Who was Sawney Bean?
Alexander “Sawney” Bean was born in the 14th century in East Lothian, Scotland, about ten miles from Edinburgh. His father supported the family through yardwork, ditch digging, and hedging. Sawney tried his hand at yardwork but found the amount of effort required to be distasteful. He preferred an easier trade, one that took advantage of others with little effort required.
When Sawney reached adulthood, he left home with a local woman (sometimes identified as Black Agnes Douglas) and moved to Bennane Head, Scotland, on the southwest coast of Scotland. At Benane Head, the Beans lived in a cave, which was said to be about 200 yards deep. The entrance to the grotto was covered with water during high tide and thus the abode, which they occupied for more than 25 years, provided protection for the Bean clan and those who came looking for them.
Sawney starts a backwoods family
Over the years, Sawney’s family grew. Together, he and his wife produced 8 sons, 6 daughters, 18 grandsons, and 14 granddaughters. Most were born of incest. The family shared Sawney’s aversion to manual labor. To meet their needs, they hid along the roads at night and ambushed travelers robbing them of their possessions – and their life.
The Bean family’s victims were robbed, beaten, then murdered. Their bodies were drug back to the cave where they were dismembered and eaten. Whatever remained was salted and pickled. What they didn’t consume or package for later meals was tossed into the ocean.
The community suspects a killer is in their midst
Nearby villagers began to notice that many who travelled between Girvan and Ballantrae often went missing. In fact, during the prior two decades, several hundred people, including a significant percentage of the local population, had simply vanished while travelling along the roadway. When body parts began washing up on the shores near town, their fears were confirmed – someone was killing local travelers.
Suspicions blossomed and villagers sought someone to blame. Unfortunately, although they were familiar with the cave near Bennane Head, they never suspected a 48-person murderous clan lived inside. More than one innocent person was falsely accused and inevitably hanged including an innkeeper who was often the last person travelers saw before they disappeared.
The Fair attack
The saga turned on the night of the community’s great Fair. A couple were travelling home from the event, riding one behind the other on a single horse, when the Sawney Bean clan leapt from a ditch and attacked them. The wife was killed quickly but the husband valiantly fought back against multiple attackers (some say he used a gun). Minutes passed before more travelling fairgoers arrived on the scene and seeing the commotion, jumped in to assist the man. Outnumbered, the Bean family fled toward the sea.
Community pens murders on the Bean family – the King takes charge
The Fair attack was all that was needed to convince villagers that the Bean family had been responsible for the many missing persons in their area. They took their story to the magistrates in Glasgow who in turn, reported the incident to the King.
King James VI of Scotland was so distressed by the report of the horrific crime, he took personal charge of the investigation and lead a manhunt with a team of 400 men and bloodhounds into the Bennane Head area. It took little time before the Bean family were found and the clan captured.
According to reports, the King’s men entered the Bean’s cave and found the floor scattered with human remains. Moving deeper into the cave, they discovered body parts hanging from the cave’s walls and human organs pickled in jars. All about the cave were scattered possessions of the Bean family’s many victims.
The Bean family clan is executed for their crimes
The Bean clan were captured alive and taken to Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh. Later they were transferred to separate jails in Leith (some reports say Glasgow) where they met their end. The men were quartered (hands and feet cut off) and allowed to bleed to death while the women and children were forced to watch the execution. Then the remaining family members, including the children, were burned alive. An 1843 account of the event notes:
“They all died without the least sign of repentance, but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life.”
Did one Bean family member escape justice?
Is the Sawney Bean tale a myth?
It is estimated that the clan killed and consumed more than one thousand people during their 25-year reign of terror. For centuries, the Sawney Bean tale was told to young children, typically as a form of punishment or to induce fear for bad behavior. Over time, inconsistencies in the story were introduced. For instance, the events took place between the villages of Girvan and Ballantrae but earlier versions of the story put the events vaguely in Galloway. And even though relatively few Scottish records from the era are known to exist, the lack of historical documentation introduced additional doubt. For many, it was believed the story was legend.
Given the length of time that has elapsed, proving the tale is nearly impossible. For many years, it was thought that the earliest mention of the story occurred in English pamphlets in the 1700’s. Then other accounts were discovered dating back to around 1500. Although some parts of the story could be exaggerated, it is now believed that the story has at least some basis in truth, if not an entirely accurate account of true-life events.
