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Sawney Bean

16 Aug

Sawney Bean, the cave-dwelling cannibal, is one of Scotland’s most shocking and gruesome legends. Sawney Bean was – legend tells – the head of an incestuous cannibalistic family, who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 14th century. There are numerous written sources detailing the account of Sawney and his family, and it has been suggested that the legend has its roots in real events. Little is known for certain about his early life, however Sawney Bean is believed to have been born in East Lothian in the late 13th century, and was a tanner by trade. Yet, while the story itself was gory enough, it has often been thought to have an even more sinister subtext. Despite being set in Scotland, the gruesome deeds of Sawney Bean were popularised in England during the 17th and 18th centuries, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots. At the time of the Jacobite risings in the 18th Century, the English press regularly portrayed Scots in a negative way, either as subjects of ridicule or as having a sinister nature (the name Sawney itself was a popular English name for the barbarous cartoon Scot). But just how much truth was there to this sinister legend?

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The Mistletoe Bride

17 May

The Mistletoe Bride is a haunting short story by one of Britain’s finest living authors, Kate Mosse, who was inspired by a traditional English folk tale. Mosse describes how as a little girl she first came across the story of the ‘Mistletoe Bride’ in a book that her parents had – Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. In the book several places in Britain claimed to be the historical setting for the story – Skelton in Yorkshire, Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, Marwell Old Hall in Hampshire, Castle Horneck in Cornwall, Exton Hall in Rutland, Brockdish Hall in Norfolk and Bawdrip Rectory in Somerset. While the time and place is uncertain, the story, concerning a young bride who suffocates in an oaken chest, is always the same and is generally regarded as being founded on fact. However, its popularity can be laid at the door of the 19th century songwriter Thomas Haynes Bayley, who set the story to music and published it as The Mistletoe Bough in 1844. It was an instant hit and became one of the most popular Victorian and Edwardian Christmas music hall songs. The enduring nature of this particular story has led many to wonder how much truth there actually is to it or whether it instead taps into something more primal – fear of change, loss of innocence or awareness of the fragility of life?

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Legend of the Black Swine

13 Jul

London has been the capital of England, more or less, for almost a thousand years. Much of the capital’s history is either hidden or forgotten, and this is especially true of the London beneath the feet of its residents. London’s sewers, tunnels and underground network stretch for uncounted miles deep below the bustling city, home to millions, which exists on the surface. Within those hidden depths lurk all manner of mysteries – the source of rumours, legends and nightmares down the centuries. There was a sensation in the 1860s, when it was feared, following the death of a well-known politician, that a band of criminals were stalking the capital, garroting anyone unfortunate enough to come into their path, then disappearing below ground. Then there was a string of news stories around the turn of the twentieth century, concerning reports of archaeological discoveries of hidden subterranean habitats and strangely large human remains found in the city’s sewers. But there is perhaps no story more terrifying than the persistent rumours over the years that the sewers of London are full of monstrous pigs that will one day free themselves from their foetid home and run riot through the city. The Black Swine in the sewers of Hampstead is one Victorian urban legend that has proved to be horrifyingly resilient.

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The Frozen Head Legend

1 Dec

Walt Disney – animator, business magnate, the man who brought us Mickey Mouse et al – was and remains an international icon. During his lifetime he earned more Academy awards and nominations than anyone else in history and today the company that he left behind is one of the richest and most powerful in the world. When he died in 1966, as everyone knows, he was cryogenically frozen, and his frozen corpse stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Except that it wasn’t – Disney’s remains were actually cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The first known human cryogenic freezing was in January 1967, more than a month after Disney’s death. As Disney’s daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumour that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.” So what is the source of this bizarre frozen head urban legend? Well, according to “at least one Disney publicist”, as reported in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969, the source of the rumour was a group of Disney Studio animators with “a bizarre sense of humour” who were playing a final prank on their late boss. As we shall see, however, this is not the only fact relating to the life of Walt Disney that is a matter of some dispute.

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The Curious Case of Lord Kitchener

6 Oct

It’s fair to say that, during World War I, Herbert Kitchener’s face was just about the most famous in the country. His commanding image, appearing on recruiting posters demanding “Your country needs you!”, remains recognised and parodied in popular culture to this day. Before the First World War, Kitchener won fame for the imperial campaigns, most particularly in the Sudan and South Africa, which made him a national hero. This made his unexpected and bizarre death in the middle of the war a demoralising shock. The official story is that Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a German mine of the coast of Scotland. But some suspected that this was a cover-up – a convenient explanation put out to appease a puzzled public who were in need of some sort of closure. Locals spoke of mysterious events that took place on the night of Kitchener’s apparent death. A variety of rumours, speculation and conspiracy theories have since then refused to be dismissed entirely. A further investigation was requested by many who remained unconvinced by the official version of events. This was impossible at the time due to the ongoing war effort but, in all the years since, the call for the case to be re-opened has never quite gone away. The question of what actually happened to Lord Kitchener has still to be answered definitively.

