East Lothian’s Most Notorious Son

An old Scottish legend has it that, one day in the 1400s, a young lady from Girvan in Ayrshire planted the hairy tree. Not long after, the angry community of Girvan hanged her from it. Her crime? She was the daughter of East Lothian’s most notorious son, the evil cannibal, Sawney Bean.

Sawney Bean was born Alexander Bean in East Lothian, during the 14th or 15th century. His father, who earned a respectable living gardening for the local townsfolk, raised him. Sawney was less enthusiastic about working for his money though – an early sign he was headed for trouble and a life beyond the law.

Not long out of his teens, Sawney met and fell in love with a local woman. They ran away from East Lothian to start a new life together. After much meandering they set up home in a cave near Bennane Head in South Ayrshire. The couple remained there and raised fourteen children, who, when old enough and through incest, gave birth to eighteen sons and fourteen daughters. Altogether, fortyeight members of the same family lived together in the same cave.

During the middle ages, Scotland and its deserted roads could be a highly dangerous place but now, with the Bean clan hatching a deadly plan, they were to become many times worse.

Ever since they had moved to the cave, Bean and his wife had taken advantage of the remoteness of the area by robbing travellers for their money and any items of value they could make use of. Now, with the pair struggling to provide food for their growing family, Sawney decided it was time to take things to the next level. Instead of wasting time on their victims, who were often dead anyway, Sawney would use the bodies to feed himself and his family.

Bean soon realised that it was less exhausting and more productive than he had imagined. From now on, the clan would lay a trap for unsuspecting travellers. Sawney spread his children across the deserted landscape around where they lived, to minimise the possibility of any victim escaping. They would lie in wait until an unfortunate soul came by.

After their murders, the corpses were taken back to the cave, where they would be stripped of their possessions. They were then dismembered, disembowelled and eaten by the family. Anything left over would be pickled and saved for later.

By now, the people whose loved ones had failed to return home were becoming suspicious of the area. The disappearances were becoming daily and it wasn’t long before the entire town was gripped by fear: (It is reported that innocent strangers passing through were hanged when suspicion fell on them, as well as innkeepers, who were often the last to see the missing travellers). Still the vanishings continued. Then, one day, things came to a bloody climax.

The Beginning of the End
A man and his wife were riding on horseback through the woods on their way home from a fair. Sawney and his family lay in wait. They attacked the helpless couple and killed the woman instantly, ripping out her insides and eating them on the spot. Devastated by his wife’s gruesome death, the man bravely fought off the Beans with his sword, horse and bare hands. It was then that around two dozen men and women also returning from the fair came into view. Stunned and sickened by what they saw, they chased the family away. It was the beginning of the end for the Beans.

King James I of Scotland, who had received word of the slayings, was so angry that he travelled to the area himself in a bid to hunt down the perpetrators. With him, he brought four hundred men and dogs. One night, the dogs reached the cave at Bennane Head. The entrance was well hidden but the dogs started to bark uncontrollably. Cautiously, the army entered the cave. What they saw made even the most hardened of soldiers vomit. The cave was a gruesome sight, decorated with human remains from top to bottom. Trophies from hundreds of murders were everywhere. Quickly the Beans were captured and placed under arrest.

They were taken to Edinburgh and thrown into the Tolbooth Jail. Not long afterwards, they were split up and taken to either Glasgow or Leith. The family, who, until then, had never spent a day apart, was now ripped apart just as they had ripped apart their victims.

Sawney and his family were not considered human beings, but monsters, and so were sentenced to death without a trial. The women were made to watch as the men had their hands and feet cut off and were left to bleed to death. The women were then thrown on three fires and burned alive. It was an execution that hardly matched the brutality of the crimes they had committed for over twenty five years.

But finally, that part of Ayrshire that had previously been peaceful and serene, could be that way once more.

How Much Truth, How Much Fiction?
Any tale dating from that time has inevitably been embroidered but there are several inconsistancies that stick out. Firstly, Sawney Bean’s exploits are linked to Galloway, yet the cave associated with his deeds is in Ayrshire, so the location is uncertain. Secondly, although there are limited records from this time, it is strange that there are no records at all of the executions of the various innocent parties, of the disappearances of travellers in the Ayrshire area, nor of the intervention of the King.

According to Fiona Black in The Polar Twins, the tale was probably an English invention to denigrate the Scots after Jacobite rebellion. There are however records of periods of famine, and some occurrences of cannibalism, in Scotland in the late 15th century.

It also possible that the story was invented for the chapbooks and broadsheets of the day, to satisfy the same hunger for horror that we have today.

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