; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sawney Bean and His Scottish Cannibal Clan

The tale of Sawney Bean is one of the most gruesome Scottish legends and evidence suggests the story dates to the early 18th century.

Alexander 'Sawney' Bean was the head of an incestuous member cannibalistic family, who administered a 25-year reign of murder and robbery from a hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire/Galloway coast in the 15th century. The cave 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.

There are numerous written accounts that detail Sawney and his family, and it has been suggested that the legend has its roots in real events. The tale appears in full and lurid specifics in the succinctly titled Historical and Traditional Tales in prose and verse connected with the South of Scotland: original and select (1893) by John Nicholson in 1843:

"Sawney Bean was born in the late 14th century, in a small East Lothian village not ten miles from Edinburgh. He began life as a hedger and ditcher, but, being prone to idleness and inclined towards dishonesty he ran away from home with a woman who was as viciously inclined as himself. Having no means to make a living they set up home in a sea cave in Galloway supporting themselves by robbing and murdering travellers and locals, and surviving on their victim's pickled and salted flesh. In time their family grew to an incestuous gang of 46 sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. Their reign of terror did not go unnoticed: for one hundreds of people went missing over the years, and the Beans became so successful in their butchery that they cast unwanted limbs into the sea. These were washed up on distant and local beaches, much to the horror of the coastal communities. In time the areas reputation reached the ears of the authorities and, in these suspicious times, many innocent people were executed for Sawney's crimes. The hardest hit were innkeepers as, more often than not, the missing person was last seen in an inn or lodgings: suspicion naturally falling on those who had seen them last. This happened on so many occasions that numerous innkeepers fled to take up other less risky occupations, and the area became a shunned and depopulated place."

"Sawney's family had by now grown very large and started to attack larger groups, although never more than they thought they could overwhelm. They were confident they would not be discovered: the cave that they had chosen had kept them well hidden from prying eyes. The tide passed right into the mouth of the cave, which went almost a mile into the cliffs. It was estimated that in their 25-year reign of terror they had killed more than a thousand men women and children. They were finally discovered by fortunate chance: A man and his wife were returning from a local fayre on horseback - the man in front with his wife behind - when they were ambushed by the Bean family. The husband put a furious struggle with his sword and pistol and managed to plough through the villainous host. Unfortunately his wife lost her balance and fell from the horse, to be instantly butchered by the female cannibals, who ripped out her entrails and started to feast on her blood. Her horrified husband fought back even harder and was lucky that 30 or so other revellers from the fayre came along the path. The Bean family made a hasty retreat back to their hideout, as the man explained to the crowd what had happened. The husband went along with the group to Glasgow, magistrates were informed, who in turn told the King, James IV, who was so enthralled with the case that he took personal charge. Equipped with bloodhounds the King and a posse of 400 men made their way to the scene of the slaughter and the hunt began."

"The bloodhounds get all the credit for the capture of Sawney Bean: 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. The men entered the cave and found a horrible scene: dried parts of human bodies were hanging all from the roof, pickled limbs lay in barrels, and all around piles of money and trinkets from the pockets of the dead lay in piles. The Beans made no attempt to escape all were caught alive and brought to Edinburgh in chains, where they were incarcerated in the Tollbooth, and the next day taken to Leith."

"The people were horrified when they heard about the crimes of Sawney Bean and his family and decided to give them a punishment even more barbaric. The execution was a slow one: the men bled to death after their hands and legs were cut off, and the women were burned alive after they were forced to watch the execution of the men. John Nicholson tells us about the execution as follows "...they all died without the least sign of repentance, but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life."


Here is another account taken from "Sawney Bean; or the Highland Murderer and Maneater":

Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, about eight or nine miles eastward of the city of Edinburgh, in the reign of James I of Scotland. His father was a hedger and ditcher and brought up his son to the same laborious employment.

He got his daily bread in his youth by these means, but being prone to idleness, and not caring to be confined to any honest employment, he left his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself.

These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the shore of the county of Galloway; where they lived upwards of twenty-five years, without going into any city, town or village.

In this time they had a great number of children and grandchildren, whom they brought up after their own manner, without any notions of humanity or civil society. They never kept any company, but among themselves, and supported themselves wholly by robbing: being, moreover so very cruel, that they never robbed any one, whom they did not murder.

By this bloody method, and their being so retired from the world, they continued for a long time undiscovered; there being no person able to guess how the people were lost that went by the place where they lived. As soon as they had robbed any man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled limbs, and afterwards eat it; this being their only sustenance: and not withstanding they were at last so numerous, they commonly had superfluity of this their abominable food, so that in the nigh-time they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody habitation; the limbs were often cast up by the tide in several parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all beholders, and others who heard of it.

