Sawney Bean

Legendary cannibal

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Sawney Bean
Sawney beane.jpg
Sawney Bean at the Entrance of His Cave.
Note the woman in the background carrying two disembodied legs and the dead body nearby.
Alexander Bean

1500s to 1600s
Other namesSawney
SpouseAgnes "Black" Douglas
Criminal penaltyDeath
Span of crimes

Alexander "Sawney" Bean was said to be the head of a 45-member clan in Scotland in the 16th century that murdered and cannibalised over 1,000 people in the span of 25 years. According to legend, Bean and his clan members would eventually be caught by a search party sent by King James VI, and were executed for their heinous crimes.

The story appeared in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of Newgate Prison in London. The legend lacks sufficient evidence to be deemed true by historians, and there is debate as to why the legend would have been fictionalised; nevertheless, the myth of "Sawney" Bean has passed into local folklore and has become a part of the Edinburgh tourism circuit.


According to The Newgate Calendar, a tabloid publication from the 18th and 19th centuries, Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 16th century.[1] His father was a ditch-digger and hedge-trimmer and Bean tried to take up the family trade, but quickly realised that he was not fit for this work.

He left home with an allegedly vicious woman named Black Agnes Douglas, who apparently shared his inclinations and was accused of being a witch. After some robbing and the cannibalisation of one of their victims, the couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bennane Head between Girvan and Ballantrae. The cave was 200 yards (180 metres) deep, and the entrance was blocked by water during high tide, so the couple were able to live there undiscovered for some 25 years.

Sawney and Agnes produced six daughters, eight sons, 14 granddaughters, and 18 grandsons. Various grandchildren were products of incest between their children.

Lacking the inclination for regular labour, the Bean clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups. The clan brought the bodies back to their cave where the corpses were dismembered and eaten. They pickled the leftovers in barrels. The clan discarded body parts, which would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches. This strategy was used to help conceal their crimes and lead villagers to believe that it was animals who were attacking travellers.

The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers but the Bean clan stayed in their cave by day and took their victims at night. The Bean clan was so clandestine that the villagers were unaware of the murderers living nearby.

As local people began to take notice of the disappearances more significantly, several organised searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note of the cave but the men refused to believe anything human could live in it. Frustrated and in a frenetic quest for justice, the townspeople hanged several innocents but the disappearances continued. Suspicion often fell on local innkeepers since they were the last known to have seen many of the missing people alive.

One fateful night, the Bean clan ambushed a married couple riding from a fayre on one horse but the man was skilled in combat thus he deftly held off the clan with sword and pistol. The Bean clan fatally mauled the wife when she fell to the ground in the conflict. Before they could take the resilient husband, a large group of fayre-goers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled. The fayre-goers took the survivor to the local magistrate, whom they informed of this experience.

With the Beans' existence finally revealed, it was not long before the King (perhaps James VI of Scotland in tales linked to the 16th century, though it is less clear who this could be in other tales from the 15th century) heard of the atrocities and decided to lead a search with a team of 400 men and several bloodhounds. They soon found the Bean clan's previously-overlooked cave in Bennane Head thanks to the bloodhounds. Upon entering the cave by torchlight, the searchers found the Bean clan surrounded by human remains with some body parts hanging from the wall, barrels filled with limbs, and piles of stolen heirlooms and jewellery.

There were two versions of what happened next:

The town of Girvan, located near the macabre scene of murder and debauchery, has another legend about the Bean clan. There are claims that one of Bean's daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan where she planted a tree that became known as "The Hairy Tree". After her family's capture and exposure, the daughter's identity was revealed by angry locals who hanged her from the bough of the Hairy Tree.

Sources and veracity

According to The Scotsman, there is a debate over the validity of the Sawney Bean tale. Some people believe that Sawney Bean was a real person, while others think he was just a mythical figure. Dorothy L. Sayers offered a gruesome account of the Sawney Bean tale in her anthology Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror (Gollancz, 1928. The book was a best-seller in Britain, reprinted seven times in the next five years.)[2] A 2005 article by Sean Thomas[3] notes that historical documents, such as newspapers and diaries during the era in which Sawney Bean was supposedly active, make no mention of ongoing disappearances of hundreds of people. Additionally, Thomas notes inconsistencies in the stories but speculates that kernels of truth might have inspired the legend:

