Sawney Bean

Sawney Bean at the Entrance of His Cave. (Google images)

Sawney Bean at the Entrance of His Cave. (Google images)

According to legend, Alexander “Sawney” Bean was the leader of a 48-member clan in 15th- or 16th-century Scotland and he was supposedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people.

Sawney along with his unknown wife made their home in the caves near either Galloway, Ayrshire or Ballantrae on Bennane Head. The family grew to include 14 children and 32 grandchildren, all from incestuous relationships.

Over the course of 25 years, it was said that they killed more than 1,000 people. They started out preying on single travelers, but as they grew in numbers they would start attacking groups of people on the road, then kill them and drag them back to their caves. Possessions would be stripped away and the bodies dismembered then eaten.

The Bean family eventually attacked a couple returning home from the fair. While the unfortunate wife was pulled from her horse, slaughtered, and butchered on the spot, the husband struggled long enough that a crowd appeared on the road behind them and forced the family to run away.

When the husband took his case to the king, dogs were sent searching for the family and found a cave entrance that had been hidden from view for more than two decades. With the Beans’ existence finally revealed, 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. The Bean family was finally delivered to justice and dragged from their caves, which was described as being lined with body parts, both fresh and pickled in jars. The men were drawn and quartered, and the women were burnt at the stake.

Another part of the legend states that one of the Bean’s daughters had 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.

The Bean’s story appears in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of Newgate Prison in London. While most historians tend to believe Sawney 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.

Adela