Persons who have gone about their lawful occasions fell so often into their hands, that it caused a general outcry in the country round about; no person knowing what was become of their friends or relations, if they were once seen by these merciless cannibals.

All the people in the adjacent parts were at last alarmed at such uncommon loss of their neighbours and acquaintance, for there was no traveling in safety near the den of these wretches: this occasioned spies to be frequently sent into those parts, many of whom never returned again, and those who did, after the strictest search and inquiry, could not find how these melancholy matters happened.

Several honest travelers were taken up on suspicion and wrongfully hanged upon bare circumstances: several innocent inn keepers were executed, for no other reason than that persons, who had been thus lost, were known to have lain in their houses, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them, and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent a discovery. Thus an ill-placed justice was executed with the greatest severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent, atrocious deeds; so many innkeepers, who lived on the western road of Scotland, left of their business, for fear of being made examples of, and followed other employments.

This, on the other hand, occasioned many inconveniences to travelers, who were now in great distress for accommodation when they were disposed to refresh themselves and horses, or take up lodging for the night. In a word, the whole country was depopulated.

Still the king's subjects were as much missed as before, so that it became the admiration of the whole kingdom how such villainies could be carried on, and the perpetrators not discovered. A great many had been executed, not one of them all made any confession at the gallows, but maintained to the last, that they were perfectly innocent of the crime for which they suffered.

When the magistrates found all was in vain, they left off these rigorous proceedings, and trusted wholly to Providence, for the bringing to light the authors of these unparalleled barbarities when it should seem proper to the divine wisdom.

Sawney's family was at last grown very large, and every one of it as soon as able, assisted him perpetrating their wicked deeds, which they still followed with impunity. Sometimes they would attack four, five or six, footmen together, but never more than two, if they were on horseback; they were, moreover, so careful, that not one whom they set upon should escape, that an ambuscade was set on every side to secure them, let them fly which way they would, provided it should ever so happen that one or more got away from the first assailants. How was it possible that they should be detected, when not one that saw them ever saw anybody else afterwards.

The place which they inhabited was quite solitary and lonesome, and, when the tide came up, the water went near two hundred yards into their subterraneous habitation, which reached almost a mile underground; so that when people, who have been sent armed to search all the places about have passed by the mouth of the cave, they have never taken any notice of it, never supposing any human being would reside in such a place of perpetual horror and darkness.

The number of people these savages destroyed was never exactly known; but it was generally computed that in the twenty-five years they continued their butcheries, they had washed their hands in the blood of at least a thousand men, women and children.

The manner they were at last discovered was as follows:

A man and his wife behind him on the same horse, coming one evening home from a fair, and falling into the ambuscade of these merciless wretches, they fell upon them in a furious manner. The man to save himself as well as he could, fought very bravely against them with sword and pistol, riding some of them down by main force of his horse.

In the conflict the poor woman fell from behind him, and was instantly butchered before her husband's face, for the female cannibals cut her throat, and fell to sucking her blood with as great a gust, as if it had been wine: this done, they ripped up her belly, and pulled out all her entrails. Such a dreadful spectacle made the man make the more obstinate resistance, as he expected the same fate, if he fell into their hands.

It pleased Providence while he was engaged that twenty or thirty who had been at the same fair, came together in a body; upon which Sawney Bean and his blood thirsty clan withdrew and, made the best of their way through a thick wood to their den.

The man who was the first who had ever fell in their way, and came off alive, told the whole company what had happened, and shewed them the horrid spectacle of his wife, whom the murderers had dragged to some distance, but had not had time to carry her entirely off. They were all struck with stupefaction and amazement at what he related; they took him with them to Glasgow, and told the affair to the magistrates of that city, who immediately sent to the king concerning it.

In about three or four days after, his majesty in person, with a body of about four hundred men, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was acted, in order to search all the rocks and thickets, that, if possible, they might apprehend this hellish crew, which had been so long pernicious to all the western parts of the kingdom.

The man who was attacked was the guide, and care was taken to have a large number of blood-hounds with them, that no human means might be wanting towards their putting an entire end to these cruelties.

No sign of any habitation was to found for a long time; and even when they came to the wretches' cave, they took no notice of it, but were going to pursue their search along the sea shore, the tide being then out; but some of the blood-hounds luckily entered the Cimmerian den, and instantly set up a most hideous barking, howling and yelping; so that the king, with his attendants, came back , and looked into it: they could not tell how to conceive that anything human could be concealed in a place where they saw nothing but darkness; nevertheless, as the blood-hounds increased their noise they went further in, and refused to come back again; they then began to imagine something or other must inhabit there. Torches were immediately sent for, and a great many men ventured in, through the most intricate turnings and windings, till at last they arrived at that private recess from all the world, which was the habitation of these monsters.

