Alexander “Sawney” Bean was the semi-mythical head of a 48-member clan in 15th- or 16th-century Scotland, reportedly executed for the mass murder and cannibalisation of over 1,000 people.
According to The Newgate Calendar, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 1500s. His father was a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, and Bean tried to take up the family trade but quickly realised that he had little taste for honest labour.
He left home with a vicious woman who apparently shared his inclinations. The couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae where they lived undiscovered for some twenty-five years. The cave was 200 yards deep and during high tide the entrance was blocked by water.
The couple eventually produced eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Various children and grandchildren were products of incest. Lacking the inclination for regular labour, the clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups. The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were dismembered and cannibalised. Leftovers were pickled, and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.
The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but the Beans stayed in the caves by day and took their victims at night. The clan was so secretive that the villagers were unaware of the murderers living nearby.
As more significant notice of the disappearances was taken, several organised searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note of the telltale cave but the men refused to believe anything human could live in it. Frustrated and in a frenetic quest for justice, the townspeople lynched several innocents, and the disappearances continued.
One fateful night, the Beans ambushed a married couple riding from a fair on one horse, but the man was skilled in combat, deftly holding off the clan with sword and pistol. The clan fatally mauled the wife when she fell to the ground in the conflict. Before they could take the resilient husband, a large group of fairgoers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled.
With the Beans’ existence finally revealed, it was not long before King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) ordered a manhunt with a team of 400 men and several bloodhounds. They soon found the Beans’ previously overlooked cave in Bennane Head. The cave was scattered with human remains, having been the scene of many murders and cannibalistic acts.
The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial; the men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed and were allowed to bleed to death; the women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive. (This recalls, in essence if not in detail, the punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering decreed for men convicted of treason while women convicted of the same were burned.)
In popular media:
The legend of Alexander “Sawney” Bean has been chronicled in various media, including such print sources as Historical and Traditional Tales Connected with the South of Scotland by John Nicholson, 1843; The Legend of Sawney Bean, by Ronald Holmes, London, 1975; The Flesh Eaters, by L.A. Morse, Warner Books, 1979; and Cannibalism: The Last Taboo, by Brian Marriner London; Arrow, 1992
Musician Snakefinger‘s “Sawney Bean/Sawney’s Death Dance” (from his album, Night of Desirable Objects) tells the tale of the clan and its eventual comeuppance, as does the concept album, Inbreeding the Anthropophagi by American death metal band Deeds of Flesh.
Wes Craven directed the 1977 movie The Hills Have Eyes, which sets the cannibal clan in modern-day America; a 2006 remake of the film was made by Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur and reimagined the cannibal clan as deformed mutants. The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning graphic novel details the fictional history of the clan.
The 1990 Sol Invictus album Trees In Winter, contained a track called “Sawney Bean” retelling the legend.
Canadian Celtic punk band The Real McKenzies included a song retelling the myth, titled “The Sawney Beane Clan” on their debut album in 1995.
Published in 2001, Lords of Darkness is an e-book novelization of an earlier screenplay (1979) by Thomas Doran.
In 2003 Christian Viel directed Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain (aka Samhain), a tamer version of the Sawney legend set in modern-day Ireland.
2005 saw the release of an award-winning UK./Canada co-produced animated short, The True Story of Sawney Beane.
Hillside Cannibals, a 2006 film by The Asylum studio based on the Sawney Bean legend.
There is a boat ride set in the caves inhabited by the Sawney Bean family in the Edinburgh Dungeon as well as a short show presenting the legend.
In 2013 the feature film Sawney: Flesh of Man (also known as Lord of Darkness), starring David Hayman and directed by Ricky Wood, was released. The plot is set in the modern day.
Published in 2012, the horror novel In the Devil’s Name by Scottish writer Dave Watson is based on the legend of Sawney Bean.