IN this second part of my short series on Scottish mysteries, I am going to tell the bizarre story of Sawney Bean, the alleged cannibal whose family are said to have killed and eaten 1000 people in the south-west of Scotland in the 15th century.

But did they? I am sorry to disappoint those readers who no doubt expect a fully factual account of the worst mass murderer in Scottish history but I long ago concluded that Sawney Bean was a fictional legend and I’ll show how that legendary status came about.

I will also show how Bean’s supposed existence and nefarious activities remain a huge mystery, one that has baffled historians and the public alike for centuries, not least because of the complete lack of evidence about Bean and his tribe of human flesh-eating troglodytes.

Still, I’m a great believer in that old line from John Ford’s great Western tale The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.” I have always taken that to mean “when fiction becomes fact, print the fiction”, and so I will recount the legend of Sawney Bean and place it against the known facts about him and his family.

There are many variations of the Sawney Bean legend but I have edited them down to what I consider the “classic” version of the tale.

The story goes like this.

In the late 1300s or early 1400s, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian to a hard-working agricultural family.

He was soon given the nickname Sawney though why that happened is another mystery – Sawney was the diminutive of Alexander and was used disparagingly by the English to describe a Scotsman, much the same way as the English tabloids use “Jock” these days.

Bean was not happy with a life of hard work in East Lothian and took himself west to Ayrshire where he hooked up with a woman described as a vicious witch, Black Agnes Douglas, who had fled from Ballantrae where she was going to be tried and burned for witchcraft.

The couple made their home in a cave on the Ayrshire coast. Some sources say it was a huge deep cave at Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae, in which case the cave must have disappeared many years ago because there is nothing like that now at Bennane.

From their new home, Sawney and Agnes sallied forth to rob travellers, killing them and taking the bodies and booty back to the cave where they cannibalised their victims.

The National: Portencross on the Ayrshire coast Portencross on the Ayrshire coast

The cave was allegedly sealed off at high water mark so the couple were able to live in relative safety, only ever coming out at night, and so survived for 25 years.

During that time, they had eight sons, six daughters, 18 grandsons and 13 or 14 granddaughters. The grandchildren were the result of incest between the children of Bean.

Many people in the local area supposedly went missing as did people passing through Ayrshire along the route of what is now the A77.

Body parts were found around the area, but the locals presumed that people who had gone missing had been eaten by animals. Others who had been the last to see missing people, including several innkeepers, were accused of murder and robbery and were hanged.

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No-one seems to have made the connection with the cave dwellers until one night, Sawney and his family suffered a piece of bad luck.

They accosted a young couple returning from a fair and killed the woman, devouring her entrails in front of her husband. By chance, however, this man was a skilled fighter with pistols and a sword and he held the Beans at bay until other people returning from the fair came upon the dreadful scene.

Sawney and his family took refuge in their cave, but their secret was now out and they were living on borrowed time.

The King sends in the dogs

This all apparently happened during the reign of the Stewart King James I – you can completely discount the many claims of a connection to James VI and I as it is just too late and that monarch’s life was documented in often minute detail.

The terrible story made its way to James I, who would be assassinated in Perth in 1437, which is why we can give a rough dating for Sawney Bean’s life.

Determined to deal with the Beans himself, James rode to Ayrshire with 400 armed men and a pack of bloodhounds. At low tide, the King sent in the dogs and the entire clan emerged to surrender and be put in chains.

According to a 19th-century version of the tale, the King’s men were eventually able to enter the cave: “Now the whole body, or as many of them as could went in, and were all so shocked at what they beheld, that they were almost ready to sink into the earth.

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“Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and children, were hung up in rows, like dried beef; a great many limbs laid in pickle, and a great mass of money both gold and silver, with watches, rings, swords, pistols and a large quantity of cloths, both linen and woollen, and an infinite number of other things which they had taken from those they had murdered, were thrown together in heaps or hung up against the sides of the den.”

The entire clan: “Were all seized and pinioned by his majesty’s order in the first place; then they took what human flesh they could find, and buried it in the sands; afterwards loading themselves with the spoils which they found, they returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners; all the country, as they passed along, flocked to see this cursed tribe. When they came to their journey’s end, the wretches were committed to the Tolbooth, from whence they were the next day conducted, under a strong guard to Leith.”

The cave was fully searched and the number of body parts indicated that as many as 1000 people had met their ends by being eaten by the Bean family.

