The Cannibal Clan of Bennane Head
"It isn't over, it will never be over"
The tale of Sawney Bean and his murderous progeny has passed down from generation to generation to become something of a nightmarish legend in Scotland. Bean and his progeny were believed to have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds or even thousands over a 25 year period during the 16th century. The Beanes would ambush unsuspecting travellers, robbing them of their valuables and taking the corpses back to their cave, when the family would feed by cannibalising the dead. Their crimes were eventually discovered, and Bean was captured by Royal decree along with his entire family. With the ghoulish evidence found within their cavern dwelling, they were sentenced to death and would suffer a particularly gruesome execution. The story of Sawney Bean has become mostly myth, with few contempotary accounts of their crimes, the Cannibal Clan of Bennane Head has passed into local folklore.
The story of Sawney Bean first appeared in The Newgate Calendar, a popular crime catalogue that was originally published as a monthly bulletin of executions, produced by the Keeper of Newgate Prison in London, and subtitled ‘The Malefactor’s Bloody Register’. Other publishers began to appropriate the Calendar’s title, putting out biographical chapbooks about notorious criminals of the age, such as the Highwayman Dick Turpin, pickpocket Moll Cutpurse and the murderous Sawney Bean. Most of the accounts are highly embellished and drawn uncritically from other, often unverified sources, but mostly refer to social issues and contemporary events. It was similar to the cheap popular serial literature printed during the nineteenth century that were known as penny dreadfuls, and also featured sensational subject matter that focused on criminals, detectives and supernatural entities, such as Sweeney Todd and Varney the Vampire. A penny dreadful edition of the New Newgate Calendar appeared between 1863 and 1866.
According to the Newgate tabloid publication, Sawney Bean was one Alexander Bean, born in East Lothian during the 16th century. It was said his father was a ditch-digger and hedge-trimmer, and that Bean attempted to take up his father’s profession, but soon realised he was not fit for that line of work, becoming a tanner by trade. When he left the family home, he relocated across country to Ayrshire, Scotland and married a vicious woman by the name of “Black” Agnes Douglas who was accused of being a witch. She apparently shared his violent tendencies and together they embarked on a crime spree, and after robbing some travellers and cannibalising one of their victims, the couple came across a coastal cave in Bennane Head, located between Ballantrae and Girvan in the Earldom of Carrick. Their new home was a prehistoric cavernous grotto, that extended 200 yards deep into solid rock, with plenty of side passageways and smaller caverns. The entrance to the cave was flooded for several hundred metres, twice a day at high tide, which afforded the couple both security and ensured that outsiders were kept away.
There the couple started a family, and over the next twenty-five years their growing brood included some fourteen children, eight sons and six daughters. These in-turn produced some eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters, all of which were the product of incest between their children. In order to feed his fledgling family, and without a trade or regular employment, Bean and his offspring would organise carefully planned ambushes at night to rob and murder lone and groups of weary travellers, waylaying coaches and leaving no survivors as the old saying goes, “dead men tell no tales”. The clan would bring the bodies back to Bennane Head, where they were dismembered and consumed. Left-over remains were pickled, and discarded body parts were thrown into the sea. The Bean clan continued to conceal their crimes using this method for many years, staying within their cave system during the day and only venturing out at night to claim victims.
The rash of disappearances did not go un-noticed by the villagers, who would find curiously preserved but decaying body parts that washed up on surrounding beaches. However, because of the secretive nature of the cannibalistic clan, the unsuspecting locals came to believe that wild animals were responsible. The fate of those who vanished were often attributed to the wild territory, and Scotland at that time was a land of hardship and violence where life was much cheaper and often much shorter than present day times. As more and more people began to mysteriously vanish, people began to take notice and soon several searches were organised to find those responsible. One such search came across the cave at Bennane Head, but everyone agreed that no-one could live in such inhospitable conditions. In their quest for justice, the villagers soon vented their frustrations on several innocent men who were lynched, yet the disappearances continued. Suspicion soon fell on local innkeepers, who were usually the last to have seen many of the missing people alive.
During one fateful night, the clan ambushed and attacked an unsuspecting couple returning from a fair on horseback in a deserted lane. The husband was skilled in combat and managed to hold off the clan with his sword and pistol, but the wife was fatally mauled when she fell to the ground during the frenzied assault, attacked by female cannibals who cut her throat and sucked at her blood as though it were wine, then ripped up her belly and torn out her entrails. Before the man suffered a similar fate, a 20-30 strong group of fair goers appeared on the trail, and the Beans withdrew. The survivor was taken by the group to the Glasgow magistrate, and informed them of his horrific experience. The existence of the Bean clan had finally been revealed, and soon rumours of the atrocities reached the King, who decided to lead a search party of some 400 men and several bloodhounds.
