The Legend of Sawney Bean

Medieval Ayrshire, Scotland was not the place to venture outdoors during the hours of darkness. For a quarter of a century, one group of in-bred psychopaths struck fear throughout Ballantrae and Benname Head. Nobody knew where they came from, but came they did and brought terror for the Scottish people of the time. In a move of either outstanding ingenuity or complete lunacy, Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean and his equally vicious spouse found a ready made lair for the nefarious activities in a cave that was 200 meters deep and had an entrance concealed by high tide.

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Port Balcreuchan and the cave of Sawney Bean. Image: Tony Page [CC BY-SA 2.0]

According to the best known account of the patriarch to this incestuous gang of murdering robbers, the Historical and Traditional Tales Connected with the South of Scotland (written by John Nicholson in 1843), Sawney Bean was born sometime in the 14th century approximately 10 miles outside of Edinburgh. After trying his hand at his father’s trade, tanning, Bean quickly realized that he wasn’t that good at it. It didn’t take him that long to discover something that he was good at.

All of the roads that connected the numerous villages were a significant resource for the villagers themselves, providing a necessary means for local commerce. The main problem with these roads was that the majority of them were lonely and, at times, remote. The Beans quickly realized that setting up an ambush for an unwary villager bold enough to travel during the night. The pair would set deliberate traps and bide their time until a victim made his or her appearance. For a time this idea worked out very well for them but the more robberies that they committed, the greater the odds of one or both of them being caught in the act. Sawney realized this fairly early on in his blossoming criminal career and so made a change to his Modus Operandi. As well just robbing his victims, Bean was about to add cold blooded murder to his repertoire.

Sawney Bean

The Sawney Bean clan reverted to cannibalism to help feed his growing family.

This newly established status quo was only changed by the arrival of a host of infants. With so many extra mouths to feed – allegedly 14 more in total – it was no longer economically viable for the parents to spend their way through life. They had to resort to less than conventional means to satisfy their growing numbers. Sawney Bean turned to cannibalism and tutored his entire clan of offspring into the barbaric act as well. By upping the stature of his crimes, Sawney had inadvertently solved another problem that he faced: disposal of the evidence. For much of the next couple of decades, the Beans’ set upon any travelers that they found in their path with almost military style precision and skill.

Legend has it that this incestuous band of killers claimed in excess of a thousand lives and who knows how many more had potential victim 1001 not managed to escape their clutches and draw the attentions of the authorities to their crimes. According to reports, a married couple unwittingly entered the domain of these ferocious killers and they attacked without mercy. Each was the target of a splinter group and although the unfortunate woman was pulled from her horse, ripped apart and mauled to death, her husband was much more of a fighter. With sword in hand, he rode his horse directly through the wave of would-be attackers and trampled most of them. Luck seemed to be on his side as well, as a large group of revelers from a local fair happened on the scene and together these people outnumbered the Beans. They cannibals had no other option but to retreat.

sawney bean

Sawney Bean was the head of a clan who killed and cannibalized over 1,000 people.

The survivor took his case directly to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow and, along with the scores of missing person reports down the years, the Magistrate brought this whole matter to the attention of King James I. When the King summoned 400 troops and an army of bloodhounds to Ayrshire, a band of determined local volunteers joined the effort of one of the largest manhunts that Scotland had ever witnessed. Visual searches alone yielded no results, but some of the bloodhounds managed to detect the scent of decaying flesh from a local cave. Not knowing what to expect, the soldiers entered the caves first with swords drawn. The inner depths of this nightmare were beyond the imaginings of even the most brazen of souls. The walls were festooned with discarded bones of arms and/or legs of numerous victims. Jewelry was found in another part of the cave and piles of bones stripped clean of flesh in yet another. Outnumbered by ten to one, the entire family could only resist for so long and every single member was marched all the way to Edinburgh by the King personally. The crimes of Sawney Bean and his family were so notorious, that a trial was not even considered. Instead, the whole family was simply declared guilty as charged and sentenced to death. All 21 women were burned at the stake and 27 men were subjected to the cruel torments of their unlucky victims. All limbs were amputated and were left to bleed out. Before their own sentence was carried out though, the women were forced to watch this punishment.

This infamous crime, which may or may not have actually taken place at all, did capture the attentions of a young up and coming filmmaker back in the early 1970s who used this story as the basis behind his first horror film. From this cautionary tale, Wes Craven cemented his name as one of the foremost horror film directors of a generation.

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Les Hewitt

Les currently resides in London and is a freelance writer with a long standing passion for the unexplained and paranormal. In his spare time he enjoys astronomy and Xboxing. It's a big Universe full of wonders.

Historic Mysteries