It is unknown whether Alexander "Sawney" Bean (Sawney being Lowland Scots for Sandy) was a real person, or just a creation of Scottish folklore. There are many conflicting sources of information on the life and times of Sawney Bean, contributing to the uncertainty of his existance. He is supposed to have been the head of a cannibalistic family in the 15th century during the reign of King James I of Scotland. It is claimed that he, his wife, and their 46 children and grandchildren, killed and fed on over a thousand people before they were captured and brutally executed. His story appears in theNewgate Calendars, a catalogue of crimes and criminals who passed through the notorious Newgate Prison in London. Although historians believe that Sawney Bean never existed, his story has passed into legend and has become a part of the Edinburgh tourism industry.
According to legend, Sawney Bean was into born in East Lothian in the early 15th century); however, some sources date the tale to earlier eras. His father was a ditch digger and a hedge trimmer, and Bean tried to take up the family profession, but quickly realised that he had little taste for honest work. Bean left home with a woman (according to one version, she was a witch called Black Agnes Douglas, and they were run out of town) who shared his views on honest labour. They eventually made their way to a cave in Bannane Head, nearGalloway (now South Ayrshire), where they decided to make home. The cave reached 200 yards into the rock and during the high tide the entrance was blocked by water. It is supposed to be the cave now called Bennane Cave (right), in Ballantrae. There they are said to have lived undiscovered for twenty-five years.
Family life and cannibalism
At first, Bean and his wife supported themselves as brigands by waylaying and murdering travellers, stealing their money and hoarding their valuables. They used only the money they took from their victims because valuables could be more easily recognised.
Alexander Bean and his wife soon produced a large family of children, and later grandchildren who were all the product of incest. Before they met their grisly end, the family consisted of eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen granddaughters. There were 46 children in all.
Needing food, and without any skills or a desire to perform honest labour, Bean and his family quickly took up the only option available to them: crime. Their methods were very simple and consistent: they would lay a careful ambush to surprise and kill single people or small groups at night. They were able to cut off all possible escape routes with the members of their massive family.
But the meager proceeds from highway robbery were not enough to sustain the growing clan. Rather than waste the bodies of his victims, Bean fed himself and his family on them. Their victims were robbed of all of their possessions, murdered, and brought back to their cave where they were dismembered and cannibalised. The Beans would pickle any leftovers.
Eventually their methods grew to be so successful that they were discarding unnecessary body parts into the ocean, where they would wash up on nearby beaches.
The missing people and body parts did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but none of them knew who were committing these crimes. The Bean family lived in the caves during the day, and killed anyone they saw during the night to prevent any witnesses to their existence. They were so secretive that the local residents simply never knew that they had a family of 48 murderers living nearby.
In the town's quest for justice, they reputedly lynched various innocent strangers, but the disappearances continued. Suspicion especially fell on local innkeepers, since they were often the last to see many of the missing men and women alive.
Capture & execution
After 25 years of undiscovered terror, the outlaw life led by Sawney and his family came to an abrupt end.
One night they laid a trap for a man and his wife who were returning from a local fair by riding through the woods. The Beans ambushed the couple, just as they had always done, but this time the husband proved to be a surprisingly tough opponent, and managed to hold off the entire family for quite some time with nothing but his sword and deft control of his horse.
Eventually the Bean family knocked the intended victim's wife from her horse, and killed her the instant she hit the ground. However, before they could also take the husband, who started fighting harder than ever, a large group of people started to come down the trail from the fair, and the Bean family had to run.
With their existence finally revealed to the world, it was not long before a massive hunt was underway. King James IV had heard about the atrocities and decided to head the hunt himself. He led 400 men and many bloodhounds on a search of the countryside, and soon found the cave in Bannane Head where Alexander Bean and his wife had so long ago taken up as home. The cave itself was a grisly sight, having been witness to over a thousand murders and cannibalistic acts. Bones and human remains were littered everywhere.
The Bean family was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh. The Bean children were so accustomed to a life of cannibalism and murder that they could not imagine life being any other way. They were soon transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without a trial. The men had their hands and feet cut off and were allowed to bleed to death, and the women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive.
The town of Girvan, near the site of Bean's antics, has a further legend about the cannibal's family. The legend states that one of Bean's many daughters escaped the mayhem of family life and settled in Girvan, where legend has it she planted The Hairy Tree. However, after the capture of her family, the daughter's identity was uncovered by angry locals, who hanged her from the bough of The Hairy Tree. The Hairy Tree was said to have been situated on Dalrymple Street in the town but we can't find it, can you help us?