Sawney Bean is the cannibal per excellence. When anybody mentions Scottish cannibals, it is Sawney Bean who springs to mind and no wonder. His is a story of horror, murder and cannibalism that would be suitable for any late-night Halloween film.
Sawney or Alexander Bean was supposedly born in what is now East Lothian, not far from Edinburgh, sometime in the sixteenth century or perhaps earlier: legends tend to concentrate on the gist of the story rather than specific details such as times and dates. Sawney’s father was apparently a ditch digger and hedger, which was a hard job that did not appeal to the son a great deal. He tried for a while but soon looked for something easier than labouring to earn his daily bread. He found a wife, or at least a woman, and together they left home and wandered across Scotland for a while until they reached Bennane Head in Carrick, what is now North Ayrshire.
Rather than live conventionally, Sawney and his wife found a deep, secluded cave in the coast beside the head, possibly Bennane Cave itself, 200 yards long and with the entrance blocked by the sea at high tide. Here they settled, about half way between the town of Girvan and the village of Ballantrae, and from here they began to make the country hideous for locals and travellers. The main coast road passed close by, and people began to disappear, at first individually and then, as the years passed, more and more until even small groups were in danger.
At first there was not much notice taken of the odd disappearance, for travel in mediaeval or even Renaissance Europe was never safe, with footpads, outlaws and robbers joining the natural hazards of flood, shockingly poor roads and fickle weather, but in time people noticed a pattern. They realised that travellers in the south west seemed very prone to disappear and they began to wonder why. Local people became very wary, but despite their caution, they could not work out what was happening.
In the meantime, Sawney and Mrs Bean had been busy. Perhaps the honest toil of ditching was not to their liking, but there were other occupations in which they excelled. As the years passed, they produced eight sons and six daughters and then eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Indeed, they seemed to breed prolifically, if incestuously for all the children and grandchildren had only themselves for partners, and as soon as they were old enough, the young Beans played their part in this family business.
Some people are born into a culture of cannibalism and know no better; others have it thrust upon them from necessity and starvation, but Sawney Bean and his wife took to it from choice and proved themselves experts.
With the cave a virtually perfect hideaway, they rarely ventured out in daylight but prowled the roads by night, using their growing clan of predatory monsters to ambush any lone traveller. As the Bean clan grew, they became bolder, tackling larger and larger groups. Once the Beans murdered their victims, they carried the bodies back to their cave, stripped them, cut them up and ate whatever they most fancied.
Whatever was not immediately eaten they would pickle, presumably in sea water, of which they had an unlimited supply, and the inedible portions were simply thrown into the sea for the tide to distribute wherever it pleased. Perhaps it was the reappearance of these bits and pieces of unfortunate humanity that alerted and alarmed the local folk into taking more direct action. Gathering together, they began to search the area, poking into every nook and cranny, eyeing any stranger with great suspicion and hanging the odd unfortunate who happened to be a little eccentric in their ways.
They even looked at Bennane Cave, but when they saw the tide wash right inside they thought that nobody could live there. And still the murders and cannibalism continued as Sawney Bean and his clan bred and thrived and preyed on everybody into whom they could sink their blood stained teeth. Over the period of time in which the Beans operated, they must have killed scores, perhaps hundreds of people, so Sawney might have felt virtually invulnerable as he continued to be undiscovered. Yet everybody’s luck has a way of levelling out and one night the Beans over reached themselves. There was a fair held a few miles away and they left their cave and slithered through the dark countryside, gathering in a hideous ambush to await any unwary fair goer.
Given their lifestyle they must have been a terrible sight: they would be unwashed and ungroomed, stinking of dried blood, with long talons for nails and eyes more akin to predatory animals than a family of human beings. Their ears, tuned to hunting, would hear the sound of approaching people before they were seen, and then two people rode happily into view. They were obviously man and wife, both sharing the same horse on their return from the fair and more intent on each other’s company than in watching for any possible cannibal ambush. When the pair was fairly within the circle of Beans, the cannibals attacked.