A similar happening was found dating back to 1459 which may be the basis for the Sawney Bean tale. The story was found in the 1696 work of Nathaniel Crouch (who wrote under the pseudonym Richard Burton). The work was a historical publication that documented a 1459 report of an event nearly identical to Sawney Bean murders. The only difference in the narratives – the hero was King James I of Scotland rather than King James V.
According to the 1459 news account, a daughter does indeed escape (as it rumored in the Bean version) and is captured. Crouch tells us that when asked about her unnatural villainy, she turned to the crowd and 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.”
Popular fiction and movies based on the Sawney Bean event
Several books and movies have used the Sawney Bean event as the basis for their stories. Wes Craven’s 1977 horror classic The Hills Have Eyes is based on Sawney Bean and his family. In fact, Cravven says he used the story of Sawney Bean as the primary source for his script.
Partial references to the Sawney Bean family are found in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which was mostly based on the story of real-life serial killer Ed Gein). The 2006 film, Hillside Cannibals and the 2012 movie, Sawney: Flesh of Man were both based on the Sawney Bean tale.
An extract from The Newgate Calendar Part 1 (circa 1740)
The following is an extract from The Newgate Calendar (aka The Malefactors’ Bloody Register), an early 18th century publication that documented notorious criminals and their acts.
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. The following account, though as well attested as any historical fact can be, is almost incredible; for the monstrous and unparalleled barbarities that it relates; there being nothing that we ever heard of, with the same degree of certainty, that may be compared with it, or that shews how far a brutal temper, untamed by education, may carry a man in such glaring and horrible colors.
Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, about eight or nine miles eastward of the city of Edinburgh, sometime in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, whilst King James I governed only in Scotland. His parents worked at hedging and ditching for their livelihood, and brought up their son to the same occupation. He got his daily bread in his youth by these means, but being very much prone to idleness, and not caring for being confined to any honest employment, he left his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the country, taking with him a woman as viciously inclined as himself. These two took up their habitation in a cave, by the seaside on the shore of the county of Galloway, where they lived upwards of twenty-five years without going into any city, town, or village.
In this time they had a great number of children and grandchildren, whom they brought up after their own manner, without any notions of humanity or civil society. They never kept any company, but among themselves, and supported themselves wholly by robbing; being, moreover, so very cruel, that they never robbed anyone whom they did not murder.
By this bloody method, and their living so retiredly from the world, they continued such a long time undiscovered, there being nobody able to guess how the people were lost that went by the place where they lived. As soon as they had robbed and murdered any man, woman or child, they used to carry off the carcass to the den, where, cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled limbs, and afterwards eat it; this being their only sustenance. And, notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had superfluity of this their abominable food; so that in the night time they frequently threw legs and arms of the unhappy wretches they had murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody habitation. The limbs were often cast up by the tide in several parts of the country, to the astonishment and terror of all the beholders, and others who heard of it. Persons who had gone about their lawful occasions fell so often into their hands that it caused a general outcry in the country round about, no man knowing what was become of his friend or relation, if they were once seen by these merciless cannibals. All the people in the adjacent parts were at last alarmed at such a common loss of their neighbors and acquaintance; for there was no travelling in safety near the den of these wretches. This occasioned the sending frequent spies into these parts, many of whom never returned again, and those who did, after the strictest search and inquiry, could not find how these melancholy matters happened. Several honest travelers were taken up on suspicion, and wrongfully hanged upon bare circumstances; several innocent innkeepers were executed for no other reason than that persons who had been thus lost were known to have lain at their houses, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent a discovery. Thus an illplaced justice was executed with the greatest severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent atrocious deeds; so that not a few innkeepers, who lived on the Western Road of Scotland, left off their business, for fear of being made examples, and followed other employments. This on the other hand occasioned many great inconveniences to travelers, who were now in great distress for accommodation for themselves and their horses when they were disposed to refresh themselves and their horses, or put up for lodging at night. In a word, the whole country was almost depopulated.
Still, the King’s subjects were missing as much as before; so that it was the admiration of the whole kingdom how such villainies could be carried on and the perpetrators not discovered. A great many had been executed, and not one of them all made any confession at the gallows, but stood to it at the last that they were perfectly innocent of the crimes for which they suffered. When the magistrates found all was in vain, they left off these rigorous proceedings, and trusted wholly to Providence for the bringing to light the authors of these unparalleled barbarities, when it should seem proper to the Divine wisdom.
