A great thing about a Vacation Scotland tour is that it takes you to corners of the country that perhaps you would never venture to otherwise. As well as scenery and history, what I love as much as anything are the local tales and folklore – and no tale is more bizarre, indeed more gruesome than the one encountered upon taking a trip to Ayrshire and the southwest.
As well as all the usual stops like Robert Burns’ Country at Alloway, Culzean Castle (ancient seat of the Kennedy family) and the beautiful forests of Galloway, the Ayrshire trail also throws up some surprises; and one is the story of the ruthless, cruel and frightening figure of Sawney Bean; and it’s not a tale for the faint hearted.
Along the Ayrshire coast near the town of Girvan the cliffs are fairly spectacular and full of caves – some of which were still inhabited up until the 1970s (albeit by strange bearded hermits), sometimes by whole families: and not all were cute and cuddly. Bannane Cave, between Girvan and Ballantrae was home to a family of monsters – the Beans. Whether or not Sawney Bean ever existed, or is simply fabricated from a mosaic of various myths, half-truths and actual events and people is unclear; but the legend remains pretty enduring; and never fails to chill the blood.
According to that legend, Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean was born in East Lothian to the east of Edinburgh around the mid 16th century. He was the son of a ditch digger and hedge trimmer on one of the large estates dotted around this particularly arable part of Scotland, and the young Bean was expected to follow his father into the trade. Scottish estates were highly labour intensive at the time and required a lot of sweat and toil to get things done, and I’m pretty sure ditch diggers did a fair amount of that toiling. This caused a problem for young Sawney, who realised from an early age that he’d no stomach for honest hard work. Instead he got himself in tow with a rather vicious, and equally lazy young woman, and they decided to elope and head to the west where they wouldn’t be known, and they could ply their trade of theft and highway robbery. This wasn’t an uncommon crime in the 16th century, but the Beans would add a whole new macabre dimension.
Sawney and his ‘wife’ located themselves in the cave at Bannane, which is entered by a narrow slit in the rock, completely blocked at high tide, over 200ft deep, and involving a steep climb. This isolated and virtually inaccessible cave concealed their lair for over 25 years as they not only robbed, but murdered their hapless victims. Hiding in the cave during the day, they crawled out like vermin at nightfall and preyed on locals and travellers alike. Once murdered, they hauled the bodies back down to the cave to hide their crime, but this was only the start. With more bodies than they knew what to do with, they started eating them in a cannibalistic orgy – often throwing the left-over parts into the sea, where the tide washed them onto nearby beaches and shorelines, giving the very disturbed locals a fair dose of the heebie-jeebies. Soon though there would be many more mouths to feed.
Over the course of their 25 years in hiding, the clan grew to a staggering 48, all fathered through incest deep in their bloody nest of rock and sea: in all, there were eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters, and all entered the family business. This of course led to many more deaths, and what they didn’t eat they pickled. The disappearances didn’t go unnoticed by the locals as you would expect, but the Beans were so secretive that they were completely unaware of the murderers in their midst. Despite numerous manhunts and searches, they simply couldn’t be found and other scapegoats – often tavern landlords – were punished instead. Their luck wasn’t to last forever.
One night the Beans attacked a married couple riding from a local fair, but for the first time they’d met their match as the young man was skilled in combat, and was able to fend them off. His wife however was hauled from the cart and killed in a brutal attack, but before they could overpower the husband a crowd began to arrive on the scene, and the clan fled back to the safety of their cave. With their existence now revealed, the king himself led a manhunt with a team of over 400, and several bloodhounds. The men couldn’t find the cave, but the eager bloodhounds, scenting the dismembered remains located the home of the fiends. The men entered the cave and found a truly nauseating scene of severed limbs, pickled remains and dried body parts hanging from the roof: and all around lay jewels, trinkets and money.
Finally caught, the Bean Clan was taken in chains to Edinburgh where they were executed at the Port of Leith without trial. The men were bled to death, and the women burnt – cannibalism was seen by the king as tantamount to treason and the execution befitted the crime in his eyes. With their demise a reign of sickening terror stretching back over a quarter of a century was finally brought to an end.
Whatever the truth, the story of Sawney Bean and his cruel, evil and ghoulish family has remained in the psyche of the people of South Ayrshire, and is truly one of the most disturbing stories from Scotland’s dark past: sweet dreams!