The tale of Sawney Bean, arguably Scotland's most shocking and gruesome legend, was said to have taken place on the usually idyllic coast of the south-west.
The most commonly told account of Sawney Bean begins in East Lothian where Alexander "Sawney" Bean, the son of a ditch-digger and hedger, came to realise that labouring in the family business, and indeed labour in general, was not to his taste leading to his departure for the south-west coast of Scotland. After leaving his home and travelling to South Ayrshire, Bean found companionship with a woman, sometimes named Black Agnes Douglas, who shared his disinterest in an honest living. A remote coastal cave, located between Girvan and Ballantrae, is said to be where the couple took up residence. The Beans survived undiscovered for 25 years in this setting and populated the cave with a 45-strong incestuous brood.
They carved a monstrous living ambushing travellers on the road, whether individuals or small groups, robbing them of their possessions, and murdering them before dragging their bodies back to the cave where they would be dismembered and eaten. As body parts began washing up on nearby beaches and the larger disappearances were noticed by nearby villagers, the secretive Beans managed to evade detection during the investigations and scapegoats were falsely accused and lynched to appease the mob.
Despite the care the Beans took to remain undisturbed in their bloody work, their luck turned sour one evening when they set upon a young couple on their way home from a fair. The woman was quickly killed and butchered by the clan while her husband struggled and fought, proving to be highly skilled in combat. Driven by the sight of his wife’s brutal murder he bravely fought off his attackers until a crowd of returning fairgoers came across them forcing the Beans to flee.
With their existence reported, a search party consisting of over 400 men with bloodhounds and supposedly led by King James (James I of Scotland or James VI of Scotland depending on the tale) was dispatched to apprehend the clan. Eventually the bloodhounds led the party to the cave and the conviction grew that this was the place for which they were searching. Awaiting inside the cave lay a gruesome scene of gore and filth; body parts were both pickled in jars and hung from the walls, while possessions of the victims were unceremoniously left in piles.
Finally captured, Alexander Bean and his family were taken alive and bound in chains to the Tolbooth in Edinburgh to await their execution. The women and children of the clan were burned at the stake while the men were themselves dismembered and allowed to bleed to death – a barbaric echo of the cruelty experienced by their victims.
Impact and Legacy
The story of Alexander Bean and his fiendish family is one that generates real passion and debate: while some believe it to be legitimate history, inconsistencies in the story and the lack of documented evidence of Bean’s existence or even his trial and execution means that most historians are in agreement that it is more likely to be a tale.