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Photo: Getty Images. Scottish cannibal Alexander 'Sawney' Bean, circa 1400.

Photo: Getty Images.
Scottish cannibal Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean, circa 1400.

The Legend of Sawney Bean

Scottish historic folklore is full of grizzly tales of death and murder. The story of Sawney Bean is one of the most gruesome Scottish legends. Evidence suggests the tale dates to the early 18th century.

Alexander Sawney Bean was, legend tells, the head of an incestuous cannibalistic family, who oversaw a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 15th century. The cave most readily associated with Sawney and his nefarious clan is close to Ballantrae on Bennane head in Ayrshire, although other sea caves along the Ayrshire and Galloway coast have also been associated with the story.

Alexander “Sawney” Bean was born in the later part of the fourteenth century in East Lothian, Scotland. Bean was raised in an agricultural community and came from a rather poor family of laborers. The home life of Bean was said to be, at best, a horrible upbringing. Often being beat by his father for never quite being a good enough son.

As Alexander got older he attempted to become the son his father had always wanted, by taking on the duties of adulthood and joining the workforce. Due to his reckless attitude, a natural born urge to disobey the rules, and a deep hatred for actual work, Alexander completely failed in his attempts at earning an honest living, once again disappointing his father.

Eventually Bean tired of trying to fit in with his peers and stopped all attempts at being a productive member of his community. It was at this point that he took up a relationship with a woman by the name of Agnes Douglas. This relationship would soon lead to both Agnes and Alexander fleeing from their homeland after locals began to make accusations of Agnes being a witch, claiming she had been involved in human sacrifices and conjuring demons. From that point on she was known as Black Agnes Douglas the dark witch of Lothian.

Bean and Douglas traveled through Southern Scotland robbing anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. Some of the legends claim that it was during this journey that Bean got his first taste of human flesh.

Being outlaws it was to risky to enter into the villages and attempt to spend their stolen loot on food, so facing starvation, the witch Agnes convinced Alexander that cannibalism?was the solution. It was rumored that Black Agnes Douglas had already been practicing this unique form of dining long before her relationship with Bean ever started.

Not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to themselves they kept their feasting to a minimum. They would only eat when they absolutely had to and they would dispose of the remains in a fashion that would make it look as if the cause of death had been an animal attack. I guess in a sense it was, Agnes and Alexander were already on their way to becoming real life?monsters.

After traveling and hiding out for several months the pair eventually wound up on the South Ayrshire Coast near Ballantrae. While inspecting the area for potential victims and shelter Bean and Agnes came across the entrance to a cave overlooking the water.

The couple had discovered the cave during the low tide but soon realized once the tide had risen that the entrance was no longer visible, being completely submerged in water. Being as the cave was nearly a half mile deep at a steady incline it had all the makings of a perfect hide out and home for the couple to raise a family.

Immediately after setting up home in their cave Alexander and Agnes took their crimes to the next level. They began robbing on a regular basis but were sure to never leave a witness. They would stick to only taking on a single person and bringing the entire body back to their cave to be pickled and preserved.

Since they were, at the time, unknown by anyone in the area they were able to spend the cash from their victims in town to buy the essential necessities. Any traceable or easily identifiable goods were stashed back in their cave leaving no evidence that anything was afoul in the area.

At some point Bean and Agnes began having children. They would eventually have 8 sons and 6 daughters, all of which were raised to be part of this cannibalistic cult-like lifestyle. As the children would grow they would be incorporated into the killings, sometimes hunting as a large group and other times splitting up into smaller groups to cover more ground and increase their profit.

Eventually Bean wanted to expand the family even more and encouraged the children to breed with each other and build him an army. According to the Bean family ledger, found many years later, these incestuous acts brought Bean and Agnes a total of 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters, now bringing the Bean clan to a total of 48 inbred, cannibalistic monsters.

