Alexandra Sawney Bean, was supposed to have been born in the latter part of the 14th century in Aest Lowden, (East Lothian) near Edinburgh. Although initially he reluctantly followed his father by earning his living as a local hedger, ditcher and odd-job labourer, his laziness and evil nature induced him to take up crime.
It was at this decisive period of his life when he met his pair, a wicked woman known as Black Agnes Douglas. Together they left East Lothian to go to the west coast of Scotland where, without the local's knowledge, they made their secret home in a sea cave.
From there they would venture out on dark evenings and waylay travellers, and even local folk, robbing and murdering them. Rather than buy food with whatever wealth they accumulated from their odious crimes, they took to eating their victims. They even pickled or salted the human flesh. (It goes without saying that without electricity and fridges in those days, this would be the normal procedure to preserve perishables destined to be consumed).
Sawney Bean and Agnes Douglas eventually had children. They too, without question, naturally followed their parents criminal and cannibalistic example. But even worse, the family rapidly grew through the rife practice of incest. It was, after all, a close family.
It's said that the Beans eventually amounted to a happy hoard of almost fifty sons, daughters and grand children.
Naturally such a large family of murderers would eventually cause alarm and panic in the region. Hundreds of people disappeared, never to be seen again.
But the family became over confident. Their evil way of life was so perfectly natural for them, that they were careless enough to cast half-eaten human limbs, and even severed heads into the sea as if it were waste, which for them it was.
Often washed up on beaches further south, these macabre human remains caused considerable consternation amongst the communities.
Wariness and fear grew, and the region where the majority of inhabitants simply disappeared, was avoided as much as possible. The terror lasted for a quarter of a century, and well over a thousand men, women, and even children had fallen victim to the evil family, to finally end up pickled or salted, then consumed.
One day a couple on horseback were returning from a local fair, when suddenly they too were attacked. The husband, roundly drunk, but armed with sword and pistol (the latter must then have been one of the first invented) put up a brave fight. Tragically his wife fell from her horse and was immediately slaughtered. Some of the Bean family, obviously peckish, even started to eat her then and there. More fortunately for her husband, blind with ale and fury, as he continued to wildly ward off his assailants, several other people also returning from the fair that way, took rapid stock of the situation and then proceeded to assist him.
The vexed Bean family ran back to their cave as the survivor bellowed out to the crowd how he and his wife had been savagely attacked.
Sober, he was a man of some standing, and with associates, he lost no time in galloping to Glasgow to report the incident to the authorities. Eminent magistrates then informed King James IV who, as we have already noted, was wont to take a personal interest in alleged witchery and evil cases.
With a well equipped body of men and several bloodhounds, the King proceeded west to organise the hunt. Although there were still traces of the foul deed as indicated by the bombastic survivor, there seemed to be no way of tracking the murderous hoard. The king's men were discouraged, but the hounds remained excited, uneasy and eager to continue towards the coast.
The hounds had scented the smell of death, and followed this to the mouth of the secret cave. The men were horrified by what they saw there. Parts of human bodies hanging like salted hams. Heaps of coins and jewellery robbed for no real purpose.
None of the Bean family tried to escape or make any attempt to attack the well armed men. The whole family was capture, enchained and taken first to the Tollbooth in Edinburgh, then the following day they were taken to Leith to be imprisoned there.
So aghast were the people as well as the authorities, that it was decreed that justice must be exemplary, harsh and even barbaric. It is thus said that the men's limbs were amputated and they were left to bleed to death. But perhaps the women's punishment was even worse. They had to witness the slow, agonising death of the men before they were burnt alive. There's no record of the plight of any children.
But we are informed by a certain John Nicholson that '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.'
Such a legend sounds suspiciously like an exaggerated attempt by the British, to denigrate Scotland during the most critical period of the Jacobite rebellion. The few alleged accounts of Scottish cannibalism during the worst times of provoked Highland famine, are all fallacious English tales that wouldn't even have anything to do with haggis.
It's probable that A. S. Bean never existed, but the rugged Ayshire coast line is evocative enough to inspire such macabre stories whenever required.
Nevertheless, a local blacksmith, a certain 'Tom Robinson' who claims to be a psychic investigator, is a firm believer that the legend is based on fact.
He maintains that he has seen ghosts in the Sawney Bean cave. According to him the Bean family weren't sentenced to death in Edinburgh, they were blocked in their cave where they starved to death, after perhaps eating each other. But the ghosts, he continues to affirm, are not those of the incestuous Sawney Bean family, they are those of the family's victims. He describes the sight of a female figure being dragged by twelve strange 'lights' into the cave, and he is convinced that he has heard screams there, and seen ghostly forms of dead bodies on the cave floor, and other figures that fade into the cave's walls.
All this so impressed Mr. Robinson that in 1991 he is supposed to have returned to the cave to exorcise it of evil. Whether he succeeded or not has never been reported.
One is still inclined to believe that the story is a disparaging invention, although one would think that the Brits would have come up with a name more clannish and evocative of Scotland, in order to try add more credence to the tale. Although Bean is a Pictish-Scottish name, today it evokes more humour than horror in any case, and perhaps the story should be treated in a similar vein.
Retelling © Mirino, from various sources.
Top image (modified)- The Sawney Bean Cave, © rableather, with thanks. December, 2012