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Sawney Bean at the Entrance of His Cave. Note the woman in the background carrying a dismembered leg.
The story appears in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of the notorious Newgate Prison in London. While historians tend to believe Sawney Bean never existed or his story has been greatly exaggerated, his story has passed into local folklore and become part of the Edinburgh tourism industry.
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 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 eaten. 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. Suspicion often fell on local innkeepers since they were the last known to see many of the missing people alive.
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) heard of the atrocities and decided to lead 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.)
The town of Girvan, located near the macabre scene of murder and debauchery, has another legend about the cannibal clan. It is said that one of Bean's daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan, where she planted a Dule Tree that became known as "The Hairy Tree." After her family's capture, the daughter's identity was revealed by angry locals who hanged her from the bough of the Hairy Tree.
Sources and veracity
Sawney Bean is often considered a mythical figure. A 2005 article by Sean Thomas notes that historical documents, such as newspapers and diaries during the era when Sawney Bean was supposedly active, make no mention of ongoing disappearances of hundreds of persons. Additionally, Thomas notes inconsistencies in the stories but speculates that kernels of truth might have inspired the legend:
... from broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI [ca. early 1600s], whilst other versions claim the Beans lived centuries before. Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years. Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership ... To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediaeval Scotland and that Galloway was in mediaeval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place, but every story grows and is embroidered over time.
The Sawney Bean legend closely resembles the story of Christie-Cleek, which is attested much earlier — in the early 15th century.
The legend of Sawney Bean first appeared in the British chapbooks (rumour magazines of the day), which today leads many to argue that the story was a political propaganda tool to denigrate the Scots after the Jacobite Rebellions. Thomas disagrees by noting:
If the Sawney Bean story is to be read as deliberately anti-Scottish, how do we explain the equal emphasis on English criminals in the same publications? Wouldn't such an approach rather blunt the point? (See also "Sawney" for this theory).
Another cannibal story from Scotland, even more resembling the Sawney Bean tale than the Christie-Cleek story, is contained in the 1696 work of Nathaniel Crouch, a compiler and popular history writer publishing under the pseudonym "Richard Burton". In this tale, the following happened in 1459, the year before James II's death:
..about which time a certain thief who lived privately in a den, with his wife and children, were all burned alive, they having made it their practice for many years to kill young people and eat them; one girl only of a year old was saved, and brought up at Dundee, who at twelve years of age being found guilty of the same horrid crime, was condemned to the same punishment, and when the people followed her in great multitudes to execution, wondering at her unnatural villainy, she turned toward them, and with a cruel countenance said, “What do you thus rail at me, as if I had done such an heinous act, contrary to the nature of man? I tell you that if you did but know how pleasant the taste of man’s flesh was, none of you all would forbear to eat it;” and thus with an impenitent and stubborn mind she suffered deserved death.
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.
- The book Madhouse by Rob Thurman features Sawney Bean as the main villain.
- 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.
- Jack Ketchum's 1980 horror novel Off Season, about a group of cannibalistic cavedwellers on the Maine coast, drew heavily on the legend.
- Published in 1999, in the horror short story "Harriet's Horrible Dream" (Horowitz Horror collection by Anthony Horowitz) the name is used as the name of a cannibalistic restaurant.
- 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 soft-core 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.
- In the manga and anime Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan), the two man-eating titans captured by the Scouting Legion are named 'Sawney' and 'Bean', after being told the story of a man-eating tribe of humans.
- Canadian Celtic punk band The Real McKenzies included a song retelling the myth, titled "The Sawney Beane Clan" on their debut album in 1995. 
- The 1990 Sol Invictus album Trees In Winter, contained a track called "Sawney Bean" retelling the legend.
- The third Cal Leandros novel, Madhouse by Rob Thurman, features Sawney Beane as the primary antagonist.
- Sawney Bean from The University of Texas at Austin
- Thomas, Sean. "In Search of Sawney Bean". Retrieved 2008-05-18.
- For bio and works: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E680001-001/header.html
- "The History of the Kingdom of Scotland", Machell Stace 1813 p.135
- "Sawney Bean". tursa.com. Retrieved 2012-02-12.
- "Collection de films - Office national du film du Canada - Documentaire, animation, fictions alternatives, contenu numérique - The True Story of Sawney Beane". Nfb.ca. Retrieved 2012-02-12.
- "BBC News - Who was Sawney Bean?". BBC Online. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
- BBC Scotland - The Grisly Deeds of Alexander Bean
- Photos and information
- The Legend of Sawney Bean Mysterious Britain & Ireland
- The Complete Newgate Calendar - Sawney Beane: An incredible Monster who, with his Wife, lived by Murder and Cannibalism in a Cave. Executed at Leith with his whole Family in the Reign of James I.
- Newgate Calendar: Sawney Bean Mysterious Britain & Ireland
- Sawney Bean - A Famous Scottish Cannibal/Mass Murderer
- The Complete Newgate Calendar (Sawney Bean(e))
- Sawney Bean: Scotland's Hannibal Lecter
- The Sawney Beane legend, from post to soc.culture.celtic
- Sawney Bean: Myth or Myth by R.H.J. Urquhart
- The Lords of Darkness
- Debate on the existence of the Hairy Tree in Girvan
- Forbidden Novel based in part on the legend of Sawny Bean