The story of Sawney Bean is one of the most gruesome Scottish legends, the plot of which would not look out of place in any modern horror/slasher movie. Evidence suggests the tale dates to the early 18th century. Alexander 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 15th century. The cave most readily associated with Sawney and his nefarious clan is close to Ballantrae on Bennane head in Ayrshire, although other sea caves along the Ayrshire and Galloway coast have also been associated with the story.
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, although this is unlikely as will be outlined later in this article. The tale appears in full and lurid detail in the succinctly titled Historical and Traditional Tales Connected with the South of Scotland by John Nicholson in 1843. The following is a watered down account of the tale based on Nicholson:
Sawney Bean was born in the late 14th century, in a small East Lothian village not ten miles from Edinburgh. He began life as a hedger and ditcher, but, being prone to idleness and inclined towards dishonesty he ran away from home with a woman who was as viciously inclined as himself. Having no means to make a living they set up home in a sea cave in Galloway supporting themselves by robbing and murdering travellers and locals, and surviving on their victim’s pickled and salted flesh.
In time their family grew to an incestuous gang of 46 sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. Their reign of terror did not go unnoticed: for one hundreds of people went missing over the years, and the Beans became so successful in their butchery that they cast unwanted limbs into the sea. These were washed up on distant and local beaches, much to the horror of the coastal communities. In time the areas reputation reached the ears of the authorities and, in these suspicious times, many innocent people were executed for Sawney’s crimes.
The hardest hit were innkeepers as, more often than not, the missing person was last seen in an inn or lodgings: suspicion naturally falling on those who had seen them last. This happened on so many occasions that numerous innkeepers fled to take up other less risky occupations, and the area became a shunned and depopulated place.Sawney’s family had by now grown very large and started to attack larger groups, although never more than they thought they could overwhelm.
They were confident they would not be discovered: the cave that they had chosen had kept them well hidden from prying eyes. The tide passed right into the mouth of the cave, which went almost a mile into the cliffs.
It was estimated that in their 25-year reign of terror they had killed more than a thousand men women and children.
They were finally discovered by fortunate chance: A man and his wife were returning from a local fayre on horseback – the man in front with his wife behind – when they were ambushed by the Bean family. The husband put a furious struggle with his sword and pistol and managed to plough through the villainous host. Unfortunately his wife lost her balance and fell from the horse, to be instantly butchered by the female cannibals, who ripped out her entrails and started to feast on her blood. Her horrified husband fought back even harder and was lucky that 30 or so other revellers from the fayre came along the path.
The Bean family made a hasty retreat back to their hideout, as the man explained to the crowd what had happened. The husband went along with the group to Glasgow, magistrates were informed, who in turn told the King, James IV, who was so enthralled with the case that he took personal charge. Equipped with bloodhounds the King and a posse of 400 men made their way to the scene of the slaughter and the hunt began.The bloodhounds get all the credit for the capture of Sawney Bean: the King’s men did not notice the well-hidden cave but the dogs could not ignore the strong smell of flesh that surrounded it.
The men entered the cave and found a horrible scene: dried parts of human bodies were hanging all from the roof, pickled limbs lay in barrels, and all around piles of money and trinkets from the pockets of the dead lay in piles. The Beans made no attempt to escape all were caught alive and brought to Edinburgh in chains, where they were incarcerated in the Tollbooth, and the next day taken to Leith.The people were horrified when they heard about the crimes of Sawney Bean and his family and decided to give them a punishment even more barbaric.
The execution was a slow one: the men bled to death after their hands and legs were cut off, and the women were burned alive after they were forced to watch the execution of the men. John Nicholson tells us about the execution as follows
“…they all died without the least sign of repentance, but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life.”
Truth in the Tale?
The truth of the Sawney Bean legend is hard to confirm, but there are many factors which suggest the story is an 18th Century invention. It seems that the legend first saw print in the early 18th Century in the lurid broadsheets and chapbooks of the time. (See The Legend of Sawney Bean, London 1975 by Ronald Holmes for an excellent investigation into the myth.)These were all printed in England, but broadly match Nicholson’s later rendering of the tale. The content of chapbooks was mainly invented and exaggerated stories about grisly deeds, executions, murders and other lurid accounts, aimed at shocking readers. They were evidently very popular and were certainly the forerunners of the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls.According to Fiona Black in The Polar Twins, the tale was probably an English invention to denigrate the Scots, especially in the period of unrest that saw the Jacobite rebellion.
There are however records of periods of famine, and some occurrences of cannibalism, in Scotland in the late 15th century.Another sticking point is that there are no contemporary records from the time that even mention Sawney Bean. Although there are ‘relatively’ few records from the time, it is strange that such a high profile story, with the added involvement of the King James IV, has no historical evidence at all. There are also no records of the executions of the various innkeepers, and the disappearances of travellers in the Ayrshire area.
Like many legends said to be based on fact – where contemporary evidence does not exist – it is possible that a grain of truth exists somewhere in the story. It is also impossible to conclusively prove that there is no truth at all in the story. Personally I do not think that Bean existed, but the Ayrshire coastline is steeped in dark folklore, and the Bean legend may have its root in some far away bloody deed or gristly piece of folklore that has been long forgotten.
A Local Anecdote
Local blacksmith, and psychic detective, Tom Robinson is convinced of the truth to the tale after witnessing ghosts in the cave of Sawney Bean. Mr Robinson believes that instead of being executed in Edinburgh, the Sawney family were cornered and sealed alive in their cave to die a slow, agonising death. The ghosts aren’t those of Sawney and his family though, but their victims who were cursed before they were killed and eaten by the cannibalistic clan. Inside a cave, which he considered to be the Sawney home, Tom recounts how he heard a woman’s scream and saw a female form dragged into the back of the cave by 12 white lights, while a male form lay immobile on the cave floor. The images faded into the cave wall. Upon further investigation, Mr Robinson returned to the site in 1991 and performed an exorcism.
Sights to See
identified with the tale, since the late 19th Century, is on the coast at Bennane head between Lendalfoot and Ballantrae. There is a reconstruction of the cave that was home to the cannibalistic Sawney Bean and his family at the Edinburgh Dungeon on Market Street, near the Waverly Bridge in Edinburgh.
Bean at the Movies
The legend of Sawney Bean has inspired quite a few movies, all extremely loosely based on the idea of a cannibalistic family. In 1977, ‘The Hills have Eyes’ set the tone for low budget horror, with Wes Craven basing his tale – about cannibalistic clan hunting an innocent travelling family in modern day America – on Sawney Bean’s 15th century tale.
A British attempt in 1994 to finance a film truer to the story of Sawney Bean, and to be filmed on location, seems to have stalled before shooting took place. Film boss Ralph Harvey had considered Oliver Reed for the lead role.
In 2002, ultra low budget direct to video horror movie, ‘Samhain’ by Tim Whitfield went largely unnoticed, but starred quite a few hard-core porn stars in a soft core reworking of the Sawney legend. This time the story was set in modern day Ireland, with Sawney’s relatives preying on American tourists.
Potatoes a collection of folk songs by Ralph” (Ralph Records 8717) 1987, features the ‘The Ballad of Sawney Bean’ by Snakefinger