Sawney’s family was at last grown very large, and every branch of it, as soon as able, assisted in perpetrating their wicked deeds, which they still followed with impunity. Sometimes they would attack four, five or six foot men together, but never more than two if they were on horseback. They were, moreover, so careful that not one whom they set upon should escape, that an ambuscade was placed on every side to secure them, let them fly which way they would, provided it should ever so happen that one or more got away from the first assailants. How was it possible they should be detected, when not one that saw them ever saw anybody else afterwards?
The place where they inhabited was quite solitary and lonesome; and when the tide came up, the water went for near two hundred yards into their subterraneous habitation, which reached almost a mile underground; so that when people, who had been sent armed to search all the places about had passed by the mouth of their cave, they had never taken any notice of it, not supposing that anything human would reside in such a place of perpetual horror and darkness.
The number of the people these savages destroyed was never exactly known, but it was generally computed that in the twenty-five years they continued their butcheries they had washed their hands in the blood of a thousand, at least, men, women and children.
The manner how they were at last discovered was as follows. A man and his wife behind him on the same horse coming one evening home from a fair, and falling into the ambuscade of these merciless wretches, they fell upon them in a most furious manner. The man, to save himself as well as he could, fought very bravely against them with sword and pistol, riding some of them down, by main force of his horse. In the conflict the poor woman fell from behind him, and was instantly murdered before her husband’s face; for the female cannibals cut her throat and fell to sucking her blood with as great a gust as if it had been wine. This done, they ripped up her belly and pulled out all her entrails. Such a dreadful spectacle made the man make the more obstinate resistance, as expecting the same fate if he fell into their hands. It pleased Providence, while he was engaged, that twenty or thirty from the same fair came together in a body; upon which Sawney Bean and his bloodthirsty clan withdrew, and made the best of their way through a thick wood to their den. This man, who was the first that had ever fallen in their way and came off alive, told the whole company what had happened, and showed them the horrid spectacle of his wife, whom the murderers had dragged to some distance, but had not time to carry her entirely off. They were all struck with stupefaction and amazement at what he related, took him with them to Glasgow, and told the affair to the provost of that city, who immediately sent to the King concerning it.
In about three or four days after, his Majesty himself in person, with a body of about four hundred men, set out for the place where this dismal tragedy was acted, in order to search all the rocks and thickets, that, if possible, they might apprehend this hellish crew, which had been so long pernicious to all the western parts of the kingdom. The man who had been attacked was the guide, and care was taken to have a large number of bloodhounds with them, that no human means might be wanting towards their putting an entire end to these cruelties. No sign of any habitation was to be found for a long time, and even when they came to the wretches’ cave they took no notice of it, but were going to pursue their search along the seashore, the tide being then out. But some of the bloodhounds luckily entered this Cimmerian den, and instantly set up a most hideous barking, howling and yelping; so that the King, with his attendants, came back, and looked into it. They could not yet tell how to conceive that anything human could be concealed in a place where they saw nothing but darkness. Never the less, as the bloodhounds increased their noise, went farther in, and refused to come back again, they began to imagine there was some reason more than ordinary. Torches were now immediately sent for, and a great many men ventured in through the most intricate turnings and windings, till at last they arrived at that private recess from all the world, which was the habitation of these monsters. Now the whole body, or as many of them as could, went in, and were all so shocked at what they beheld that they were almost ready to sink into the earth. Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and children were hung up in rows, like dried beef. A great many limbs lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, with watches, rings, swords, pistols, and a large quantity of clothes, both linen and woollen, and an infinite number of other things, which they had taken from those whom they had murdered, were thrown together in heaps, or hung up against the sides of the den. Sawney’s family at this time, besides him, consisted of his wife, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen granddaughters, who were all begotten in incest. These were all seized and pinioned by his Majesty’s order in the first place; then they took what human flesh they found and buried it in the sands; afterwards loading themselves with the spoils which they found, they returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners, all the country, as they passed along, flocking to see this cursed tribe. When they were come to their journey’s end, the wretches were all committed to the Tolbooth, from whence they were the next day conducted under a strong guard to Leith, where they were all executed without any process, it being thought needless to try creatures who were even professed enemies to mankind. The men had their privy-members cut off and thrown into the fire; their hands and legs were severed from their bodies; by which amputations they bled to death in some hours.
The wife, daughters and grandchildren, having been made spectators of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt to death in three several fires. They all in general died without the least signs of repentance; but continued, to the very last gasp of life cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations upon all around, and upon all those who were instrumental in bringing them to such well merited punishments.