It must have been a terrifying experience for the pair; one second they were happily riding, laughing and reminiscing, the next they were surrounded by dozens of screaming monsters with grasping claws and gaping mouths. However, that part of the Scottish West Coast is Kennedy country, and in the sixteenth century the men were well able to take care of themselves. This man was no peasant farmer with only a stave, but a gentleman with sword and pistol and the verve and skill to use both well. Firing, slashing and stabbing, he beat off the first attack, but as he tried to ride through, his wife slipped from the back of the horse and before the husband could turn, a group of female Beans had ripped out her intestines and were gorging themselves on her blood even as her horrified husband watched.
The fight had reached its climax; the husband would be staring unbelievingly at his wife, but then a second group of people returning from the fair appeared and the Beans vanished into the sinister dark.
It was too late for the wife, but now people knew that there was a whole clan of cannibals infesting the coast of Carrick and they sent news to the king. James VI has had a bad press from historians, and often with reason. He was a callous man who tried to pacify his Gaelic speaking subjects by forcing a foreign culture on to them, a weak man and anything but brave. However, he was also a peaceful king who gave Scotland decades with no war and when the occasion came, he quietened the riding clans of the Border with some skill and sufficient ruthlessness to ensure the old wild system did not return. Now he acted with speed and decision.
Although some accounts claim the king came in person, it is much more likely he ordered the local lords to sort things out. Either way, a small army of four hundred men scoured North Ayrshire, but this time they had bloodhounds. The dogs followed the trail of blood and the four hundred formed up around the tide-swept Bennane Cave. The army moved in; the Beans fought back but they were outnumbered and overpowered. Tied hand and foot, they lay in sullen fury, glaring at the invaders through vicious, only semi-human eyes, and only then the invaders lifted their torches and examined their surroundings.
At first they could hardly believe what they saw. The whole cave, some hundreds of feet long, was festooned with human remains. There were chunks of human flesh hanging to dry, legs and arms pickling nicely in barrels and glittering piles of silver coins, watches and whatever else could be gleaned from the bodies of the dead. Overall was the stench of cooked human flesh. Rather than just execute the Beans out of hand, the army placed them in chains and dragged them to Edinburgh, where they were thrown in the Tolbooth, Scott’s Heart of Midlothian. Normally the Beans would face trial, but the evidence was overwhelming and the King ordered them removed as quickly as possible.
Legend says they were taken to Leith, presumably where the old Gallows stood half way down what is now Leith Walk, and executed. The men were castrated, had their hands and feet hacked off and were left to bleed to death. The women had the pleasure of witnessing the death of their men, and then were burned to death. According to one nineteenth century version of the tale, none of the Beans gave any sign of that repentance that the Victorians demanded, but died cursing their executioners.
There is a supporting legend in the small fishing port and holiday town of Girvan, where they claim a women of Bean’s clan had already left the cave and settled there. She is said to have planted the locally famous Hairy Tree, but when the townsfolk discovered who she was, they hanged her from the tree she had planted.
If Sawney Bean had spawned an entire clan of cannibals, he must have been rampant in Ayrshire for at least twenty years and probably more. Yet there does not seem to have been any contemporary evidence to support his story. It was not until the publication of sundry chapsheets in the eighteenth century, followed by the Newgate Calendar in the early nineteenth century that his story became widely known, which tends to raise suspicions as to its truth. Some of the supporting facts are also suspect: Sawney’s occupation of a hedger and ditcher seems unlikely in a sixteenth century Scotland where East Lothian was virtually denuded of trees, yet alone managed hedges. The method of execution was also unheard of: even witches were strangled before they were burned and castration was not a Scottish method of punishment. Lastly the Hairy Tree must have been extremely fast growing to mature enough to bear the weight of the woman who had planted it.
However, it is possible that the legend had endured from an earlier period and contemporary story tellers merely added details to suit the susceptibilities of their audience; a retelling in the manner of Apocalypse Now for Heart of Darkness.
But it is easy to feel safe and sceptical and superior so far away in time and distance. Perhaps it would be an idea to visit Bennane Cave some dark November night when the tide is turning, and venture to the back of the darkness, wait, and listen for the sounds of crunching bones and watch for the predatory, evil eyes.