Alexander “Sawney” Bean(e) was the legendary head of a 48-member clan in 15th- or 16th-century Scotland, reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people.
The story appears in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of the notorious Newgate Prison in London. While historians tend to believe that Sawney Bean never existed, his story has passed into legend and is part of the Edinburgh tourism industry.
According to The Newgate Calendar, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 1500s. His father was a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, and Bean tried to take up the family trade but quickly realized that he had little taste for honest labour.
He left home with a vicious woman who apparently shared his inclinations. The couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bannane Head near Galloway (now South Ayrshire) where they lived undiscovered for some twenty-five years. (The cave was 200 yards deep and during high tide the entrance was blocked by water, and is said to be today’s Bannane Cave, located between Girvan and Ballantrae in Ayrshire).
Their many children and grandchildren were products of incest and lawlessness. The brood came to include eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Lacking the gumption for honest labour, the clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups. The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were dismembered and cannibalised. Leftovers were pickled, and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.
The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but the Beans stayed in the caves by day and took their victims at night. The clan was so secretive that the villagers were not aware of the forty eight murderers living nearby.
As more significant notice of the disappearances was taken, several organized searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note of the telltale cave but the men refused to believe anything human could live in it. Frustrated and in a frenetic quest for justice, the townspeople lynched several innocents, and the disappearances continued. Suspicion often fell on local innkeepers since they were the last to see many of the missing people alive.
One fateful night, the Beans ambushed a married couple riding from a fair on one horse, but the man was skilled in combat, deftly holding off the clan with sword and pistol. The clan fatally mauled the wife when she fell to the ground in the conflict. Before they could take the resilient husband, a large group of fairgoers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled.
With the Beans’ existence finally revealed to the world, it was not long before King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) heard of the atrocities and decided to lead a manhunt with a team of 400 men and several bloodhounds, soon finding the Beans’ previously overlooked cave in Bannane Head. The cave was rife with human remains, having been the scene of hundreds of murders and cannibalistic acts.
The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial; the men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed and were allowed to bleed to death, and the women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive. (This recalls, in essence if not in detail, the punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering decreed for men convicted of treason while women convicted of the same were burned. Presumably—whether or not the story had an actual basis—cannibalism was considered the equivalent of treason.)
The town of Girvan, located near the crime scene, has another legend about the cannibal clan. It is said that one of Bean’s daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan, where she planted the Hairy tree. After her family’s capture, the daughter’s identity was revealed by angry locals who hanged her from the bough of the Hairy Tree.
Sources and veracity
Sawney Bean is often considered a mythic figure. A 2005 article by Sean Thomas notes that historical documents, such as newspapers and diaries during the era when Sawney Bean was supposedly active, make no mention of ongoing disappearances of hundreds of persons. Additionally, Thomas notes inconsistencies in the stories but speculates that kernels of truth might have inspired the legend:
… from broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean’s reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI, whilst other versions claim the Beans lived centuries before. Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years. Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership … To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediæval Scotland and that Galloway was in mediæval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place, but every story grows and is embroidered over time.
The Sawney Beane legend closely resembles the story of Christie-Cleek, which is attested much earlier — in the early 15th century.
The legend of Sawney Bean first appeared in the British chapbooks (rumour magazines of the day), which today leads many to argue that the story was a political propaganda tool to denigrate the Scots after the Jacobite Rebellions. Thomas disagrees by noting:
If the Sawney Bean story is to be read as deliberately anti-Scottish, how do we explain the equal emphasis on English criminals in the same publications? Wouldn’t such an approach rather blunt the point?