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. 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 woolen, 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.

Sawney's family, at this time, besides himself, consisted of his wife, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grand-sons, and fourteen grand-daughters, who were all begotten in incest.

Theses 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, where they were executed without any process, it being thought needless to try creatures who were even professed enemies of mankind.

The men were dismembered, their hands and legs were severed from their bodies, by which amputation they bled to death in a few hours. The wife, daughters, and grand-children having been made spectators of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt to death in three separate fires. They all in general died without the least sign of repentance, but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life.

Several locals, in particular psychic detective, Tom Robinson, are convinced of the truth to the tale after witnesses described ghosts in the cave of Sawney Bean. Mr Robinson believes that instead of being executed in Edinburgh, the Sawney family were cornered and sealed alive in their cave to die a slow, agonizing death. The ghosts aren't those of Sawney and his family though, but their victims who were cursed before they were killed and eaten by the cannibalistic clan. Inside a cave, which he considered to be the Sawney home, Tom recounts how he heard a woman's scream and saw a female form dragged into the back of the cave by 12 white lights, while a male form lay immobile on the cave floor. The images faded into the cave wall. Mr Robinson supposedly returned to the site in 1991 and performed an exorcism.

Another similar Scottish tale is that of Andrew Christie, who was a butcher, by trade, in Perth. During a great famine in the mid-1400′s Christie joined a group of scavengers in the Grampian mountains. When one of the party died of starvation, Christie put his butcher skills to work on the corpse and fed himself and the group. They now began to ambush travelers as food. Christie used a hook on a pole to haul his victims from their horse, this device was a ‘cleke’, a hook or crook, hence his nickname, Cleek. Eventually an armed force from Perth defeated the group but not before Christie fled. He was never heard from again. The name Christie Cleek was used in a bogeyman-like fashion to silence even the most unruly of kids.

No one really knows whether Sawney Bean, or Christie Cleek are fact or fiction, but they’ve given rise to some well known stories such as Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, which has a family of cannibals in a more modern setting. There are some stories that Tobe Hopper based his Texas Chainsaw Murder film on the Sawney Bean legend as well as the real life sadistic murderer Ed Gein.

A new documentary broadcast on Radio Scotland in 2007 concluded that the Sawney Bean myth was an English invention designed to denigrate the Scots at the time of the Jacobite rebellions. Fiona Black, a graduate of Glasgow University, told Radio Scotland's Case Re-Opened that the word "Sawney", which is short for Alexander, first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1704 as a derogatory term for a Scotsman.

"The monstrous figure of Sawney was probably an English invention." noted Black.

Click for video - The Cannibal Cave Tour or cut / paste http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2LlmED9feQ

The film Lord of Darkness was originally titled "Sawney: Flesh of Man" and based on Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean and his murderous, inbred family. Click for trailer - Lord of Darkness or cut / paste https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIXJWoESiOQ


The little known tale of Sawney Bean’s daughter

Sawney Bean and his wife fled from the law to a cave in Ayrshire has been generally accepted in all the tales, but here let me surmise on what drove him to his fateful conclusion. In order to provide for his wife and the children she bore, he would have to resort to stealing. However, there would be small pickings from the local farms without drawing attention to himself, so he turned to mugging travellers along the route to and from Ballantrae. In order to stop them reporting the mugging on reaching the next town, it would be necessary to kill his victims and dispose of the bodies, which brings us to the point where all the tales concur regarding this growing cannibalistic tribe.

But now we come to a tale within a tale as, apparently, one of Sawney Bean’s daughters named Elspeth despised the life they were living and fled to Girvan. She moved in to property in Dalrymple Street, which, at that time, overlooked the sea and kept her nefarious past a secret from the friendly Girvan folk. In her garden a seed took root which grew into what became known as the ‘Hairy Tree’.

However when the exploits of Sawney Bean and his evil family eventually came to light and her past connection revealed, she was hanged from that same hairy tree. A little rhyme came out of this;

‘Under the bough of the hairy tree poor Elspeth choked to death,

The branches that she grew from seed helped steal her final breath

The tree is now a legend, but someday soon I’m sure

We’ll find the spot where Elspeth died and see the tree once more.’ - carricktoday.co.uk

Historical and Traditional Tales in prose and verse connected with the South of Scotland: original and select (1893)
The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scotland's Legends, from the Loch Ness Monster to Sawney Bean the Cannibal
Cannibal Family of Sawney Bean: And Stories of South-west Scotland
Sawney Beane: The Abduction of Elspeth Cumming