The worlds most famous cannibal to ever exist and he was certainly a man to be feared. Inspiring stories like The Hills Have Eyes, gives you an eerie insight into the type of man Sawney was.
Very little is known about Sawney Bean’s early life, however it is believed he was born in East Lothian in the late 13th century, and was a tanner by trade. The latter part of his life was better documented following his relocation across country to Ayrshire and of course, his marriage.
Upon marriage, Sawney and his wife set up home at Bennane Cave, by Ballantrae in Ayrshire, Scotland. Bennane Cave was rather an imposing abode, with tunnels penetrating the solid rock and extending for more than a mile in length. In addition, the accommodation featured lots of side passages where a young couple could extend into. Over the next twenty five years it would accommodate their growing family. The cave’s entrance was flooded for several hundred meters, twice a day at high tide.
Lacking a trade, Sawney planed to support his new wife by ambushing travelers on the lonely narrow roads that connected the villages of the area. He then realised that in order to make sure that he could never be identified for his crimes, he should murder his victims. To avoid unnecessary visits to the shops for provisions whilst at the same time disposing of any evidence, he came to the gruesome decision to butcher the bodies which would provide a high protein diet of human meat for himself and his wife.
Sawney’s wife produced fourteen children, each with a very unhealthy appetite for human flesh. As the they grew up and in turn, through incest, produced children of their own, their cooking pots increased in size dramatically. Over two decades, generations of of them grew up in Bennane Cave, refining their skills of murder and cannibal cuisine including, the now lost art of salting and pickling the flesh. Reports of curiously preserved but decaying body parts were discovered washed up on the surrounding beaches in the area.
Although mass searches of the area were carried in order to locate either the missing people or their murderers, nobody ever thought to search the depths of Bennane Cave and the local authorities now had the longest missing persons list ever produced on record.
As the years went by the family grew older and bigger. And as the family grew so did their appetite. As many as half a dozen victims would be ambushed and killed at a time in military style operations by the Sawney Bean army. The bodies were taken back to the cave to be carefully prepared for the larder by the women folk.
Even their best-planned operations however would soon go wrong. One evening the Sawney Bean family attacked a man and his wife as they were returning home from a nearby fair. One group pulled the women from her horse and had her stripped and disemboweled before the other group had chance to wrestle the man to the ground. Realising the fate that was about to fall him he fought desperately to escape, driving his horse into and over his attackers. As he fought for his life, a group of twenty or so people also returning from the fair happened upon the scene. After a brief and violent exchange the Sawney Bean family found itself, for the first time ever, at a numerical disadvantage and promptly retreated back to the cave to consider this situation. As they retreated they left behind the mutilated body of a woman as evidence, a score of witnesses and one very angry husband.
The man was taken before the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow, who after hearing the tale started putting the pieces together.With the report and his longest missing persons list, including the many reports of the mysterious pickled body parts, he decided to take the matter straight to the top. King James I soon arrived in Ayrshire with a small army of four hundred men and a pack of tracker dogs, and together with a band of brave local volunteers, launched one of the biggest manhunts the country had ever seen.
Unfortunately, just like before, the search extended through the Ayrshire countryside and coastline and nothing was discovered. That was however, until the dogs picked up the scent of decaying human flesh whilst passing a partly waterlogged cave. The manhunt was back on and quickly making ground.
By torchlight the troops entered Bennane cave and with swords drawn, they proceeded down the mile-long twisting passage to the inner depths of the Sawney Bean’s family lair. Nothing could have prepared them for the sight they witnessed that day. The damp walls of the cave were strewn with row upon row of human limbs and body parts, like meat hanging in a butchers shop. Other areas of the cave stored bundles of clothing, piles of watches and rings and heaps of discarded bones from previous feasts.
After a brief fight, the entire Sawney Bean family, all forty-eight of them, were arrested and marched off to Edinburgh by the King himself. Their crimes were considered so heinous that the normal justice system, for which Scotland is so renowned, was abandoned and the entire family were sentenced to death. The following day the twenty-seven men of the family met a fate similar to that of many of their victims, by having their legs and arms cut off and being left to slowly bleed to death, watched by their women. The twenty-one women were burned like witches in huge fires.
They’ve hung them high in Edinburgh toon
An likewise a their kin
An the wind blaws cauld on a their banes
An tae hell they a hae gaen.
- – “The Ballad of Sawney Bean” – Music and Lyrics
by Lionel McClelland. Published by Limetree Arts and Music. UK
Although the family was recorded in several notable publications, no factual evidence exists. Do you think this family truly existed? Comment below!