The Trial, or no trial

Some 45 of the Bean clan made it to Leith where King James decreed their crimes were so great that no trial was necessary. All the men and boys were beaten and had their hands and feet – some say genitals in addition – chopped off so that they all bled to death.

Sawney’s last words were said to be “it isn’t over, it will never be over” which was rather convenient for those who afterwards said Bean’s ghost haunted various places.

For the women and girls, their fate was even worse. They were all burned to death as the King considered them to have practised witchcraft. Thus ended the reign of terror of Sawney Bean and his family.

I said at the beginning I would contrast the legend with the known facts about Sawney and the rest of the Bean family. That’s a very simple thing to do – there are none. Not one scintilla of genuine evidence for the existence of Sawney Bean or Black Agnes Douglas has ever been identified by the many historians who have searched for the truth about the supposed cannibal.

There are no court or royal records of Bean and the clan’s capture and execution, there is absolutely no written evidence of any such death cult in Ayrshire or anywhere else in Scotland.

Sparse evidence, or a fictional tale of English distaste for Scots?

There is sparse evidence of a butcher called Andrew Christie who may turned cannibal north of Perth. Known as Christie Cleek because he captured his victims with a hook (cleek). His legend is similar to that of Sawney Bean – he hid in the Grampian Mountains and was joined by other cannibals during a famine – but predates the Bean tale by 100 years.

The late American writer, musician and filmmaker Tom Doran was the son of a Glaswegian immigrant. Doran loved Scotland and contributed to the newsletter Scotia News. The City University of New York’s website contains Doran’s devastating critique of the Bean legend in which he suggested the real reason behind the fictional tale was English distaste for the Scots.

Doran wrote: “A complete and total lack of evidence points to this horrific and unique tale as just being a sensationalist, and frankly, anti-Scottish story – possibly created by the English to show the displeasure of many for what seemed to be the impending union of nations (the first mention of Sawney seems to be around 1701 – the Union was 1707) – though the talk of combining the nations had of course been long-standing, and the Union of the Crowns that happened when James VI and I became King of England, solidified those notions – and indeed those fears.

“James, in fact, while putting down the Border Reivers admonished anyone who would even use the term ‘border’. In his mind, the nations of Scotland and England (and Wales) were already united – though it took a century after James crossed the Border to the south before the ‘buying’ of the Union took place.”

Doran’s theory is that it was more likely an English author would have used the name Sawney, than a Scot. He added: “The derogatory nature of its use was certainly an English notion regardless of the origin of the name. The English and Scots had no love for each other – the English considering the Scots horrible barbarians who couldn’t even speak English – so, pushing their contempt one step further into cannibalism seem not much of a stretch.

“The area was notoriously dangerous at that time (or its recent-ish past in any event), and the rough coast was then rife with smugglers and buccaneers of all sorts. Tales of cannibals lurking in shoreline caves would certainly be to their benefit. ”

Doran’s logic is impeccable: “Court records have been gone over by others, and no mention has ever been found. The story conveniently states that there was no trial – just terrible retribution.

“There is no other corresponding written evidence and one would imagine there would be. Wouldn’t a heroic tale involving the King of Scotland fighting an army of cannibals be documented in some fashion? And just as importantly, there is no local oral tradition – and no songs.

“There are no known family or personal histories, either from the families of supposed victims, nor any eye-witnesses to the sight of the cannibal family being dragged to Edinburgh and then to execution in Leith. One would imagine that there would be many witnesses and resultant stories. Sadly, there are none.”

Only with fiction

Doran’s final argument is the clincher for me: “History has many witnesses – many variation of events, interpretations (for the most part) – but the tale of Sawney? It never changes – and that only happens with fiction.”

So my best guess is that Sawney Bean’s life story is a work of fiction penned by an anti-Scottish English media out to create a Caledonian bogeyman to scare the people of England.

A scurrilous publication called The Newgate Calendar after the infamous prison of that name contained a version of the Sawney Bean legend around the 1740s when the English were taught to fear the Jacobite Highlanders. Who better to frighten the poor English folk than a Scottish cannibal?

Bean is a mythical mystery, but one who has appeared in many areas of culture over the centuries. The legend of Sawney Bean has inspired many works such as Wes Craven’s film The Hills Have Eyes, and to this day, the story is being retold on a daily basis in The Edinburgh Dungeon. Believe me, it’s truly scary.