The Legend

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.

An open human mouth with teeth bared angrily with a rocky background.
Sawney Bean and his monstrous family enjoyed a 25 year reign of terror.

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.

A reconstruction of a lifeless human hand inside a jar full of pale yellow fluid.
The cave was full of pickled limbs and other horrific treasures.

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.

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Louise Welsh and National Library of Scotland curator Eoin Shalloo discuss similar stories, propaganda and Daniel Defoe. BBC World Affairs Correspondent Allan Little describes some of the key moments from his career and answer questions about what it is like to report the world in an age of conflict. Bill Boyd reads his poem Hogmanay, written in the style of Robert Burns.

Nevertheless, it does raise the question of how and why such a story came about and who would be behind it? It first appears in pamphlets printed in 18th Century England. This was the time of the Jacobite risings and the English press at the time regularly portrayed Scots in a negative way, either as subjects of ridicule or as having a sinister nature. In The Polar Twins, Fiona Black describes the story as being “political propaganda” with the aim to “demonstrate the savagery and uncivilised nature of the Scots in contrast to the superior qualities of the English nation”. There is even speculation that Daniel Defoe wrote the Sawney Bean story.

In some versions of the tale Bean’s partner is “Black Agnes”, a name shared with a real historical figure - Agnes Randolph, Countess of Dunbar and March. In 1338 she heroically defended Dunbar Castle against an English siege. The association of this figure’s name in such a gruesome story seems to tie in with the political propaganda idea and could be an attempt to defame a Scottish heroine. Even the story’s location is open to question. Tom Barclay, the local history librarian for South Ayrshire Council believes that the setting of Girvan and Ballantrae can be traced back to Samuel Rutherford Crockett’s 1896 book The Grey Man which features Sawney Bean. Before the book’s publication, the story seems to have been vaguely set in Galloway. Tom describes the legend of Sawney Bean as a popular tradition in the area where the gory tale incites an interesting mixture of pride and shame among the local people.

But the Sawney Bean story has captured people’s imaginations well beyond the Ayrshire border. The Edinburgh Dungeon has a Sawney Bean attraction which, despite the subject not being as well-known as Burke and Hare or William Wallace, usually ranks as being among the top three most popular attractions among customers. Marketing co-ordinator Helen Adams says visitors hearing about Sawney Bean for the first time are usually shocked as it is a very morally uncomfortable story about survival and extreme savagery.

Meanwhile an international audience might recognise the story of an incestuous family of cannibals capturing and feasting on the flesh of travellers from Wes Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes. Craven was inspired by an article on Sawney Bean that he read in the New York library. Its influence can also be seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The legend of Sawney Bean captures the essence of the darker side of Scotland. It is a ‘grown-up’ tale to shock, thrill and captivate the adults once the children have gone to bed with their heads full of more innocent tales of the Loch Ness Monster.

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