After several failed searches, the armed party led by King James I of Scotland eventually came upon the cave at Bennane Head, and upon entering by torchlight, made their way down through the mile-long twisting passageway to the depths of the inner sanctum of the Bean family lair and the horrors within. There they came across the cannibal clan surrounded by an assortment of human remains, with some body parts hanging from the walls, barrels fill with limbs and mounds of stolen booty from their many years of plundering. There are two explanations concerning the fate of Sawney Bean and his clan. The less well-known resolution involves the King’s hunting party causing a cave-in at the entrace by placing barrels of gunpowder outside their cavernous dwelling, causing the Bean clan to perish from suffocation. The more well-known version is far more barbaric, and a fitting end to the wretched cannibal clan.
The Bean family were allegedly captured alive, surrendering without a fight, and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh. From there they were transferred to either Leith or Glasgow where they were sentenced to death and promptly executed without trial. The normal justice system was abandoned because of the heinous nature of their crimes and because they were viewed as subhuman and unworthy to benefit from the King’s justice. In some accounts they were accused of murdering some 1,000 people, while other sources cite the rather specific number of as many as 5,593. Sawney and the other twenty-six male members of his clan had their genitalia cut off and thrown into fire pits, while their hands and feet were severed so they would slowly bleed to death. As he lay dying, Sawney reportedly shouted his dying words: “It isn’t over, it will never be over.” Forced to watch their menfolk perish, Agnes and the women, along with the children, were tied to stakes and burned alive. These executions are similar in nature to the punishment of hanging, drawing, and quartering for those men convicted of treason, along with women convicted of the same crime who were burned alive.
Written by an unknown minstrel, the Ballad of Sawney Bean records their end;
They’ve hung them high in Edinburgh toon
An likewise a their kin
An the wind blows cauld on a their banes
An tae hell they a hae gaen.
The debate surrounding the validity of the tale of Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic clan has centered on the lack of historical texts that has recorded and makes mention of the crimes, leaving some to believe he is more of a mythical figure than a real person. There is some confusion over the time period in which Bean had lived, with some broadsheets giving the time the atrocities occurred as during the reign of James VI, whilst other versions claim the Bean family lived centuries before. It is likely that the precise date of the events have become abscured over the years, or that broadsheet writers changed the dates, bringing the story forward to make it more appealing to a contemporary readership. Galloway at that time was a very lawless place, and Cannibalism was not unknown in medieval Scotland, and this may account for the origins of the Sawney Bean story.
The tale of Sawney Bean closely resemble that of Christie-Cleek, a legendary Scottish cannibal, who lived during a famine in the mid-fourteenth century, and who’s crimes are similar in description to the more well-known Bean family murders. Cleek, who’s real name was Andrew Christie, a Perth butcher, was said to have joined a group of scavengers in the foothills of the Grampians, and when one of the party died, Christie put his skills to good use on the corpse and provided his companions with a sumptuous meal. The group then developed a taste for human flesh, and under Christie’s leadership, they began to ambush travellers in the passes of the Grampians, feeding on their bodies and those of their horses. He took his sobriquet from his use of a “cleke/crook”, that was a hook he used to haul his vitctims from their mounts. His group was responsible for murdering some thirty riders, and his company was eventually defeated by an armed force from Perth.
It was alleged that Cleek had managed to escape, and re-enter society under a new name. Earlier versions of this narrative are much less detailed, and only make mention of Christie’s cannibalism and his method for trapping his prey. For centuries Cleek would become something of a bogeyman, a story told to naughty children who were silenced into obedience by the mere mention of Christie-Cleek. The similarities between Christie and Sawney Bean are evident, and there is some speculation that one story had given rise to the other, or that both may have been derived from a different common source. While Sawney Bean appears to exceed his counterpart in terms of notoriety, the Christie-Cleek legend appears to be older, and the tales of the Bean clan do not appear before the 18th century, whilst Christie’s crimes are documented from the 15th century onwards by Nathaniel Crouch who wrote about the crimes that happened in 1459, during the last year of the reign of James II of Scotland.
It is difficult to separate fact from fiction with the case of Sawney Bean, which has become so synonymous with tourism, bogeyman stories and folklore. Although some historians believe there to be a grain of truth to the legend, there is simply no evidence for thousands of disappearances along the Galloway coast during that period, and likewise there is no contemporary accounts to corroborate the spectacularly gruesome executions in Edinburgh of the Bean clan. One theory posits that Daniel DeFoe, the English writer who’s works include the novel Robsin Crusoe , concoted the tale as a sort of anti-Scottish blood libel during the Jacobean conflict in an attempt the label the Scottish people as little more than savages.
Despite the lack of evidence, there is no denying the cultural impact the tale has endured. This includes not only the scary bedtime stories most Scottish children grew up hearing, from the haunted Sawney Bean boatride at the Edinburgh Dungeon, to the more mainstream influence the story has had as a source of entertainment. The ghastly tale of Sawney Bean and his cannibal clan has endured to become the inspiration for some of Hollywood’s most memorable and villanously psychopathic families, including the antagonistic cannibal savages of the Nevada Desert in Wes Craven’s film, The Hills Have Eyes, as well as the murderous Sawyer clan from Tobe Hooper’s cult classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.