Alexander "Sawney" Bean was said to be the head of a 48-member clan in Scotland in the 16th century, who was reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 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 his story has been greatly exaggerated, his story has passed into local folklore and become 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 named Agnes Douglas, who apparently shared his inclinations and was accused of being a witch. After some robbing and taking part in cannibalism on 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 twenty-five years. The cave was 200 yards deep and during high tide, the entrance was blocked by water.
The couple eventually produced eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Various grandchildren were products of incest between their different children.
Lacking the inclination for regular 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 eaten. Leftovers were pickled 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 Beans stayed in their cave by day and took their victims at night. The clan was so secretive that the villagers were unaware of the murderers living nearby.
As more significant notice of the disappearances was taken, several organised 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 known to see many of the missing people alive.
One fateful night, the Beans ambushed a married couple riding from a fayre 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 fayre-goers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled.
With the Beans' existence finally revealed, it was not long before the King (James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), 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 Beans' previously overlooked cave in Bennane Head. The cave was scattered with human remains, having been the scene of many murders and cannibalistic acts, as well as stolen heirlooms and jewelry scattered across the floor.
The clan was captured alive where they gave up without a fight and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial. Sawney and his fellow men had their genitalia cut off, 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 that they were hung from. 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.
The town of Girvan, located near the macabre scene of murder and debauchery, 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 a Dule Tree that became known as "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 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 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 [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 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? (See also "Sawney" for this theory).
Another cannibal story from Scotland, even more resembling 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'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 Drs. Gould & Pyle on pg.409 of Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.