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Sawney Bean: The Scottish Cannibal

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

An alleged depiction of Sawney outside his cave with his lady carrying a leg inside for supper

An alleged depiction of Sawney outside his cave with his lady carrying a leg inside for supper

Alexander “Sawney” Bean was born in the late 14th century (or it might have been the 9th century; accounts vary) near Edinburgh into a family whose occupation was manual labour.

He quickly concluded that he didn’t care for a lifetime of digging ditches and headed off to the southwest coast of Scotland in search of an occupation more suited to his temperament.

He took up with a woman with the unpromising name of Black Agnes Douglas, who shared his distaste for honest work. The happy couple eventually raised at least 14 of their own children, who then created an incestuous brood of 45 to 50 members.

The Bean’s Reign of Terror

The Bean family lived in a sea cave on the Ayrshire coast (below), whose entrance was blocked by water at high tide. Sean Thomas of Fortean Times describes the area based on recorded accounts: “The water went for nearly 200 yards into their subterranean habitation . . . so that when people who had been sent armed to search 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 cave where Agnes and Sawney raised all their Beanie babies

The cave where Agnes and Sawney raised all their Beanie babies

They supported themselves by robbing travelers along the area’s lonely roads. Being identified by their victims was a serious occupational hazard, so they killed them.

The Bean clan was reclusive and its members preferred not to be seen, but that created the problem of securing a food supply from shops. Sawney's solution was novel and simple; he butchered his unfortunate victims, which gave him and his gang a high-protein diet.

Stephen Graham (Mysterious Britain and Ireland) describes the extent of the killings: “Their reign of terror did not go unnoticed: for hundreds of people went missing over the years, and the Beans became so successful in their butchery that they cast unwanted limbs into the sea. These were washed up on distant and local beaches . . .”

Craig Jackson, writing for BBC Scotland, notes that, “the secretive Beans managed to evade detection during the investigations, and scapegoats were falsely accused and lynched to appease the mob.”

According to The Newgate Calendar (1824), “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.”

The Bean Clan Is Finally Captured

For 25 years, Sawney Bean and his infamous offspring went about their grisly business, but, eventually, their luck ran out.

A man and his wife were riding home from a fair, the two on the same horse. The Bean clan set upon them and, records Stephen Graham, “The husband put [up] a furious struggle with his sword and pistol and managed to plough through the villainous host.”

The Newgate Calendar tells how the woman fell off the horse “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.”

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About 30 more fairgoers arrived on the scene and drove the Beans off. Finally, a posse of 400 that some accounts say was led by King James VI of Scotland, set off in pursuit. Bloodhounds tracked the Beans down to their hideaway, and they were all taken alive.

Grisly Finds in Bean’s Lair

The searchers made shocking discoveries, as described by C.E. Maine in the 1970 book The World’s Strangest Crimes: “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 . . . In an adjoining cavern there was a heap of bones collected over some twenty five years.”

All accounts say that the whole clan was taken to Edinburgh in chains, where the formality of a trial was dispensed with and the entire tribe put to death in as brutal a manner as its members had inflicted upon their victims. The men had their hands and feet cut off and were left to bleed to death while their womenfolk looked on. Then, the females were burned at the stake.

Myth or Truth?

Given the passage of time, conflicts in the tale’s details are to be expected. There are many inconsistencies in the story of Sawney Bean and his merciless family; for example, some say they killed 1,000 people, and others put the grim harvest at 100 or 400.

The size of the clan is disputed in many accounts. Some say the Beans carried out their macabre deeds in the 15th century, others in the 16th. Sometimes, it’s Bean, and at other times it’s Beane.

At BBC Scotland, Craig Jackson writes that a “lack of documented evidence of Bean’s existence or even his trial and execution means that most historians are in agreement that it is more likely to be a tale.”

However, it must be remembered that the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean the evidence of absence. And, who would ruin the fun of certain storytellers?

The story’s origins can be traced to 1734 and a book entitled A General and True History of the Lives and Section of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street Robbers, by one Captain Charles Johnson. Although The History Notes suggests an earlier provenance, the saga of Sawney Bean might be based on the “undeniably real cannibal-robber named Christie Cleek.” He was a butcher from Perth who became a highway robber and sometimes cannibal in the 14th century.

Sawney Bean Theories

Some historians believe that Johnson’s relating of the Sawney Bean legend proved to be convenient propaganda for the British government. It came at the time of the increasing resistance of Jacobite Scots to English rule and served to portray those living north of the border as savages. The demonizing of enemies is a tested and effective method of mobilizing public support that’s still used today.

As Fiona Black notes in The Polar Twins, “The monstrous figure of Sawney, as written history, was probably an English invention. Cannibalism has a long history as a means of political propaganda used by a dominant culture against those they want to colonise . . . ”

Sean Thomas doesn’t buy this theory. He thinks the legend might have been based on truth but was greatly embroidered to sell penny dreadfuls and scandal newspapers. He writes that “the story somehow satisfies a deep psychological hunger for such horrors. In this view, humans share a dark and morbid obsession with murder, cannibalism, and sexualised torture, and therefore we keep on coming up with similar horror stories based on these themes.”

Cashing In on the Sawney Bean Story

Fact or myth, the tale of the brutal Scottish family can still turn some coin. The yarn was told and retold in lurid detail in broadsheets sold all over the United Kingdom. Its retelling seems to have transformed what may be a legend into a factual account.

At Ayrshire History, R.H.J. Urquhart says Johnson’s story was probably lifted from earlier yarns and that the tales are “almost certainly fictional.” He adds that “Newspaper editors and journalists with column inches to fill in the silly season, and radio and television producers with spare airtime for airheads have maintained and increased Sawney’s notoriety over the last 100 years.”

Such doubts, however, have not stopped the Scottish tourism industry from exploiting Sawney Bean and his ruthless litter; something that gets Urquhart quite huffy: “What is most reprehensible about all this is that the myth is popularized as part of a despicable conspiracy of the heritage industry, tourist agencies, and local authorities to turn parts of Scotland into little more than gruesome theme parks.”

He adds that peddling the story of Sawney Bean will only bring in “the wrong kind of tourists.”

The Edinburgh Dungeon has a Sawney Bean exhibit for those with a ghoulish appetite for such things.

The Edinburgh Dungeon has a Sawney Bean exhibit for those with a ghoulish appetite for such things.

Bonus Factoids

  • There have been books, plays, and an opera recounting the gory story. It’s said to have “inspired” (if that’s the correct word) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) script and other horror movies such as Hillside Cannibals (2006), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), and Sawney: Flesh of Man (2012).

  • The Ballad of Sawney Bean by Lionel McClelland:

“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.”


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor

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