"... from broadsheet to broadsheet, the precise dating of Sawney Bean's reign of anthropophagic terror varies wildly: sometimes the atrocities occurred during the reign of James VI [ca. early 1600s], whilst other versions claim the Beans lived centuries before. Viewed in this light, it is arguable that the Bean story may have a basis of truth but the precise dating of events has become obscured over the years. Perhaps the dating of the murders was brought forward by the editors and writer of the broadsheets, so as to make the story appear more relevant to the readership ... To add to the intrigue, we do know that cannibalism was not unknown in mediaeval Scotland and that Galloway was in mediaeval times a very lawless place; perhaps nothing on the scale of the Bean legend took place but every story grows and is embroidered over time".[3]

The Sawney Bean legend closely resembles the story of Christie-Cleek, which is attested much earlier in the early 15th century. Christie Cleek is a mythical Scottish cannibal who lived during a famine in the mid-fourteenth century.

The legend of Sawney Bean first appeared in the British chapbooks (rumour magazines of the day). Today, many argue that the story was a political propaganda tool to denigrate the Scots after the Jacobite rebellions. Thomas disagrees, noting: "If the Sawney Bean story is to be read as deliberately anti-Scottish, how do we explain the equal emphasis on English criminals in the same publications? Wouldn't such an approach rather blunt the point?".[3] (See also "Sawney" for this theory).

A broadside from circa 1750 mentions "the Scottish traditional story of Sandy Bane" as it relates to a report of a murderer who had been eating live cats.[4]

Another cannibal story from Scotland, even more redolent of the Sawney Bean tale than the Christie Cleek story, can be found in the 1696 work of Nathaniel Crouch, a compiler and popular history writer who published under the pseudonym "Richard Burton". In this tale, the following happened in 1459, the year before James II of Scotland's death:

"...about which time a certain thief who lived privately in a den, with his wife and children, were all burned alive, they having made it their practice for many years to kill young people and eat them; one girl only of a year old was saved, and brought up at Dundee, who at twelve years of age being found guilty of the same horrid crime, was condemned to the same punishment, and when the people followed her in great multitudes to execution, wondering at her unnatural villainy, she turned toward them, and with a cruel countenance said, "What do you thus rail at me, as if I had done such an heinous act, contrary to the nature of man? I tell you that if you did but know how pleasant the taste of man's flesh was, none of you all would forbear to eat it;" and thus with an impenitent and stubborn mind she suffered deserved death".[5]

Hector Boece notes that the infant daughter of a Scot brigand, who was executed with his family for cannibalism, though raised by foster parents, developed the cannibal appetite at 12, and was put to death for it. This was summarised by George M. Gould and Walter Pyle in Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.[6]

Popular culture


  1. ^ "Sawney Beane". Archived from the original on 10 June 2010.
  2. ^ "Title: Sawney Bean and His Family".
  3. ^ a b c Thomas, Sean (April 2005). "In Search of Sawney Bean". Fortean Times. Archived from the original on 19 May 2008. Retrieved 18 May 2008.
  4. ^ Anonymous. "Human Monsters!! / Account of a Human Monster, at Woodside, near Old / Windsor, who makes a common Praictce of EATING LIVE CATS, &c. He was / Yesterday apprehended and committed to Goal for the MURDER of an INFANT / CHILD. Also an account of a similar Monster at Reepham, Norfolk. / TO WHICH IS ADDED, / The Account of a RAPE committed by Mr. J, of / Broad-street St. Giles's. And an account of another Rape committed by a BOY of only / Sixteen Years of Age, who is committed to Strafford Goal for Trial". English Broadside Ballad Archive. Retrieved 25 May 2021.
  5. ^ R. B (1813). The history of the kingdom of Scotland. Westminster: Printed for M. Stace, by W. Smith & Co. p. 135. OCLC 560432423.
  6. ^ Gould, George M.; Pyle, Walter L. (1896). Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: W.B. Saunders. p. 409. OCLC 07028696. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
  7. ^ Maddrey, Joseph (2004). Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-7864-1860-2.
  8. ^ "The Grisly Deeds of Alexander Bean". BBC.
  9. ^ a b Marsden, Stevie (2021). Prizing Scottish literature : a cultural history of the Saltire Society Literary Awards. London. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-78527-482-4. OCLC 1239748010.
  10. ^ "Who was Sawney Bean?". BBC News. 22 February 2013. Retrieved 2 August 2022.

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