Alexander “Sawney” Bean was the semi-mythical head of a 48 member clan in 16th century Scotland. He was reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalization of over 1,000 people. Historians tend to believe that Bean never existed, or that his story has been highly exaggerated. Nonetheless, his story has become part of the local folklore and the Edinburgh tourism industry.
Alexander Bean was born during the 1500s in East Lothian. Bean tried taking up the family trade of a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, but was unable to live this life. Bean left home with a vicious woman, and they reportedly lived in a cave on Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae in Scotland, where they lived for 25 years. During this time they had eight sons and six daughters along with nearly three dozen grandchildren some of whom were the product of incest.
Due to Bean’s lack of motivation for honest and hard labor it is said that him and his family thrived by ambushing and robbing individuals or groups at night. They brought the bodies back to their cave, where the clan cannibalized them, pickling any remains. The disappearances did not go unnoticed by locals, and sometimes discarded body parts were found washed up on nearby beaches.
Eventually more notice was taken to the disappearances and many organized searches were set, one search made note of the cave, but no one believed humans could live in it. Several innocent people were accused of the crimes, but when the disappearances continued, townspeople began to suspect innkeepers as they were the last known to see the missing people.
One evening, the Bean clan attacked a couple, but the man was skilled in combat. Before the scuffle was over, a group appeared on the trail and the Beans were forced to flee. Not long after, King James VI of Scotland led a manhunt with a team of 400 men along with bloodhounds to track down the clan. The clan’s cave was found, along with scattered human remains from the clans years of murders and cannibalization.
The clan was captured alive and taken to Edinburgh and eventually Glasgow where they were executed. Other legends have sprouted from the original legend of Alexander Bean. It is said that one of his daughters left the clan going to Girvan. After the families capture, her true identity was revealed, and she was hung from the “Hairy Tree” that she herself planted.
Sawney Bean is often considered a mythical figure due to the many historical inconsistencies present in various versions of the legend. As well, a 2005 article by Sean Thomas notes that historical documents such as newspapers and diaries during “Sawney” Bean’s era make no mention of the disappearances of hundreds of people. Rather, it is likely that kernels of truth have inspired the legend.
Another cannibal story similar to the Sawney Bean story was published in 1696 by Nathaniel Crouch, going by the pseudonym of “Richard Burton”. The story recounts a family, living in 1459, who participated in cannibalism, but were all burned alive in a fire. Only one child lived, but at the age of twelve was accused of the same crime.
The legend of Alexander “Sawney” Bean has been chronicled in various print media since 1843. Along with print the legend has made its way to film in Wes Craven’s 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes, where the family is set in modern-day America. In 2005, an award winning animated short, The True Story of Sawney Beane, was released. Several bands have incorporated the Sawney Bean tail into their music and album titles.
Edinburgh has used the legend to drive their tourist industry. There is a boat ride set in the Sawney Bean family caves in the Edinburgh Dungeon along with a short show presenting the legend to viewers.