In recent times the stories of Hannibal Lecter and the real life horrors of Jeffrey Dahmer have provided chilling accounts of cannibalism. However, Scotland can lay claim to one of the most gruesome horror tales ever recounted – the legend of Sawney Bean. Sawney Bean was born in East Lothian approximately 9 miles to the east of Edinburgh. With all legends dates are rather sketchy but some versions of the tale put his birth around the reign James VI of Scotland. The son of a “hedger and ditcher” he became a tanner by trade. However hard work was not his forte and he eventually decided to give up making an honest living and fled to County Galloway with his new bride. Here they found residence at Bennane Cave, by Ballantrae in Ayrshire.
The cave was a perfect hideout with tunnels penetrating the solid rock and extending for more than a mile in length. Furthermore, twice a day at high tide the cave’s entrance was flooded for several hundred metres making it almost impenetrable. From this subterranean lair Sawney Bean hatched his plans for his families future. With honest labour out of the question he decided to turn to robbery and began to ambush travellers. To ensure he wasn’t caught he made a point of not letting anyone he ambushed escape with their lives. Sawney then saw an answer to yet another dilemma; the Bean clan was growing (no doubt through incest) and soon reached upwards of 46 sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. With so many mouths to feed and a surplus of fresh meat in the form of human corpses he took the horrific decision to resort to cannibalism!
Sawney beans cave Victims were ambushed with military precision by the Bean clan with all means of escape cut off. As many as half a dozen victims could be ambushed at a time. The hopeless victims were killed, dragged to the cave and butchered. What they couldn’t eat the pickled and preserved and what they didn’t preserve they tossed into the sea. Soon these grim discoveries, including perfectly preserved but decaying body parts were discovered washed up. Alongside this the number of missing persons in Galloway was rising. To make matters worse many who had gone missing had last been seen at local Inns so the suspicion naturally fell on several innocent innkeepers who were wrongly accused and hanged
Estimates of how many victims met their end at the hand of Sawney’s clan vary from several hundred up to nearly a thousand souls. The fortunes of Sawney Bean and his cannibal family finally took a turn for the worse around the year 1600. The gang attacked a man and his wife travelling back on horseback from a local country fair. A gang of Women dragged the poor unfortunate wife from her horse where she was stripped and disembowelled then as the husband desperately fought off his attackers he witnessed these same women beginning to devour their victim. No doubt finding new strength from the horror he was witnessing the husband fought desperately to escape, finally driving his horse over his attackers. Just at that point a group of 20 -30 returning from the same fair came upon the awful scene. Sawney realising even his gang were outnumbered fled back to the cave. This time leaving the evidence in the form of one mutilated corpse.
The traumatised husband was swiftly taken to see the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow who reported the crime to the King himself. James IV took a very keen interest in witchcraft and so these crimes so enthralled him that he took personal charge and very soon arrived in Ayrshire with tracker dogs and a small army of four hundred men. Despite their best efforts no sign of the Bean’s lair was discovered, that was until the dogs picked up the scent of something very unholy coming from a cave entrance.
Carefully the troops entered Bennane cave and were treated to an almost unbelievable sight. All round the walls rows of human body parts were hung up to dry. all around the cave piles of clothing along with jewellery and other personal possessions from their victims lay – along with piles of discarded bones. The Beans struggled to escape but were vastly outnumbered and around forty-eight of the clan were arrested. Some of the Kings men stayed behind and gathered up what human remains they could find and buried then in the sands. The rest accompanied the wretched Bean clan to Edinburgh where they were locked up in the Tollbooth.
So severe were the crimes and so clear the guilt that no offer of a trial was given and the very next day they were taken to Leith under sentence of death. twenty-seven men were hung drawn and quartered, a particularly slow and severe punishment where their limbs were cut off and the victims bled to death. The women and grandchildren of the clan were forced to witness this awful spectacle and while they screamed in horror three huge bonfires were built. The remaining twenty-one women were burned like witches.
Clearly a horrific tale but unfortunately one that lacks any sort of supporting evidence. There are no records of missing persons around the time or indeed records of executed innkeepers. Furthermore King James’ cameo appearance does make the whole story even more fantastic. Some recon that the story was concocted in the 18th century in a sort of ‘Penny Dreadful’ or that it was anti Scottish propaganda aimed at countering the Jacobite sympathies. Whatever the truth is the legend of Sawney Bean is still good enough to chill the bones.