Alexander Sawney Bean was reportedly the head of a cannibalistic family residing along Scotland’s Ayrshire/Galloway coast during the 14th Century. According to the legend, Sawney was born in a small East Lothian village, approximately ten miles from Edinburgh. Enable to hold job, Sawney soon left home and took up with a woman who thought nothing of gaining what she wanted by devious methods.
With no means of making a living, the Beans took up living in sea cave in Galloway. They supported themselves by robbing and murdering travelers and locals foolish enough to be caught out on the roads at night.
Living incestuously, the Bean family grew to a total of six and forty. Over a twenty-five years period, one thousand people lost their lives to the family. The Beans would cast the unwanted limbs of their victims in the sea to be washed up on the local beaches.
Unfortunately, the authorities of the time had few crime investigation skills available to them. In a time when people still believed in witches and vampires, many innocent people stood accused of Sawney’s crimes and lost their lives. As travelers were traced back to the inns in which they took shelter, local innkeepers were often charged with the crimes. Needless to say, travelers began to shun the area.
As they grew in number, the Beans began to take on larger groups of travelers. With their cave being so designed as to hide their presence in the area, they were able to attack and then retreat to cave, which went almost a mile into the cliffs. In addition the tide filled the opening so people never looked for them there.
They were discovered when they attacked a couple returning from a local fayre. The man was able to plough his way through the band that attacked him, but the female cannibals managed to pull his wife from her horse. According to the legend, the Beans ripped out the woman’s entrails and feasted on the woman along the road. When revelers from the fayre appeared, the Beans retreated to their cave/home. The group took the distraught husband to the authorities in Glasgow. Eventually, King James IV took personal charge of the case personally. With 400 men and bloodhounds in tow, the hunt for the culprits began in earnest.
The bloodhounds took up the scent from the scene and soon hit on the Beans’ location. Entering the cave, the searchers found dried human parts being cured like other meats, pickled limbs in barrels, and piles of valuables stolen over the years. The Beans were brought to Edinburgh in chains. They were incarcerated in the Tollbooth and taken the next day to Leith. Because of the severity of their crimes, the Beans were barbarically executed. The crowds cut off the men’s hands and feet and were allowed to bleed to death. The Bean women were burned at the stake.
Many “experts” believe this story to be an 18th Century fabrication, one found in the popular chapbooks and broadsheets of the time. In 1843, John Nicholson included the legend in lurid details in his Historical and Traditional Tales Connected with the South of Scotland. However, several local psychics claim the ghosts of Sawney Bean’s family haunt the area. The legend has become part of the Tourism and Heritage trail. The cave is on the coast at Bennane head between Lendalfoot and Ballantrae. There is a reconstruction of the cave at the Edinburgh Dugeon on Market Street, near the Waverly Bridge.
The “meat” of Sawney’s tale inspired Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes.” In 1994, a British film group tried to come up with financing for a film based on the legend, but the attempt fell through. Snakefinger’s “The Ballad of Sawney Bean” was a part of Ralph Records “Potates”collection.
**As a personal footnote, the Sawney Bean legend plays out in my Austen-inspired cozy mystery, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, for the Macbethan family in the novel are supposedly related to Bean.