Alexander "Sawney" Bean was said to be the head of a 45-member clan in Scotland in the 16th century who were reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalization of over 1000 people.
The story appears in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of Newgate Prison in London. While historians tend to believe Bean never existed or that his story has been greatly exaggerated, it has passed into local folklore and become part of the Edinburgh tourism circuit.
According to The Newgate Calendar, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 16th century. 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 named "Black" Agnes Douglas, who apparently shared his inclinations and was accused of being a witch. After some robbing and the cannibalization of one of their victims, the couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae where they lived undiscovered for some 25 years. The cave was 200 yards deep and the entrance was blocked by water during high tide.
Sawney and Agnes produced eight sons, six daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters. Various grandchildren were products of incest between their children.
Lacking the inclination for regular labour, the Bean 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 eaten. Leftovers were pickled in barrels and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches as part of the clan's way of making the people think a wild animal was responsible.
The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but the Bean clan stayed in their cave by day and took their victims at night. The Bean clan was so secretive that the villagers were unaware of the murderers living nearby.
As more significant notice was taken of the disappearances, several organized searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note of the 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 known to have seen many of the missing people alive.
One fateful night, the Bean clan ambushed a married couple riding from a fayre on one horse, but the man was skilled in combat, thus he deftly held off the clan with sword and pistol. The Bean 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 fayre-goers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled. The fayre-goers took the survivor to the local magistrate who was informed of this experience.
With the Beans' existence finally revealed, it was not long before the King (likely James VI of Scotland in tales linked to the 16th century, though other tales are from the 15th) heard of the atrocities and decided to lead a manhunt with a team of 400 men and several bloodhounds. They soon found the Bean clan's previously overlooked cave in Bennane Head thanks to the bloodhounds. Upon entering the cave by torchlight, the searchers found the Bean clan surrounded by human remains with some body parts hanging from the wall, barrels filled with limbs, and piles of stolen heirlooms and jewellery.
There were two versions on what happened next:
- The most common of the two is that the Bean clan was captured alive where they gave up without a fight. They were taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow, where they were promptly executed without trial as they were seen as subhuman and unfit for one. Sawney and his fellow men had their genitalia cut off and thrown into the fires, their hands and feet severed, and were allowed to bleed to death, with Sawney shouting his dying words: "It isn't over, it will never be over." After watching the men die, Agnes, her fellow women, and the children were burned alive on the stakes from which they were tied to. 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.
- There was another claim that gunpowder was placed at the entrance of their cave where they faced the fate of suffocation.
The town of Girvan, located near the macabre scene of murder and debauchery, has another legend about the Bean clan. It is said that one of Bean's daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan where she planted a Dule tree that became known as "The Hairy Tree." After her family's capture and exposure, 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 mythical figure. Citing an account of 1843, Dorothy L. Sayers included a gruesome narrative in her anthology Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (Gollancz, 1928. The book was a best-seller in Britain, reprinted seven times in the next five years.) A 2005 article by Sean Thomas notes that historical documents, such as newspapers and diaries during the era in which Sawney Bean was supposedly active, make no mention of ongoing disappearances of hundreds of people. 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 [ca. early 1600s], 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 mediaeval Scotland and that Galloway was in mediaeval 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 Bean 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, 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? (See also "Sawney" for this theory).
Another cannibal story from Scotland, even more redolent of the Sawney Bean tale than the Christie-Cleek story, is contained in the 1696 work of Nathaniel Crouch, a compiler and popular history writer publishing under the pseudonym "Richard Burton". In this tale, the following happened in 1459, the year before James II of Scotland's death:
..about which time a certain thief who lived privately in a den, with his wife and children, were all burned alive, they having made it their practice for many years to kill young people and eat them; one girl only of a year old was saved, and brought up at Dundee, who at twelve years of age being found guilty of the same horrid crime, was condemned to the same punishment, and when the people followed her in great multitudes to execution, wondering at her unnatural villainy, she turned toward them, and with a cruel countenance said, "What do you thus rail at me, as if I had done such an heinous act, contrary to the nature of man? I tell you that if you did but know how pleasant the taste of man's flesh was, none of you all would forbear to eat it;" and thus with an impenitent and stubborn mind she suffered deserved death.
Hector Boece relates that the infant daughter of a Scotch brigand, who was executed with his family for cannibalism, though raised by foster parents, developed the cannibal appetite at 12, and was put to death for it. This was summarised by George M. Gould and Walter Pyle in Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.
- Wes Craven used Sawney Bean as the inspiration for his film The Hills Have Eyes.
- Sawney Bean is used as direct inspiration for the name of two titans in the manga and anime series Attack on Titan written by Hajime Isayama.
- Sawney Bean was featured in the 11th episode of Absolute Mad Lads, presented by Markus Meechan.