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Sawney Bean: Cannibal, Progaganda or Bogeyman?

By Levi L. Hill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Levi L. Hill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, image adapted by Lenora

“A man and his wife behind him on the same horse, coming one evening home from a fair, and falling into the ambuscade of these merciless wretches, they fell upon them in a furious manner… the conflict the poor woman fell from behind him, and was instantly murdered before her husbands 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 ript up her belly and pulled out her entrails….It pleased providence…that twenty or thirty from the same fair came together as a body; upon which Sawney Bean and his blood thirsty clan withdrew and made the best of their way through thick wood to their den.” Captain Charles Johnson in 1742.

The legend of Sawney Bean and his incestuous clan of cannibals is famous in Scotland and a whole heritage industry has grown up around the infamous Sawney. The grisly tale has spawned horror films such as The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ravenous, as well as films dealing directly with Sawney himself.

The Legend

There are a number of versions of the legend, but most agree that Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean was born in a village in East Lothian a few miles outside Edinburgh and that he began life as a hedger and ditcher.  Not keen on honest graft Sawney ran away from his parents in the company of a like-minded woman who may or may not have been called Black Agnes Douglas. It seems the couple tried to settle in Ballantrae but Black Agnes was accused of witchcraft and the pair decamped to the hidden cave of Bennane Head.  They soon took up a more sinister occupation suited to their vicious natures namely highway robbery with a cannibalistic twist.

Sawney_beane_public domain image

Sawney Bean and wife [Pulbic domain] via Wikimedia

It is said that their reign of terror lasted for 25 years during which time they bred an incestuous clan of children and grandchildren numbering nearly 50 at the time they were caught.  They were remarkably good at evading notice, despite the high numbers of victims attributed to them – some say up to 1000 were murdered by the clan.  In part this was due to their hideout – their cave lair extended a mile under ground and its entrance was covered by the sea when the tide was in.   The other element in keeping their bloody lifestyle a secret was leaving no survivors.

The size of the clan enabled them to attack groups of travellers and it is said that they often had a surplus of food.  Discarded arms and legs were tossed into the sea miles from the cave and caused alarm amongst coastal villages when they washed up on the shore.

As the surrounding area became depopulated, and the local villagers became more fearful, accusations were levelled against innocent individuals, particularly innkeepers, and many were hanged for the crimes of Sawney Bean and his family.

Eventually the Bean Clan’s luck ran out.  They were interrupted in attacking a couple returning from a fair and their crimes were exposed.  The husband had survived the attack and took his wife’s mutilated body to the magistrate at Glasgow and the matter came to the attention of the king.

Sawney Bean's Cave

Sawney Bean’s Cave, Image by Tony Page via Wikimedia

A party of 400 men led by King James VI set out to catch the culprits.  Riding up and down the coastline it is said that they overlooked the cave because nobody could conceive of human beings living in such conditions.  But the bloodhounds they had brought with them were drawn towards the cave and the smell of rotting meat issuing from it.  Entering the cave the king and his men found Sawney Bean and his clan.  Captain Charles Johnson writing in 1742 describes what they found in the cave:

“Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and children, were hung up in rows like dried beef.  A great many limbs lay in pickle, and a great mass of money, both gold and silver, with watches, rings and swords, pistols, and a large quantity of clothes, both linnen and woollen, and an infinite number of other things, which they had taken from those they had murder’d, were thrown together in heaps, or hung up against the sides of the den.”

The murderous troupe was taken to Edinburgh Tollbooth, then to Leith were they were executed in suitably Grisly fashion:

“The men had their privy members cut off, and thrown into the fire before their faces, then their hands and legs were severed from their bodies; by which amputation they bled to death in some hours.  The wife, daughters and grand children…were afterwards burned to death in three several fires.”

All died cursing and unrepentant.  One daughter was said to have left the clan and married, but when the horrible deeds of her family were uncovered she was lynched by the villagers and hanged from the ‘hairy tree’.

What lies beyond the legend?