The Worlds Strangest Crimes, by C.E. Maine, 1967, “The People Eaters” chapter
The following is a snippet from a chapter in The World’s Strangest Crimes. It is one of the earlier modern-day accounts of the Sawney Bean events.
From time to time in the course of human history natural depravity plumbs new depths—and not only during wars. The Sawney Beane case in the early seventeenth century concerned a family that lived in a cave and chose murder, cannibalism, and incest as its way of life. For twenty-five years this family, rejecting all accepted standards of human behavior and morality, carried on a vicious guerrilla war against humanity. Even a medieval world accustomed to torture and violence was horrified. Because over the years a large family was ultimately involved, most of whom had been born and raised in fantastic conditions under which they accepted such an existence as normal, taking their standards from the criminal behavior of their parents, the case raises some interesting legal and moral issues. Retribution when it finally came was quick and merciless, but for many of the forty-eight Beanes who were duly put to death it may have been unjust.
The case is simple enough, though scarcely credible, and has been well authenticated. Sawney Beane was a Scot, born within a few miles of Edinburgh in the reign of James VI of Scotland, who was also James I of England. His father worked the land, and Sawney was no doubt brought up to follow the same hard working but honorable career. But Sawney soon discovered that honest work of any kind was not his natural metier. At a very early age he began to exhibit what today would be regarded as delinquent traits. He was lazy, cunning and vicious, and resentful of authority of any kind.
As soon as he was old enough to look after himself he decided to leave home and live on his wits. They were to serve him well for many years. He took with him a young woman of an equally irresponsible and evil disposition, and they went to set up “home” together on the Scottish coast by Galloway.
Home turned out to be a cave in a cliff by the sea, with a strip of yellow sand as a forecourt when the tide was out. It was a gigantic cave, penetrating more than a mile into the solid rock of the rather wild hinterland, with many tortuous windings and side passages. A short way from the entrance of the cave all was complete darkness. Twice a day at high tide several hundred yards of the cave’s entrance passage were flooded, which formed a deterrent to intruders. In this dark damp hole they decided to make their home. It seemed unlikely that they would ever be discovered. In practice, the cave proved to be a lair rather than a home, and from this lair Sawney Beane launched a reign of terror which was to last for a quarter of a century. It was Sawney’s plan to live on the proceeds of robbery, and it proved to be a simple enough matter to ambush travelers on the lonely narrow roads connecting nearby villages. In order to ensure that he could never be identified and tracked down, Sawney made a point of murdering his victims.
His principle requirement was money with which he could buy food at the village shops and markets, but he also stole jewelry, watches, clothing, and any other articles of practical or potential value. He was shrewd enough not to attempt to sell valuables which might be recognized; these were simply stock-piled in the cave as unrealizable assets.
Although the stock-pile grew, the money gained from robbery and murder was not sufficient to maintain even the Sawney Beanes modest standard of living. People in that wild part of Scotland were not in the habit of carrying a great deal of money on their persons. Sawney’s problem, as a committed troglodyte, was how to obtain enough food when money was in short supply and any attempt to sell stolen valuables taken from the murdered victims might send him to the gallows. He chose the simple answer. Why waste the bodies of the people he had killed? Why not eat them?
This he and his wife proceeded to do. After an ambush on a nearby coastal road he dragged the body back to the cave. There, deep in the Scottish bedrock, in the pallid light of a tallow candle, he and his wife disemboweled and dismembered his victim. The limbs and edible fish were dried, salted and pickled, and hung on improvised hooks around the walls of the cave to start a larder of human meat on which they were to survive, indeed thrive, for more than two decades. The bones were stacked in another part of the cave system.
Naturally, these abductions created intense alarm in the area. The succession of murders had been terrifying enough, but the complete disappearance of people traveling alone along the country roads was demoralizing. Although determined efforts were made to find the bodies of the victims and their killer, Sawney was never discovered. The cave was too deep and complex for facile exploration. Nobody suspected that the unseen marauder of Galloway could possibly live in a cave which twice a day was flooded with water. And nobody imagined for a moment that the missing people were, in fact, being eaten.
The Sawney way of life settled down into a pattern. His wife began to produce children, who were brought up in the cave. The family were by no means confined to the cave. Now that the food problem had been satisfactorily solved, the money stolen from victims could be used to buy other essentials. From time to time they were able to venture cautiously and discreetly into nearby towns and villages on shopping expeditions. At no time did they arouse suspicion. In themselves they were unremarkable people, as in the case with most murders, and they were never challenged or identified.
