also building up critical levels of methane! So, in addition to having tonnes of deadly CO2, it also has tonnes of flammable, explosive, and terribly stinky, methane.
Rather than turn it into stink lake by venting the methane in the same way they’re venting CO2 from lake Kivu, the Rwandan government built a power plant. Basically, the stuck a pipe in the lake and, like a straw in champagne… I guess, is the analogy I’m going with here… the gasses bubble up in the pipe where they can be processed. The CO2 is dealt with and the methane is piped to three large turbines.
The state-owned Kibuye Power plant already produces 3.6MW of electricity—about 4% of the countries total—from the gasses harvested from the lake… in 2010. The last numbers I found show it happily making 25MW with a final output of 100MW.
The project is especially important because the locals know they’re on the clock.
“Our grandfathers knew there was gas in this lake but now have we proved that it can be exploited,” said Alexis Kabuto, the Rwandan engineer who runs the $20m Kibuye project. “It’s a cheap, clean resource that could last us 100 years.”
What he means by that is the lake has a history of exploding. Scientists had previously found evidence of a near-thousand-year cyclical extinction event around the lake. Before the observance of the Mohoun and Nyos lake limnic eruptions there was no evidence to suggest a cause for the events. Now, those studying the lakes are fairly confident that the lake has been building up gasses and erupting on an old, faithful, schedule for millennia.
So, listener, if you happen to live near a large body of water, take heart and sleep well, safe in the knowledge that it probably won’t just blow up and drown you a tsunami of silent, odorless, tasteless, super-death.
Also you should probably test your smoke and various gas alarms. Go on. Do it. Do it before nature gets you.
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that if you drink orange juice and vodka from a guy named Phil’s skull you can drink a phillips head screwdriver. Before we go I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-host Aaron.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
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