Saturday, 16 May 2015

The Angus Cannibal

The chink in the Sidlaws known as the Glack of Newtyle is the main route from Dundee to western Strathmore and it was haunted for centuries by robbers and brigands.  The most terrifying of these outlaws lived in the early 15th century and his story was re-told (or quite possibly invented) by James Grant in his novel The Yellow Frigate (1855).  Grant  told the story of a strange creature named Ewain Gavelrigg who lived in a turf-walled cottage at Uach-dar Tir, now Auchtertire, west of Newtyle.  Ewain was more monster than man, for his occupation was to waylay solitary travellers in the Glack, kill them, then drink their blood and consume their flesh.  The few men who escaped and found refuge in the castles of Baille Craig or Dudhope in Dundee said that their attacker was a huge man with a great mace. He was dressed in homespun grey, his head was covered by a forest of hair, and he could brain a mountain bull with a single blow.
    The country became so alarmed that none would dare cross the Sidlaws except as part of a large armed party.  Two men, on separate occasions, swore that they had slain the ogre.  A Dundonian arrow maker said he had slit its throat, and a Banff sword maker said he had stabbed it in the chest.  But the attacks continued, so the two men were dismissed as liars.  The situation became so serious that Sir James Scrymgeour of Dudhope, constable of Dundee, declared that he would deal with it personally.  On the evening of the feat of St John the Evangalist, 1440, he donned his armour and set out with Sir John Drummond.

    When they reached the Glack, the Constable blew his horn and shouted, ‘Ewain Gavelrigg - man or fiend - come out!’  The ogre appeared on the path before them and smashed Scrymgeour’s horse with his mace, dashing its brains into his face.  As the Constable fell, Ewain laughed happily and dragged him by the throat into the thick pine woods.

    Drummond had been behind Scymgeour and had not been spotted by the fiend.  He followed quietly to a clearing where Gavelrigg was about to kill the Constable.  Sir John galloped at the monster and transfixed him with his lance.  Ewain expired with a horrible piercing cry just as dawn arrived.  The two men carefully examined the body and found the wounds which the arrow maker and the sword maker had afflicted.  Soon two wild looking women approached, the wife and daughter of Gavelrigg, and asked to take him away for burial.  Scrygeour assented, but first he hacked off the hand which had grabbed his throat and later he nailed it to the West Port of Dundee as a warning to miscreants.
    The north-west road was considered safe again, but soon more travellers went missing.  Large pools of blood were seen in the Glack.  Ewain Gavelrigg had apparently returned from the dead. King James I’s governor, Sir Alexander Livingstone of Callendar, proclaimed a crusade against the fiend.  The hut at Auchtertyre was demolished, and a huge amount of human remains was found in a vault.  A patrol tracked Ewain to a narrow valley where he slew eight men and three horses before he was captured, bound beneath a horse’s belly, and transported to Dundee.  Ewain Gavelrigg, his wife, daughter, and infant son were burned to death at the Market Cross.  In the novel the tale is remembered by the evil Hew Borthwick, supposedly saved from the flames by a priest.

    Grant based his story on an intriguing passage from Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie’s Historie and Cronikles of Scotland (c. 1578):

                                 Thair was and briggant tane with his hail familie, quho
                                 hauntet ane place in Angus.  This michievous man had an
                                 execrable faschion to tak all young men, and children aither,
                                 he could steal away quietlie, or tak away without knawledge,
                                 and eat thame, and they younger they war, esteemed them
                                 more tender and delicious.  For the quhilk caus and
                                 dampnable abuse, he, with his wayff and bairnis, were all
                                 burnt, except ane young wench of ane year old, wha was
                                 saiffed , and broucht to Dundie, quhair show was broucht vp and
                                 fostered, and quhan shoe cam to ane vomanes yeires, shoe cam
                                 to ane vomanes yeires, shoe was condemned and burnt quick
                                 for that cryme.  It is said, that when shoe was coming to the place
                                 of execution, their gathered and hudge multitud of people, and
                                 speciallie  of vomen, cursing her that shoe was so unhappie to
                                 commit so damnable didis.  To whom she turned about with ane
                                 ireful countenance, saying, Quhairfoir chyd yea me so as if I had
                                 committed an vnworthie act?  Give me credence and trow me, if
                                 yea had experience of eating men and vomenis flesch, ye wold think
                                 it so delitious that ye wold nevir forbeare it againe.  So, bot ony sign
                                 of repentance, this vnhappie traitour died in the sight of the people.

    The legend seems obviously similar to the better know Ayrshire cannibal clan of Sawney Bean, though in fact Pitscottie’s tale was set down long before the abominable Bean made it into print.  Pitscottie does not mention the setting as being in the west Sidlaws.  Popular tradition placed the cannibal at Denfind, Monikie, several miles to the east, popularly called Fiend’s Den, which obviously appears to be a folk etymology.  Syrymgeour did have a known connection to the Glack of Newtyle, having killed the Laird of Fetterangus here in revenge for raiding his lands.

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