On the desolate foreshore in front of the cave the children of the Beane family no doubt saw the light of day, and played and exercised and built up their strength while father or mother kept a look-out for intruders—perhaps as potential fodder for the larder.
The killings and cannibalism became habit. It was survival, it was normal, it was a job. Under these incredible conditions Sawney and his wife produced a family of fourteen children, and as they grew up the children in turn, by incest, produced a second generation of eight grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. In such a manner must the earliest cavemen have existed and reproduced their kind, though even they did not eat each other.
It is astonishing that with so many children and, eventually, adolescents milling around in and close to the cave somebody did not observe this strange phenomenon and investigate. The chances are that they did, from time to time—that they investigated too closely and were murdered and eaten. The Sawney children were no doubt brought up to regard other humans as food. The young Sawneys received no education, except in the arts of primitive speech, murder and cannibal cuisine. They developed as a self-contained expanding colony of beasts of prey, with their communal appetite growing ever bigger and more insatiable. As the children became adults they were encouraged to join in the kidnappings and killings. The Sawney gang swelled its ranks to a formidable size. Murder and abduction became refined by years of skill and experience to a science, if not an art.
Despite the alarming increase in the number of Sawney mouths which had to be fed, the family were seldom short of human flesh in the larder. Sometimes, having too much food in store, they were obliged to discard portions of it as putrefaction set in despite the salting and pickling. Thus it happened that from time to time at remote distances from the cave, in open country or washed up on the beach, curiously preserved but decaying human remains would be discovered. Since these grisly objects consisted of severed limbs and lumps of dried flesh, they were never identified, nor was it possible to estimate when death had taken place, but it soon became obvious to authority that they were connected with the long list of missing people. And authority, at first disbelieving, began to realize with gathering the nature of what was happening. Murder and dismemberment were one thing, but the salting and pickling of human flesh implied something far more sinister.
The efforts made to trace the missing persons and hunt down their killers resulted in some unfortunate arrests and executions of innocent people whose only crime was that they had been the last to see the victim before his, or her, disappearance. The Sawney family, secure in their cave, remained unsuspected and undiscovered.
Years went by. The family grew older and bigger and more hungry. The programme of abduction and murder was organized on a more ambitious scale. It was simply a matter of supply and demand—the logistics of a troglodyte operation. Sometimes as many as six men and women would be ambushed and killed at a time by a dozen or more Sawney’s. Their bodies were always dragged back to the cave to be prepared by the women for the larder. It seems strange that nobody ever escaped to provide the slightest clue to identify the domicile of his attackers, but the Sawney’s conducted their ambushes like military operations, with “guards” concealed by the road at either side of the main center of attack to cut down any quarry that had the temerity to run for it. This “three-pronged” operation proved effective; there were no survivors. And although mass searches were carried out to locate the perpetrators of these massacres, nobody ever thought of searching the deep cave. It was passed by on many occasions.
Such a situation could not continue indefinitely, however. Inevitably there had to be a mistake—just one clumsy mistake that would deliver the Sawney Beane family to the wrath and vengeance of outraged society. The mistake, when it happened, was simple enough—the surprising thing was that it had not happened earlier. For the first time in 25 years the Sawneys, through bad judgment and bad timing, allowed themselves to be outnumbered, though even that was not the end of the matter. Retribution when it finally came was in the grand manner, with the King himself talking part in the end game—the pursuit and annihilation of the Sawney Beane tribe.
It happened this way. One night a pack of the Sawney Beanes attacked a man and his wife who were returning on horse-back from a nearby fair. They seized the woman first, and while they were still struggling to dismount the man had her stripped and disemboweled, ready to be dragged off to the cave. The husband, driven berserk by the swift atrocity and realizing that he was hopelessly outnumbered by utterly ruthless fiends, fought desperately to escape. In the vicious engagement some of the Sawney’s were trampled underfoot.
But he, too, would have been taken and murdered had not a group of other riders, some twenty or more, also returning from the fair, arrived unexpected on the scene. For the first time the Sawney Beanes found themselves at a disadvantage, and discovered that courage was not their most prominent virtue. After a brief violent skirmish, they abandoned the fight and scurried like rats back to their cave, leaving the mutilated body of the woman behind, and a score of witnesses. The incident was to be the Sawney’s first and last serious error of tactics and policy.
