I’m pleased to say that my latest true crime book – Sawney Bean – Dissecting the Legend of the Scotland’s Infamous Cannibal Family, is finally available in the US in both Kindle and paperback format. This was one of the strangest research and writing projects I have ever undertaken.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the legend – Alexander “Sawney” Bean was the son of a hedger outside of Edinburgh. He was lazy and fell in with a woman of low morals. They moved to the Galloway region of Scotland. There Sawney and his wife became highwaymen, robbing travelers. Their twist, they would kill the travelers and eat their flesh.
Sawney and his wife had children who joined them in their marauding. The family lived in a cave on the western coast of Scotland and their family grew. Sawney and his wife were incestuous in the growing of their clan. It was a hedonistic life for this family of serial killers and over the years their numbers swelled to forty.
The locals knew something was amiss as people traveling the isolated regions of Galloway disappeared. On occasion, a limb would wash up on shore only fueling the mystery. Searches for the killers revealed nothing. Soon a mob-mentality kicked in and several innkeepers were killed, accused of murdering the missing travelers. If the story is to be believed, upwards of a thousand men and woman fell prey to the cannibals. The Beans remained elusive because no survivors lived to tell the tale of horror that befell those caught by them.
A later image of Sawney Bean – Compare to the book cover. The English printer added a kilt and leggings to make Sawney more Scottish appearing
One evening after a fair a couple was ambushed by the Bean’s. The husband managed to hold them at bay but his wife was not so lucky, being ripped apart before his very eyes. He rode off and got help from the locals who chased the Beans away. Finally a survivor to their crimes gave the locals what they needed to pursue.
King James VI personally rode in with an armed party to find this band of cutthroats and cannibals. They nearly gave up their hunt when the hounds located the Bean’s cave. The Bean’s surrendered to the King’s justice and were taken to Edinburgh where they were imprisoned in the Tolbooth, then burned at the stake.
All were executed in a manner befitting witches, save one young girl who was mysteriously spared. She was taken to Girvan where she was raised under an alias. When, in her later years, her identity was revealed, the locals hung her from a tree in Girvan, a tree that she had ironically planted in her youth.
Does the story of a cannibalistic family hidden in isolating killing and eating people sound familiar? It should. Have you ever seen the cult classic, The Hills Have Eyes? That is based on the tale Sawney Bean; along with dozens of other films and stories. In the contemporary world, the Bean’s are more popular than ever.
Part Manson Family, part horror film – the Bean’s are more believable than ever
The question must be asked however: Is the legend true? If so, what parts of it? If it is, it is the largest serial killing spree in recorded history. Hence the impetus of this book.
When I approached this book I wanted to attack it in a manner of a true crime book. This forced me to start to look for the primary evidence. I came up short, other than a murky cave along the coast of Galloway which has been accepted for centuries as Sawney Bean’s cave. I then spent time in the Library of Scotland going back to all of the earliest accounts of the Bean folklore.
The result is a book which explains the evolution of this tale over the years. I had to explore not only the history of the people of Galloway but the struggles for the English throne that led to this story being so easily accepted as the truth. I dug (pun intended) into stories of cannibals in Scotland and even into the crimes of Burke and Hare.
Is the legend true? Some locals will tell you yes. There are even restaurants and bars named Sawney Bean. The story makes for good business as people try and retrace the steps of this cannibal family. Most of the locals I met smiled when I asked if it was true, smiling as if they know something I didn’t. One barmaid told me that Sawney was used to frighten children. “If you don’t eat your vegetables Sawney Bean will get you.” Even today the lines between truth and folklore around the story blur.
This isn’t your typical kind of true crime book. It is a story of serial killing that moves between local legend and reality. I think it will be the perfect fare (pun intended) for many true crime readers.
Both are enjoyable – just not after a filling meal…