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The macabre story of Sawney Bean, Scotland’s most famous cannibal

5 min read

The story of Sawney Bean and his family of cannibals and murderers has been told to spook Scotland’s children for hundreds of years, but many believe that the story is more than just story.

It appeared in The Newgate Calendar, a tabloid publication from the 18th and 19th centuries and a crime catalogue of Newgate Prison in London. However, the legend lacks sufficient evidence to be deemed true by historians, and there is debate as to why the legend would have been fictionalised.
As story goes, Alexander “Sawney” Bean led a 48-member clan, a product of incest and continued breeding within the family, in 15th or 16th-century Scotland that was responsible for murdering (and eating) more than 1,000 people in the span of 25 years.
Apparently, he was born in the late 14th century in a small East Lothian village not ten miles from Edinburgh. His father was a ditch-digger and hedge-trimmer and, despite Sawney tried to take up the family trade, he quickly realised that he was not fit for this work.
He left home with an allegedly vicious woman named Black Agnes Douglas, who apparently shared his inclinations and was accused of being a witch. After some robbing and the cannibalisation of one of their victims, the couple ended up at a coastal cave 180 metres deep in Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae, and the two went undiscovered for years.
Sawney and Agnes produced six daughters, eight sons, 14 granddaughters, and 18 grandsons. 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.
They brought the bodies back to their cave where the corpses were dismembered and eaten, putting the leftovers in barrels. Residents of nearby towns reportedly found body parts occasionally that would wash up on shore. This strategy was used to help conceal their crimes and lead villagers to believe that it was animals who were attacking travellers.

The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers but the clan stayed in their cave by day and took their victims at night, and they the locals were unaware of the murderers living nearby.
As they began to take notice of the disappearances more significantly, several organised searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note also 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 even lynched several innocents but 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 Beans met their match: they ambushed a married couple on one horse but the man was skilled in combat thus he deftly held off the clan with sword and pistol, figthing back long enough that others heard the commotion.
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 locals 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 (probably James VI of Scotland in tales linked to the 16th century, though it is less clear who this could be in other tales from the 15th century), who was so enthralled with the case that he took personal charge. Equipped with bloodhounds the King himself and a posse of 400 men made their way to the scene of the slaughter and the hunt began.

They soon found the Bean clan’s cave in Bennane Head thanks to the bloodhounds and, upon entering 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 are two versions of what happened next:
the most popular 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 people saw them as subhuman.
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 last words: “It isn’t over, it will never be over”.
After watching the men die, Agnes, her fellow women, and the children were tied to stakes and burned alive.
There was another claim that the search party placed gunpowder at the entrance of their cave, where the clan faced the fate of suffocation.
The nearby town of Girvan has another legend about the Bean clan. There are claims that one of Bean’s daughters eventually left the clan and settled there, 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 same tree.

Whether or not you believe in the story of Sawney Bean, the cave is still a beautiful site to visit in a remote area of Scotland.
Past the ex-mining towns of the Galloway coast, Sawney Bean’s Cave (or, if you prefer, Bennane Cave) is hard to reach.
Blocked by an enormous boulder, the entrance is down near the waterline and requires visitors to scale down the treacherous rocks.

Images from web – Google Research