ANYONE hungry? Have your brekkie or lunch noo, then, before this week’s Icon turns your stomach.

Icon suggests positivity, some person, thing or place of which to be proud. Probably not someone who killed and ate 1,000 people. On the other hand, wha’s like us, eh?

On a third hand, it’s doubtful if Sawney Bean existed. Perhaps some semi-legendary variant did, back in the mists of pish, but there ain’t one scrap of evidence.

There’s a case for the whole Bean baloney being anti-Scottish propaganda, as the tales were published around the time of the Treaty of Union, Jacobites and all that jazz. But the story could still theoretically be true. We all know Scottish people who’d be happy living in caves. And we’re famously not particular about our diet.

So, assuming Sawney was a human Bean at all, who was he? You’d think with a name like Bean he’d be vegetarian. Bit like someone called Jimmy Tofu running a butcher’s. In fact, he was supposedly christened Alexander Sawney Bean, and his PR might have been better had he been known as Alex or Eck.

His birthplace was allegedly East Lothian. Time: possibly the 16th century, or the 15th, or the 14th. His father was a ditch-digger and hedge-trimmer, which is odd, as that line of work didn’t much exist in 16th century Scotland (widespread hedges, in particular, came later).

Bean supposedly took up the profession, but disliked working, and so not unnaturally took himself to south-west Scotland, apparently in the company of a pleasant-sounding burd called Black Agnes Douglas, a suspected Satanist.

Perusing Rightmove, they spotted a coastal cave “with development potential” at Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae. The only problem was the lack of restaurants nearby, but they got round that by eating in.

Family affairs

For 25 years, they feasted on passers-by and, in between meals, spawned six daughters, eight sons, 14 granddaughters and 18 grandsons, mostly products of incest in these pre-Tinder times.

Eventually, the straw-munching yokels noticed hundreds of folk had disappeared. Also, limbs started showing up on the shoreline. Bit iffy, Sherlock.

Accordingly, they sent out search parties, one of which apparently noticed the cave but concluded nothing human could “reside in such a place of perpetual horror and darkness”.

In the meantime, they hanged innocent people instead, particularly local innkeepers, generally the last to have seen those who went missing. The remaining innkeepers sensibly decided to “follow other employments”, according to one account, with catastrophic consequences for tourism (well, that and the cannibalism).

One day, the Beans bit off more than they could chew. They attacked a husband and wife returning from a fair on a horse. The chap was a bonny fechter and initially saw them off, but his wife was captured. According to the never trusted Newgate Calendar, 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”. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how haggis is made.

While the chap was still fighting them off, 20 or 30 other fair-goers appeared on the scene, and the Beans fled. They were runner Beans. This horribly bereaved fellow was taken to recount his experience to the Provost of Glasgow, who alerted the King. Accounts differ as to which one, but it’s often ascribed to James VI, a nutter obsessed with witchcraft and other fictional horrors.

Offal crimes

He got together 400 men and some bloodhoonds. The latter sniffed out the cave and, on entering, the horrified men found human body parts hung up “like dried beef” or pickled in jars, with robbed valuables and clothes lying about in heaps. There was evidence the Beans had a predilection for offal. They were kidney Beans.

Accounts vary about what happened next. The most widely promulgated says the close family were taken in chains first to the Tolbooth jail in Edinburgh, thence to Leith (or possibly Glasgow) where, having been deemed subhuman and therefore not entitled to a trial, they were peremptorily executed. I say “peremptorily”, having looked it up, but proceedings were far from brisk.

Sawney and the males justly had their genitalia cut off and thrown into fires and, after heir hands and feet had been likewise severed, they were mercifully allowed to bleed to death. Sawney’s last words were supposedly, “It isn’t over! It will never be over". This sounds unlikely. Surely his last words would have been: “Ooya! Ouch!”

After having been forced to watch this, the wife, daughters and granddaughters were tied to stakes and burned alive. They became baked Beans. Another, less gruesome account says the King’s search party placed gunpowder at the cave entrance and that the family then suffocated. One way or another, they were now has-Beans.

All this has been questioned. Why was the surviving fellow taken to the Provost of Glasgow and not to some dumbass in Ayrshire? Why was such a horrific case not documented anywhere at the time? Criminal activities and the King’s doings, in particular, were widely archived.

Bean and gone

James VI even wrote a book aboot Satanic shenanigans but never mentioned the Beane business. It wasn’t on the 6 o’clock town crying. Isn’t it odd that the real Black Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, bravely defended her caste against an English siege and became a Scottish heroine?

Then there was the timing of the tale’s publication: early 18th century, a time of English-Scottish ferment. The most thorough account featured in the Newgate Calendar, a London tattle-sheet that editorialised heavily against England’s enemies (usually the French, right enough) and eulogised the English church, monarchy and legal system.

On the other hand, writing in the Fortean Times in 2005, English writer Sean Thomas pointed out that such penny dreadfuls also excoriated English criminals of the time. Did their hair-raising tales about Dick Turpin constitute “an attack on Essex boys”?

Thomas, who tried to find the Beans’ cave, concluded that the legend “seriously lacks credibility”, and ascribed its source to “those deeper, darker caves of the human unconscious”. Nevertheless, to this day, the Beans remain legumes in their own lunchtime.