Written by: Kate
Published: 27th January 2022
Can you imagine the sort of person that would make Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer seem tame? Alexander Sawney Bean – Scotland’s most notorious cannibal – does exactly that. Read on to find out more about this flesh-eating fellon……
Born in the late 15th Century in East Lothian, Sawney (Alexander) Bean was a gardener and labourer by trade. Left unfulfilled by this ordinary existence, he left town with his wife, Black Agnes Douglas, and made a home for themselves in a cave near Ballantrae in South West Scotland.
You may well be wondering why anyone would choose to live in a cave? Well, Sawney Bean and his revolting, incestuous family are said to have killed and cannibalised over 1000 people…. So aside from being free to live in, the cave provided the privacy they required.
Black Agnes Douglas and Alexander (Sawney) Bean were a healthy match as they had both outgrown their hometown for different reasons. Back Agnes had often been accused of Witchcraft and Sawney was lacking enthusiasm in his life as a gardener and labourer. Eventually they moved away to settle down and start a family in a way that was slightly unorthodox.
There are numerous accounts as to why the couple had to flee their hometown and we will never know for sure why they left.
What we do know is that having looked around for a suitable place to call home, they moved to a cave in Bennane Head, somewhere between Girvan and Ballantrae, on the Ayrshire coast. The cave was 180 meters deep, and with an entrance blocked twice a day by the tide, the cave was the ideal place to keep unwanted visitors out. The happy couple were able to settle undisturbed for 25 years.
Not having a profession as such, Sawney knew that he had to find a way to provide for his wife so he decided that he should rob unwary passers by. But why stop there? Sawney Bean soon realised that he could cover all bases by not only killing the potential witnesses but also dragging the corpses home and eating them for dinner. This is how the Bean empire began.
With a rich diet so high in protein it will come as no surprise that the couple quickly started to grow their family. 8 sons and 6 daughters were the perfect combination to start working on the next generation. They incestuously produced 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters. The Sawney clan was a powerful group of cannibals clearing the land of everyone and anyone who crossed their path.
Heresay is that the total number of victims reached 1,000 although we will never be able to say for sure. The 46 members of the family hunted in a pack which meant they were able to ensure that no victims escaped. No witnesses to tell the tale meant that the Sawney Clan activities were kept under wraps for a very long time.
One fateful day, Sawney Bean and his clan attacked an unsuspecting couple who were traveling home from a fayre. Unbeknownst to Sawney, the gentleman had enough fighting power to hold his own….. unlike his wife who was gruesomely disemboweled. Thankfully, a larger group traveling back from the fayre came to his rescue.
Up until now, there had not been a single living witness to the horrors of the Bean clan so this was not good news for Sawney and his family.
Managing to evade the clan, the rescuers took the survivor to a local Magistrate. Whilst the magistrate deliberated over what to do, news of the horrific attack spread and it was no time at all before the story got the attention of King James VI. Very quickly he put together a group of 400 men and dispatched some bloodhounds and they set off to find Sawney.
The land had been scoured many times in the past but nothing was ever found. The Beans’ cave had been the perfect hideout. This time, however, the bloodhounds quickly picked up on the smell of rotting flesh led the searchers straight to the cave’s entrance.
What came next is the stuff of nightmares. The searchers entered the cave by torchlight and found the Bean clan in all their glory. The clan were sat in the heart of the cave surrounded by human remains. There were limbs hanging from the ceiling like that in a butchers, barrels of pickled parts, and a fine selection of clothes and jewellery. There was no question that the searchers had stumbled upon the guilty suspects.
Prison did not seem a suitable penalty for the pain that the family had inflicted on others so the men of the family are said to have had their limbs cut off and were left to bleed to death whilst watching the women and children being burnt alive.
Unsurprisingly the story of Sawney Bean raises a few eyebrows! Here are the most frequently asked questions.
The lack of evidence means historians can not be certain if this gruesome story is fact or fiction. However, the myth of Sawney Bean and Black Agnes Douglas lived on and is passed down through local folklore.
There is indeed a film about Sawney Bean. Sawney: Flesh of Man. The story follows the Scottish cannibal and his inbred family as they cover thousands of murders without a trace. Listed as a Horror / Thriller and Directed by Ricky Wood, this is most likely not one for the family to settle down to.
You can watch the film on Amazon prime here
The Edinburgh Dungeon is a popular tourist attraction and they feature the ‘Cannibal’s Cave.’ You will be able to find out more about the parts that would have been pickled, if the Sawney’s were in fact ever captured, and what the inside of their cave could have looked like!
For more articles visit our Scottish history page
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