sjhstrangetales

THE LEGEND OF SAWNEY BEAN

Posted on: September 8, 2011

When I was a child, way back in the 1970s, our daily newspaper used to carry a quirky Q&A section.  One day somebody asked if it was really true that there had once existed a tribe of cannibals attacking travellers in rural Scotland hundreds of years ago.  If I recall rightly, nobody was able to answer it for sure, and it’s still debatable whether the Bean clan ever really existed, or whether they are just a particularly lurid legend.  It must have stuck in my peculiar brain though, because the story fascinated me for years afterwards.

Several years on I read Colin Wilson & Patricia Pitman’s epic work ‘Encyclopedia Of Murder’, which included Sawney Bean amongst its gallery of real-life murderers.  I was still sufficiently enthralled to build an entire horror novel around this tale in the late 1980s which (probably mercifully) never came to anything.  But I am far from being the only one to be fascinated by this Scottish version of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’.   When I first went to Scotland (around the time I was writing the ill-fated masterpiece), I went armed with a guide-book which said that people regularly held barbecues on Bean’s old stamping-ground, in a sort of grimly humorous way.

Bean’s antics were first chronicled in ‘The Newgate Calendar’, a series of pieces published in the 18th and 19th centuries, to record particularly fascinating crimes.   Alexander Bean was – allegedly -born in Edinburgh sometime in the 16th century.  He came from a poor but respectable family, and was expected to carry on the family trade of ditch-clearing.  Alexander – or Sawney as he was most commonly known – had no intention of doing any such thing.  He was very much the black sheep of the family, a wastral and a thug.  Matters were compounded when he hooked up with a woman every bit as bestial and depraved as himself.

The two of them took themselves off to the wilds of Galloway, on the Scottish west coast, where they set up home in a cave at Bennane Head, a couple of miles from Ballantrae.  This undesirable residence was a maze of chambers and tunnels, some of which got flooded at high tide, so hardly the height of comfort, but it gave them the privacy and isolation which they needed for their life of crime together.  At first they were simply your bog-standard highway robbers, attacking vulnerable travellers in their area and divesting them of their worldly goods.  They came upon a problem though.  They couldn’t risk exchanging their ill-gotten gains in the area without drawing attention to themselves and rousing suspicion.  There was also the problem of their expanding family to feed.

It is reckoned that Mrs Bean gave birth to 14 children (8 boys and 6 girls), and by means of incestuous fertility this extended to 32 grand-children.  If legend is to be believed no one in the area had any idea that this huge incest-ridden cave-dwelling family existed in their midst.  Anyway, Sawney hit upon the idea of eating their victims in order to feed his monstrous brood, and the family flourished this way for many years.  They would ambush their victims at night, kill them and drag them off to their nightmarish abode, where the remains would often be pickled to be preserved.  Sometimes the family had so much “food” on their hands that bits of people were chucked out to sea, only to be washed up again.  This caused suspicions to be aroused in the area, and innocent people (particularly landlords) were often lynched as the perpetrators.

Things finally came to a head when this terrible family waylaid a couple returning from a local fair.  The woman was dragged off the horse and disembowelled on the spot, but her husband was a good swordsman and defended himself long enough for some friends to catch them up.  The Bean clan fled the scene in panic, but their cover had finally been blown.

It is said that news of the murderous clan reached the ears of King James VI (later to become King James I of England as well), who personally headed a search-party to hunt for them.  At low tide the clan were tracked down in their horrible lair.  The sight that greeted the royal search-party must have been grim indeed, a charnel-house of human remains.

The family were hunted down, clapped in chains and taken to Edinburgh, were they were incarcerated briefly at the old Tollbooth on the Royal Mile.  There was no trial and they were executed at Leith.  The men had their hands, feet and genitals cut off, and were left to bleed to death.  The women were forced to watch this savage justice, before being burnt alive.

According to Wikipedia, the Bean legend even has its own Anastasia-style spin on it, with one of the daughters managing to escape the long arm of the law, and fleeing to Girvan, where she planted a tree, the Hairy Tree, in commemoration of her clan.  The locals discovered who she really was, and hanged her from the self-same tree.

DID IT ALL HAPPEN?

Many doubts have been cast over the veracity of this story.  In their book ‘Scottish Murders’, Derek and Lisa Wright point out that the story may have been an English invention, generated by anti-Scots feeling at the time, particularly as Sawney was then a derogatory term for a Scotsman.  There is also very little clear indication as to exactly when these events occurred.  The tale I’ve just related, as having occurred in the reign of King James VI, seems to be the one most used, but I have also seen the story dated back as far as the 13th century.

Also the Beans are credited (if you’ll excuse the word!) with having murdered around a thousand people in total, but you’d think such a staggering number of disappearances might have been noticeable (particularly considering the entire population of Britain was only a few million in those days).  Admittedly, this was before the days of daily newspapers, when people relied on their news in rural areas from travelling pedlars, passing the gossip of the day by word-of-mouth.  But there were still historians, chroniclers and almanacs recording the events of their time, and nowhere in late Tudor times are the shocking antics of the Bean family written down.

I’m more inclined to take the view that most legends – however fantastical – have some small core basis in fact, and there may well have been a family in a rural area who resorted to cannibalism to survive, and that waylaying hapless travellers by dead of night was their best way of achieving this.   It’s just I suspect that the number of their victims was exaggerated somewhat in the telling.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the gruesome Sawney Bean legend is an enduring one.  No book of Scottish murders or legends is really complete without it, and these days there are tourist attractions devoted to it.  Cannibalism is sometimes referred to as The Last Taboo, and it seems people will always be both revolted and fascinated by it in equal measure.

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