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Grisly Tale of the Sawney Bean Clan
Scottish story tellers of old could weave a ghastly tale as well as any modern day horror writer. The legend of Alexander Sawney Bean is a good example. Whether or not the story is true has never been proven and even the dates vary from the 14th to the 19th century. Some aspects of the tale suggest the story originated in the early 18th century and that’s when it was first seen in print. Whatever the case, it still makes for one scary campfire tale.
The most popular version of the Sawney Bean legend has him being born in the late 14th century, not far from Edinburgh. His occupation was said to be a hedger and ditcher, but Sawney was shiftless, lazy and dishonest. He became romantically involved with a woman who had the same inclinations. And since neither had a job they made their home in a cave by the sea which kept them well hidden. To support themselves they turned to murder, robbery and cannibalism. It began a reign of terror which would last 25 years.
Over time their family grew to 46 sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, mostly through incestuous relationships. Hundreds of people disappeared and frequently their butchered and half eaten carcasses would wash up on local beaches.
In surrounding communities suspicion fell up on those who had seen the hapless victims last. More often than not it was local pub and innkeepers. Unfortunately, many innocent people were executed. Eventually these businessmen moved on to safer occupations and set up business elsewhere. As a result the population began to decline even further and the Beans were forced to venture further and further from their cave.
The bold band of thieving cannibals traveled in a pack and would even attack larger groups, although they never bit off more than they could chew (pun intended). It was by chance the Bean’s existence became revealed. The Bean clan set upon a man and his wife returning from a local fair. When the pair, riding a single horse were ambushed, the man fought back fiercely with his sword and pistol. However, his wife fell from the horse and was instantly butchered by the female cannibals who began feasting on her blood and entrails.
Fortunately for the husband a group of about 30 others returning from the fair showed up. Sawney Bean’s family fled back to their hideout. The group of revelers escorted the man to Glasgow where authorities were informed. A posse numbering about 400 with bloodhounds was quickly organized and set upon the Bean’s trail. The posse would never have found the well hidden Bean cave without the bloodhounds that quickly picked up the scent of butchered human flesh.
Entering the cave the posse found dried human body parts hanging from the roof, pickled limbs in barrels, piles of clothes and the stolen loot of their victims. The entire Bean clan was captured, put in shackles and taken to Edinburgh where they were incarcerated. The next day they were transported to Leith. It was later determined the Bean’s had been responsible for at least a thousand deaths during the 25 years they had been operating.
Vigilante justice was swift when the people heard the horrifying confessions of Sawney Bean and his family. Foregoing a time consuming trial, the outraged citizens decided upon a punishment befitting their ghastly crimes.
Their execution was slow and painful. The hands and legs of the men were decapitated and their bodies hung up for the women to view as they slowly bled to death. Next, the women were burned alive at the stake. It was said they all died without the least sign of remorse, but cursed and swore to the very last.
An additional note to the story says one of Bean's daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan, a nearby village where she planted what became to be known as “The Hairy Tree.” After her family's capture, her identity became known and she was hung from it.
Like many legends said to be based on fact, it is possible there is a grain of truth to the legend. It is also impossible to prove it didn’t happen. The Bean legend may indeed have its root in some bloody or gristly piece of history long since forgotten.
Historical records were scant during the period in question, however some believe the paranormal has shed some light on the tale. Local blacksmith and psychic detective, Tom Robinson is convinced there is some truth to the story. Robinson claims to have encountered ghosts in the cave.
Robinson believes instead of being publicly executed the Bean family was sealed alive in their cave to starve to death. But the ghosts Robinson says he saw were not those of the Beans, rather those of the victims. Robinson says he heard a woman scream and saw her dragged away by 12 white lights. The images seemed to disappear into a cave wall. Later in 1991 Robinson performed an exorcism.
The legend of Sawney Bean has been the inspiration for several horror movies such as Wes Craven’s “The hills have eyes” released in 1977. It has also become part of the local Tourism and Heritage Trial. There is a reconstruction of the cave at the Edinburgh Dungeon on Market Street, near the Waverly Bridge in Edinburgh. There are also a few pubs named after Sawney.