Sawney Bean - real or myth?

The popular tale of cannibal Sawney Bean has been told and retold to generations of people in his cave's surrounding Carrick area.

So gruesome is the chilling story that it went national, thrilling and disgusting thousands of others.

The legend tells of a vicious cannibal, born to honest parents near Edinburgh, who took up residence in a cave between Girvan and Ballantrae with his wife. The cave, called Bennane Cave, is 200 yards deep and twice a day at high tide its entrance would be blocked by water, sealing the Beans in their underworld.

The Bean clan grew. Sawney's eight sons and six daughters were said to have, through incest, produced eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. The murderous tribe ambushed passers by, robbing and slaughtering them. The bodies were carried back to their lair, where they were cut up and either eaten at the time, pickled, or thrown into the sea when there was a surplus.

Over their 25 years of cannibalism the Beans are said to have butchered more than a thousand innocent victims. Locals had no idea of the size of the family or the whereabouts of the numerous missing. The tribe were very secretive, hiding in their cave by day and striking at night, and were also sure to leave no witnesses even if their flesh was not needed. The regular disappearances are said to have generated several lynchings of unconnected suspects in the surrounding area, without ever discovering the true villains.

But eventually they were caught out. Upon ambushing a married couple riding home from a fair, the clan managed to kill the woman but found the man put up a good fight. Whilst he was battling them a large group of people, also returning from the fair rode by and assisted him in escaping the vicious mob.

Their secret revealed, the Beans were captured by the King and 400 men, and taken to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh before being executed at Leith without trial. The Bean family's execution was a particularly nasty death. The men had their limbs cut off and were allowed to bleed to death, while the women were burned alive on three separate fires.

And so ends the oft-cited story of Sawney Bean. Its entry into national folklore is thought to have been during the eighteenth century although it was the nineteenth century in which it soared in popularity. It first appeared in the widely enjoyed chapbooks and broadsheets that were filled with crime and thriller stories to entertain their readers. Some of the tales featuring in these were true but others were false, and the truth of a story was never the primary concern of the publication.

The truth of the Sawney story has long been debated. There are a lot of arguments suggesting that it is in the literary pages that he was born and in merely in mythical folklore that he lives on. There has even been research in the area. The legal historian William Roughed searched old records looking for a mention of the notorious cannibal. Unable to find any trace of him, Roughed declared the legendary figure entirely fictional.

Many find the notion that the tribe abducted and slaughtered so many victims yet remained completely undetected for two-and-a-half decades simply implausible. There is also a lack of records of large volumes of people disappearing in the area in the 16th century, when the Beans were supposedly in operation along the coastal route.

And apparently researchers have also worked out that a family of forty-eight would have required more dead bodies to keep them going over the 25-year period than is alleged in the story. It has been claimed they would have depopulated the entire south-western region had they relied on people as a sole food-source. So all of Carrick would have been eaten up, then. Not very nice.

Furthermore, Fiona Black, writing in The Polar Twins, declared Sawney Bean an English-created myth, used as political propaganda to portray the Scots as savage and uncivilised, unlike the English.

However, it has also been suggested that it is possible Sawney Bean could have existed, at least in some sense, in medieval times, when cannibalism was practiced during periods of famine in Scotland. This grain of truth could have been expanded and developed into the legend we recount today by the writers of broadsheets who also brought the date of events closer to their day to make the story scarier and more interesting to their readers.

There are certainly those who believe Sawney Bean and his blood-thirsty family did not merely leap from the pages of the popular press. In 1991 an exorcism was performed on the cave they are said to have made their home, after claims it was haunted by ghosts of their victims.

Whether he actually existed or not, Sawney Bean's story continues to thrive not just in Carrick, and not just in Britain, but globally. Wes Craven based his 1977 cult film The Hills Have Eyes on the tale of Sawney, although it has been adapted somewhat and the film is set in modern-day America.

By Laura Ferguson