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Riddle of the Singing Sands

22 Sep

Porth Oer, an attractive if unobtrusive beach hidden on the north Wales coast is an unusual location for one of the UK’s strangest unsolved mysteries. This small, picturesque National Trust beach, backed by steep grassy cliffs, is famously known as ‘Whistling Sands’, a nickname based on the sound the granules make underfoot when you walk over its gleaming sand. The sound is created due to the stress of weight that is put upon the sand, and interestingly Porth Oer is unique among the beaches of Europe for this unusual effect. ‘Singing sands’ do exist in other places in the world, but usually these take the form of vast desert landscapes – the singing dunes of Almaty in Kazakhstan for example, or the Kelso dunes in California’s Mojave Desert – rather than a cute little beach on the Llyn Heritage Coast. Although there is a general consensus among scientists as to the best conditions for the ‘singing sand’ effect, why places like Port Oer exist at all remains something of a mystery.

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Thurnley Abbey

8 Sep

Perceval Landon (1868-1927) was an English writer and journalist, now best remembered for his classic and much reprinted ghost story Thurnley Abbey.  Well known to ghost story connoisseurs, Thurnley Abbey is a true classic of the genre, as well as being one of the most anthologised tales of the supernatural ever written. I’m not joking, Thurnley Abbey appears in virtually every other ghost story collection ever published! The tale was printed originally in Landon’s only short story collection, Raw Edges (1908), which in fact contains no other ghostly tales, although a few of the pieces have other fantastical elements. Raw Edges generally, as well as Thurnley Abbey in particular, display both Landon’s intelligence and his versatility as a writer. He was well-travelled, educated and discerning in his tastes (as well as being related to Spencer Perceval, who holds the dubious distinction of being the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated). Despite all of this, and despite the fact that he was also a barrister, a good friend of Rudyard Kipling, a journalist, a war correspondent and an expert on heraldry, Landon is best remembered today as a ghost story writer and the perpetrator of one of the oddest hoaxes in publishing history.

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Megalodon, Terror of the Deep

24 Aug

Megalodon, an extinct species of shark that lived approximately 1.5 million years ago, is regarded as one of the largest and most powerful predators in history. If you have a thing about sharks, then I’d suggest that you don’t read any further – Megalodon really is the stuff of nightmares. This prehistoric marine predator may have grown to a length of up to 100 feet and, with teeth the size of Olympic javelins, it possessed by far the most powerful bite of any creature that ever lived. Today, it is generally accepted that Megalodon’s descendant, the Great White Shark, is nature’s ultimate hunter. To put things into perspective, then, imagine a creature capable of swallowing a Great White whole in a single bite! With such fearsome natural weaponry at its disposal, it is hardly surprising to hear that, back in the Cenozoic Era Megalodon wasn’t too picky about its diet and in fact ate pretty much whatever it wanted. If imagining a shark the size of a battleship makes you shudder, then you might find the thought that Megalodon is now extinct fairly reassuring. Until, that is, you hear about the persistent, bloodcurdling reports that this super-shark still exists and continues to hunt at the depths of the oceans of the 21st century. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Ghost

28 Jul

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) has long been recognized as one of the greatest of American writers, a moralist and allegorist much preoccupied with the mystery of sin, the paradox of its occasionally regenerative power, and the compensation for unmerited suffering and crime. His most famous works are The Scarlet Letter, a classic inquiry into the nature of American Puritanism and the New England conscience, and The House of the Seven Gables, a study in ancestral guilt and expiation, also deeply rooted in New England and his own lurid family history. His work invariably appears on reading lists at schools and universities in the United States and for many his is the quintessential American literary voice of the 19th century: “the best of it was that the thing was absolutely American” – said Henry James of Hawthorne’s writing – “it came out of the very heart of New England”. What is perhaps less well known about Hawthorne is that he had an abiding interest in the supernatural and some of his finest works were his ghost stories. Hawthorne, it was said, was haunted by a paranormal presence throughout his life (although its identity, as we shall see, remains something of a mystery). Not only that, the ‘Hawthorne ghost’, some say, is still around to this day, lurking in the vicinity of the original ‘House of the Seven Gables’ in Hawthorne’s birthplace in Massachusetts.

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The Knights of God

21 Apr

The organisation known as the Knights Templar has presented two faces to history: one is the historians’ history, based on documents and contemporary descriptions; the other is a shadow history, which blends in a potent mixture of conspiracy theory, pulp fiction and occult knowledge. The crucial event that both versions of this history have in common is the date of 1312, when Pope Clement V officially dissolved the Templar Order in the infamous papal bull Vox in Excelso. For the historians, this was the date on which the Templars ceased to exist as an order. According to the conspiracists, however, the Templars and their secrets survived in hiding and not only that, they continue to wield great power from the shadows to this day. Needless to say, the colourful history of the Templars (both real and imagined) has been made full use of by a succession of writers of fiction – most famously in books like The Da Vinci Code and films like National Treasure. For those with more than a passing interest, however, this has only made the task of separating fact from fiction, when it comes to these knights of the shadows, all the more difficult. What do we really know about the Knights Templar?

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