Folklore Friday - Sawney Bean

Folklore Friday - Sawney Bean
By Sophie 3 months ago 1583 Views No comments

You may have heard of Burke and Hare, but what about Sawney Bean? This dark tale has been the inspiration for many hollywood blockbusters, such as the hills have eyes, and has inspired novels, plays and operas too.

How did it all begin?

Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian in the 1500s. The son of a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, Bean soon attempted to take up the family trade. Unfortunately he quickly realised he had little interest in following this pursuit and shortly after he left home with the woman who would become his wife.

As they traveled through Scotland the couple ended up settling in a coastal cave n Bennan Head, between Girvan and Ballantrae. Here they lived, undiscovered, for over 25 years. This was partly because the cave was 200 yards deep and when the tide was in, the entrance to the cave would become completely submerged.

As time went on the couple had eight sons and six daughters. As more time passed they gained eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters, so by this point there were a fair number of people living in the cave. Lacking motivation for labour outside of their dwelling, the clan thrived by carefully laying traps at night. They would wait and in the darkness to ambush, rob and murder any unfortunate soul who fell into their traps. The 'hunters' would then bring any bodies back to their cave where they would be eaten. Any leftovers were pickled and other left over body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.

The Bean clan's crimes did not go unnoticed by the nearby villagers. They struggled to work out where the body parts were coming from and who or what was to blame. The Bean clan were cunning, though, staying in the cave during the day and only appearing at night. They were so secretive, in fact, that the villagers didn't even realise the Bean clan existed.

As time went on, significant notice of the disappearances was taken. The villagers held several organised searches to try and get to the source, even noticing the cave where the Beans were hiding. The daunting cave entrance was enough to put the search party off as they concluded that nothing 'human' could likely live there.

As the villagers became more frustrated, desperate to find their culprits, they lynched several innocent and unfortunate suspects. Thinking this would be the end, they became distraught when the murders only continued. There was particular suspicion of the local inn keepers, who were frequently the last people to have seen the victims before their disappearances. The authorities established that this was, and still is to this day, the longest list of missing persons ever produced.

On one fateful night, a married couple were riding from a local fair. Ambushed by the Bean clan, they were unaware that their victim had skills in combat. Holding off the clan, with his sword and pistol, the clan fatally mauled his wife instead. There were so many of them it was all he could do to keep himself alive. Before the clan could turn on him, more fair goers appeared along the path. In fear of being discovered, the Bean clan fled the scene.

As they left their victim alive, the existence of the Bean clan was finally revealed. When King James VI of Scotland heard of the horrific tales he organised 400 of his finest men, and several bloodhounds, leading a manhunt to out the Bean clan. Many locals joined the hunt and it was one of the biggest manhunts ever seen.

It was getting dark as the troops approached the cave. By torchlight, they entered the mile long passage with swords drawn. Searching the inner depths of the cave, they finally reached the Bean clan lair. Nothing could quite have prepared them for what they found there. The damp walls of the cave were decorated with rows of hanging human limbs, like meat hanging in a butchers shop. Piles of clothing from the victims were stored in another part of the cave, along with watches, rings and heaps of human bones from previous meals.

After a small fight, the entire clan was captured alive and taken to the Tollbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Glasgow. Their crimes were considered to horrific that the justice system was abandoned and they were sentenced to death without trial. At the time the law stood that men should be hung, drawn and quartered, while the women and children should be burned. To set an example, the men were executed in the same manner as their very victims had met their deaths. Their legs and arms were cut off and they slowly bled to death. Once watching the men die, the women were burned like witches.

After their execution a ballad was composed:

"They've hung them high in Edinburgh toon,

An likewise a their kin,

An the wind blaws cauld on a their banes,

An tae hell they a hae gaen"