The entire span of cave life for the Bean family lasted for well over 25 years, but something this evil, on this large of a scale, is impossible to keep hidden forever. The killings began to become so numerous that the town folk from the surrounding areas began to make accusations and spread rumors against each other.

The number of missing persons in the area, over that 25 year span, were said to have been over 1000. The rumors of what was happening went from reasonable possibilities to just plain insane accusations, little did anyone know at the time just how close the later was to the truth.

One very common story was that local innkeepers had been robbing and killing the missing people. This rumor was so widespread that many of the innkeepers actually left the business to move on to new careers out of fear of being lynched

Another rumor claimed there was some kind of evil beasts living in the wilderness areas surrounding the villages. Red Caps are murderous goblin-like creatures from Scottish?folklore?and were often thought to be the cause of the disappearances.

As if that wasn’t a strange enough theory, there were many others who claim it was the deeds of the Kelpie that caused the disappearances of all those people. Kelpie is a Scottish mythological creature said to live in the lochs and rivers, and comes onto land to appear to you as a horse or pony. Once you climb onto the back of the Kelpie it rushes back into the water taking you right along with it, and so the stories went, on and on.

It was about 1430 A.D. when the Bean clan finally met their match. On this particular night the family was broken up into several small groups while hunting. One of these groups happened upon a man and his wife riding horseback that looked to be easy targets.

To the surprise of these cannibal inbreeds, the man was not about to go down without a fight. They began to do battle right in the middle of the road, and the man armed with both sword and pistol was well-trained and able to keep them at bay. The wife was not so lucky, she was dragged from her horse, murdered and partially devoured, right there in the street. All the while her husband continued to fend off his own attackers by the skin of his teeth.

Another larger group of people had been travelling farther back down the road and came upon the mayhem just in time to save the man from his own death at the hands of the Bean family. When they heard the crowd approaching they began to scatter in every direction. Running frantically, they eventually made their way back home to their cave.

After collecting the remains of his wife the man and his new group of allies made their way back into town to inform the local authorities. Word quickly traveled to King James I of Scotland who is said to have dispatched nearly 400 armed men, including himself, and bloodhounds to hunt down Alexander “Sawney” Bean and his insane family.

It was the dogs tracking the Beans scent that finally led the party to the cave entrance, where they could smell the pungent odor of the decaying corpses.

The bloodhounds get all the credit for the capture, the King’s men did not notice the well-hidden cave but the dogs could not ignore the strong smell of flesh that surrounded it.

Upon entering the cave they found drying body parts hanging everywhere, and vast amounts of stolen jewellery and heirlooms scattered all around the floor.

To the surprise of the hunting party the Bean clan gave up without a fight, surrendering themselves to the King and his men. 46 people were captured, bound in chains and marched into Edinburgh that day to await their execution.

The women and children were hung on stakes, and temporarily left alive, to watch the men of their clan be slaughtered at which point they were set on fire. As for the male Beans, they were each slowly dismembered and left to bleed to death as a reflection of their own cruelty.

During the entire execution not one member of the Bean family showed any sign of fear or remorse they just continuously spit obscenities towards their captives. Through it all, and up until his final breath, Alexander “Sawney” Bean continuously repeated the phrase, in as loud a voice as he could muster, “it isn’t over, it will never be over”.

Many years after their execution the Bean family ledger was finally found, mixed in with the loot and jewellery from their rampage now safely locked away in the kings vault. It wasn’t until reading the journal that anyone realized two members of the Bean family were unaccounted for on that day of retribution.

Since the missing person reports had almost completely stopped in the area no one was ever sent to investigate the cave again. They simply assumed the two must have already died at an earlier date. Who really knows what really happened to the missing members of the Bean clan. Some say they’re all dead, but many believe the family is still around today keeping their numbers small so they’re not detected and?feeding?on the bodies of vagabonds and tourists unlucky enough to cross their path.

DS Duby

Sawney Bean and his Family

BBC Scotland: The Grisly Deeds of Alexander Bean

BBC News: Who was Sawney Bean?

The Legend of Sawney Bean