Sawney Bean: Scotland's Cannibal

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Sawney Bean: Scotland's Cannibal

Sawney Bean: Scotland's Cannibal

Stories of a cave-dwelling, psychopathic tribe of cannibals continues to draw visitors to this remote corner of Galloway to see the cave in which Alexander "Sawney" Bean and his incestuous, murderous family are said to have lived. 

Said to have been born sometime in the early 1500s and the son of a ditch digger, the young Bean soon discovered that honest toil and labour was not for him and he left home to take up a life less ordinary. Falling in with a woman with similar tastes and proclivities, he took up residence in a cave near Ballantrae where they would spend the next 25 years committing countless atrocities.

The couple soon began to breed, eventually having eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Isolated from the world, most of the children were the result of incest.

The clan lived a ghoulish life - robbing men, women and children alike. When the victim had been denuded of valuables, they would murder the unfortunate soul and take the corpse back to their cave. There, they were dismembered, cooked and eaten. Limbs were carefully pickled to ensure that the clan always had a supply of meat. Discarded body parts were thrown into the sea and would wash up on the shores for miles around, causing fear and terror among the inhabitants of the same stretch of coast.

As it became evident that people were going missing, searches were organised to find those responsible and angry mobs lynched several innocents on whom the finger of suspicion had unfairly pointed. Safe in their cave (whose entrance was blocked by water at high tide) the Beans continued, unmolested until an ill-fated attempt to kill a man and wife.

The wife was fatally wounded, but the man held off the Beans until a party of fair goers was attracted by the commotion. The clan fled back to their cave, but now their existence was revealed the matter soon reached the attention of no less than King James I.

Personally leading a hunt comprising of some 400 men and a pack of bloodhounds, the Beans' cave was quickly found - bestrewn with human remains and grisly trophies of their crimes. Captured alive, the clan were hauled to the Tolbooth gaol in Edinburgh and then to Glasgow for execution without trial.

While the clan's women and children looked on, the men had their genitals, hands and feet cut off and then were left to bleed to death. This done, the women and the children were forced onto pyres and burnt alive in gruesome retribution for their crimes.

Truth or Legend?

This is the tale as it is told, but most historian doubt the veracity of the story and whether Bean and his murderous family ever even existed. They note that there are no contemporary records in existence detailing investigations, executions or murders. Instead, the outlines of the story come to us mainly through rumour pamphlets and books such as the Newgate Diary. While many records have, of course, been lost over the centuries, the day to day details of the life of the Kings and Queens are relatively well known, and it is striking that no mention of Bean is to be found in the records of King James - which is odd if the story of his personal involvement in the manhunt is true.

The story remained fairly constant throughout all of its tellings, but the time in which it was set moved according to each account.

It has been variously suggested that Bean is an exaggerated version of a true story whose events are now lost to the mists of time, or that the tale was an piece of anti-Scottish propaganda put about after the Jacobite rebellions.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 28th April 2012 | © Weird Island 2010-2020
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