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Issue 50 - Saints & Sinners

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 50
April 2010


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Saints & Sinners

Liz Pickering looks at some of the more colourful characters in Scottish history.

Every country has its share of heroes and villains, legends and folklore, and Scotland is no exception.

The dark and salacious tales of Scotland’s villains are probably the most exciting as a starting point. What news editor would print good news over bad?

You don’t get much darker than the tale of Sawney Bean, the head of a family of cavedwelling cannibals who preyed upon passing travellers in Ayrshire during the 16th century. Sawney Bean is said to have deserted his family and taken up residence in a cave near Bannane. Together with a likeminded woman, he robbed and murdered countless people as his incestuous clan multiplied over 20 years to 48 in number.

However, there is a degree of doubt about whether Sawney Bean even existed, given the fact that the earliest record of the story in print dates from the 18th Century and there are no contemporary records confirming the executions or the disappearance of travellers, or even the involvement of the King. Many believe the tale was more likely a work of fiction by the English, designed to shock the 18th century public and vilify the Scots.

Nevertheless, even such an unlikely story may once have had a gem of truth, growing out of some earlier Scottish folklore.

Beyond any doubt is the villainy of William Burke and William Hare, the notorious ‘body snatchers’ of 19th Century Edinburgh. The study of anatomy was becoming more popular, and ironically there were not enough executed murderers for autopsy purposes. It was a time when grave robbing was a realistic option for some, but Burke and Hare, two Irish immigrants, had a more pro-active approach and murdered 16 people, just for the value of the corpse.

This gruesome series of murders could not go on for long, especially given the dislike personal between Burke and Hare, and their distinct lack of criminal genius. Once arrested, Hare turned informer on Burke, and Burke was hanged. Neither Hare, nor the female partners of the two men, were ever convicted of the crimes but lived out the rest of their lives shunned by all who knew them.

Most of the famous rogues we might class as villains were not such clear-cut and unambiguous criminals. Take John Paul Jones, the boy from Kirkcudbright who founded the US Navy in the 18th Century and is said to have flown a US flag made from women’s underwear. To the Americans he was larger than life, a hero, but to the British he was a brutal and terrifying pirate.

There is something about the idea of a pirate that goes beyond the greed and violence that the real job no doubt entailed.

Captain William Kidd could have stayed wealthy and respectable in New York, but this Scottish pirate could not resist the allure of piracy even when he was supposed to be working as a pirate-catcher for the British Government. He was hanged in 1701, incorrigible and unrepentant to the end.

Emerging from centuries of feuds, political and religious unrest, oppression and bloodshed, it isn’t really surprising that some of Scotland’s ‘heroes’ were not such pristine characters, any more than its villains were all evil. Whether a person is called ‘saint’ or ‘sinner’ often depends on your point of view.

Sir William Wallace, immortalised by Hollywood, was the archetypal freedomfighter, rising from relatively low beginnings to a position of massive power in Scotland.

He was inspirational in his own time and afterwards, because he reinforced Scotland’s national pride and independence in the face of tyrants. But Wallace was a military man who did not only rise up to defend his homeland but also pushed into the north of England, leaving a trail of destruction behind him. To the ordinary people on the English side of the border he was no hero.

So are there any undeniable good guys in Scottish history? You might look to the Celtic missionaries who first brought Christianity to the Picts. But even if you accept that their aims were right and good, the mysterious tales of those saints are often more bizarre than enlightening. St Fillan, for instance, so diligent in his night-time work for God that his left arm emitted a miraculous light to save him the tiresome task of using candles.

To think of Scotland’s great heroic characters is usually to think of fighting men such as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, or Rob Roy MacGregor. However, that is to concentrate on only one aspect of Scotland’s ‘heroic’ past.

Why not think, instead, of Mary Slessor, who immersed herself in the tribes of West Africa in the 19th Century, learning the native language and working tirelessly for the rights of women and children. Or David Livingstone, who helped to abolish slavery in Zanzibar in 1873.

Then there are those who have saved lives through their contributions to modern medicine, such as Alexander Fleming, discoverer of Penicillin, Sir James Young Simpson who pioneered Chloroform, or Patrick Manson, who made the link between parasitic disease and insect bites.

You could argue that these are the real Scottish heroes, but ultimately, does it matter? National heritage is valued in all its permutations, for better or for worse. We all love a good story, even a tall tale, whether the subject is gruesome or whimsical.