The man, the only one on record known to have escaped from a Sawney ambush, was taken to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow to describe his harrowing experience. This evidence was the breakthrough for which the magistrate had been waiting for a long time. The long catalogue of missing people and pickled human remains seemed to be reaching its final page and denouement; a gang of men and youths were involved, and had been involved for years, and they had to be tracked down. They obviously lived locally, in the Galloway area, and past discoveries suggested that they were cannibals. The disemboweled woman proved the point, if proof were needed.
The matter was so serious that the Chief Magistrate communicated directly with King James VI and the King apparently took an equally serious view, for when he went in person to Galloway with a small army of four hundred armed men and a host of tracker dogs, the Sawney Beanes were in trouble.
The King, with his officers and retinue, and he assistance of local volunteers, set out systematically on one of the biggest manhunts in history. They explored the entire Galloway countryside and coast—and discovered nothing. When patrolling the shore, they would have walked past the partly waterlogged cave itself had not the dogs, scenting the faint odor of death and decay, started baying and howling and trying to splash their way into the dark interior.
This seemed to be it. The pursuers took no chances. They knew they were dealing with vicious, ruthless men who had been in the murder business for a long time. With flaming torches to provide a flickering light, and swords at the ready, they advanced cautiously but methodically along the narrow twisting passages of the cave. In due course they reached the charnel house at the end of the mile-deep cave that was the home and operational base of the Sawney Beane cannibals.
A dreadful sight greeted their eyes. Along the damp walls of the cave human limbs and cuts of bodies, male and female, were hung in rows like carcasses of meat in a butcher’s cold room. Elsewhere they found bundles of clothing and piles of valuables, including watches, rings and jewelry. In an adjoining cavern there was a heap of bones collected over some twenty-five years.
The entire Sawney Beane family, all forty-eight of them, were in residence; they were lying low, knowing that an army four hundred strong was on their tail. There was a fight, but for the Sawney’s there was literally no escape. The exit from the cave was blocked with armed men who meant business. They were trapped and duly arrested. With the King himself still in attendance they were marched to Edinburgh—but not for trial. Cannibals such as the Sawneys did not merit the civilized amenities of judge and jury. The prisoners numbered twenty-seven men and twenty-one women of which all but two, the original parents, had been conceived and brought up as cave-dwellers, raised from childhood on human flesh, and taught that robbery and murder were the normal way of life. For this wretched incestuous horde of Scottish cannibals there was to be no mercy, and no pretense of justice if every any one of them merited justice.
The Sawney Beanes of both sexes were condemned to death in an arbitrary fashion because their crimes over a generation of years were adjudged to be so infamous and offensive as to preclude the normal process of law, evidence and jurisdiction. They were outcasts of society and had no rights, even the youngest and most innocent of them.
All were executed the following day, in accordance with the conventions and procedures of the age. The men were dismembered, just as they had dismembered their victims. Their arms and legs were cut off while they were still alive and conscious, and they were left to bleed to death, watched by their women. And then the women were burned like witches in great fires.
At no time did any one of them express remorse or repentance. But, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the children and grandchildren of Sawney Beane and his wife had been brought up to accept the cave dwelling cannibalistic life as normal. They had known no other life, and in a very real sense they had been well and truly “brain-washed,” in modern terminology. They were isolated from society, and their moral and ethical standards were those of Sawney Beane himself. He was the father figure and mentor in a small tightly integrated community. They were trained to regard murder and cannibalism as right and normal, and they saw no wrong in it. It poses the question as to how much of morality is the product of the environment and training, and how much is (or should be) due to some instinctive but indefinable inner voice of, perhaps, conscience. Did the young members of the Beane clan know that what they were doing was wrong?
Whether they knew or not, they paid the supreme penalty just the same.
The Sawney Bean clan’s cave
At Bennane Head, eight miles south of Girvan and two miles north of Ballantrae, there is a car park. About 150 feet below the park is a cave thought to run nearly a mile into the hillside. A path leads down the hill to the cave’s entrance on the edges of the rocky shore. The cave entrance, now covered with graffiti, is a narrow slit in the rock face – impossible to see from the pathway above. At high tide, the sea cuts off access to the cave from the beach.
Up until 1970, a vagrant named Snib Scott lived in the cave. Unstable, dirty, with a long gray beard, the locals nicknamed him Sawney Bean.
Check out photos of the Sawney Bean cave in the pictorial gallery below.