Like many legends concrete evidence is hard to locate.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks to proving Sawney Bean ever existed is that the records simply are not there.  If a thousand people had disappeared over a generation, and the culprits had been found by the King himself and executed in such a gory fashion, then surely someone somewhere would have recorded it?  Sean Thomas sees this as one of the biggest proofs that Sawney is simply a legend.

No official records, no royal records, no letters, no journals no contemporary evidence of these extraordinary crimes exists.  Even allowing for the sparsity of records in early seventeenth century Scotland Dr Louise Yeoman, in an interview with the BBC,  has pointed out that if a king such as James VI of Scotland/I of England had been involved in such a perilous and successful venture against a group of blood-thirsty cannibals he would surely have publicised it.  After all this was a king with a strong sense of paranoia and a hands on interest in demonology and witchcraft.

Cover of: A general and true history of the lives and actions of the most famous highwaymen, murderers, street-robbers, &c. by Daniel Defoe

Frontispiece of Captain Charles Johnson’s 1742 book

In fact the earliest references to Sawney Bean and his family occur in eighteenth century English broadsheets and chap-books.  Publications that were designed to amaze and horrify their audiences with tales of terrible deeds.  Dr Yeoman in her BBC interview and Fiona Black writing in ‘The Polar Twins’ support the idea that Sawney Bean was actually a piece of English Propaganda.  It is to be noted that the earliest versions of the story appear in English publications not Scottish.  Perhaps it was a colonial view of the barbarous Scots designed to show the superiority of the English at a time when suspicion of the Scots was rife.  The Sawney Bean tale surfaces just after the Union of England and Scotland, and at a time when Anti-Jacobite feelings were running high.   Dr Yeoman further supports this interpretation with the fact that ‘Sawney’ was a derogatory name often given to Scotsmen in English cartoons at the time.

Against this view, Sean Thomas points out that these same periodicals also contain a plethora of horrible deeds perpetrated by English criminals.  However, it would seem to me that Sawney’s deeds stand out from the rest.

Neverthless there seems to be some consensus in the view that one of the biggest anomalies in the various tellings of the story relates to when the events took place.  The most common time-period is the reign of James VI/I, but versions exist that take place in the reign of James I in the 1400’s and some set in earlier periods.  Could the legend be based on earlier tales of real cannibalism?

During Scotland’s turbulent history and its many conflicts with England, there were many periods of famine.  During such times of starvation there were tales of cannibalism occurring.  One such documented case is that of Christie Cleek who lived in the reign of David II.  Christie was a butcher from Perth, and in a period of famine, he and a band of friends lived a life of scavenging to survive.  When one of the party died, Christie used his butchers skills and the group ate their comrade.  Eventually Christie took to attacking travellers and robbing them and when necessary eating them to ward of starvation.  This story is documented in the 1400’s when it was alleged to have occurred so appears to be historically plausible.

Image by Goya

Goya [public domain] via Wikimedia

It may be that the story simply fulfills the psychological need for a good scare story and it certainly contains many of the staple ingredients of the macabre that seem to crop up time and time again whatever the century. Sean Thomas certainly draws this conclusion. Sawney Bean has never lost his gory appeal – from the broadsheets, to John Nicholson’s 1843 version of the tale, the Newgate Calendar, numerous film versions, and even the Edinburgh Dungeon’s Sawney Bean experience, shock horror endures because it appeals to something dark within the human psyche.

At the end of the day it may be that Sawney Bean is the archetypal Bogeyman, a tale to tell children at bed-time; a half-remembered folk-memory of times when famine drove people to commit terrible deeds to survive and that was then co-opted by anti-Jacobite propagandists.  We may never know for sure.


Brocklehurst, Steven, Who was Sawney Bean? Johnson, Charles, A General and True History of the lives and actions of the most famous highwaymen, murderers, street-robbers, &c, 1742 Sawney Bean: Scotland’s Hannibal Lector, The Legend of Sawney Bean, The Newgate Calendar – Sawney Bean, Thomas, Sean, In Search of Sawney Bean, Wikipedia,;

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