Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Legend of Sawney Bean - Real or Fiction?

by Regina Jeffers

Alexander Sawney Bean was reportedly the head of a cannibalistic family residing along Scotland’s Ayrshire/Galloway coast during the 14th Century. According to the legend, Sawney was born in a small East Lothian village, approximately ten miles from Edinburgh. Enable to hold job, Sawney soon left home and took up with a woman who thought nothing of gaining what she wanted by devious methods.

With no means of making a living, the Beans took up living in sea cave in Galloway. They supported themselves by robbing and murdering travelers and locals foolish enough to be caught out on the roads at night.

Living incestuously, the Bean family grew to a total of six and forty. Over a twenty-five years period, one thousand people lost their lives to the family. The Beans would cast the unwanted limbs of their victims in the sea to be washed up on the local beaches.

Unfortunately, the authorities of the time had few crime investigation skills available to them. In a time when people still believed in witches and vampires, many innocent people stood accused of Sawney’s crimes and lost their lives. As travelers were traced back to the inns in which they took shelter, local innkeepers were often charged with the crimes. Needless to say, travelers began to shun the area.

As they grew in number, the Beans began to take on larger groups of travelers. With their cave being so designed as to hide their presence in the area, they were able to attack and then retreat to cave, which went almost a mile into the cliffs. In addition the tide filled the opening so people never looked for them there.

They were discovered when they attacked a couple returning from a local fayre. The man was able to plough his way through the band that attacked him, but the female cannibals managed to pull his wife from her horse. According to the legend, the Beans ripped out the woman’s entrails and feasted on the woman along the road. When revelers from the fayre appeared, the Beans retreated to their cave/home. The group took the distraught husband to the authorities in Glasgow. Eventually, King James IV took charge of the case personally. With 400 men and bloodhounds in tow, the hunt for the culprits began in earnest.

The bloodhounds took up the scent from the scene and soon hit on the Beans’ location. Entering the cave, the searchers found dried human parts being cured like other meats, pickled limbs in barrels, and piles of valuables stolen over the years. The Beans were brought to Edinburgh in chains. They were incarcerated in the Tollbooth and taken the next day to Leith. Because of the severity of their crimes, the Beans were barbarically executed. The crowds cut off the men’s hands and feet and were allowed to bleed to death. The Bean women were burned at the stake.

Many “experts” believe this story to be an 18th Century fabrication, one found in the popular chapbooks and broadsheets of the time. In 1843, John Nicholson included the legend in lurid details in his Historical and Traditional Tales Connected with the South of Scotland. However, several local psychics claim the ghosts of Sawney Bean’s family haunt the area. The legend has become part of the Tourism and Heritage trail. The cave is on the coast at Bennane head between Lendalfoot and Ballantrae. There is a reconstruction of the cave at the Edinburgh Dugeon on Market Street, near the Waverly Bridge.

The “meat” of Sawney’s tale inspired Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes.” In 1994, a British film group tried to come up with financing for a film based on the legend, but the attempt fell through. Snakefinger’s “The Ballad of Sawney Bean” was a part of Ralph Records “Potates”collection.


  1. I apologize for this post coming up online a bit late. I thought I have scheduled it on Blogger, but somehow, it was saved as a draft instead.

  2. Oh my 'creepy' word! I certainly hope this was the stuff of fiction and not fact, but most legend has some grain of truth to it I know.

    Thanks for the little 'shiver up my spine', Regina. (-;

  3. I find such tidbits absolutely enthralling, Sophia. I have a book of Scottish legend. This one remained in my memory long after I closed the book.

  4. Hi Regina, I added your name at the top and removed a redundant word last night- it might be my fault that it went into draft mode- though I thought I made sure it was scheduled to go live just as you had it. Apologies if I messed it up.

    I do hope the Bean story is exaggerated for the sake of the poor victims, but there are some crazy people out there. I do remember reading in the news a few years back that the Donner party was finally proven not to have cannibalized each other even in their desperate situation- but how long was it "known" that they had done so? Things get said and blown out of proportion and finally become "fact", though the Bean story is called legend, at least in your post. I am somewhat neutral on the matter, but must say that even though the people had been raised in the family only environment, it would have been repulsive to most if not all of them by nature to tear people apart and eat them. I wonder even the congenital effects of incest could have developed a people like that. I hope.

  5. Add in "if" and "not" to the last two sentences and get me an editor, please. lol.

  6. The tour and the "model cave" were my first introduction to the legend. There is a magnificent walking tour that involves the original cave.

  7. The "demon barber of Fleet Street" and now the Beans? What does this say of anti-social extremes among the British? Even if it's legend?

    Regarding the revisionism that has cleaned up the Donner women -- in connection with my Murietta research I read Sutter's private letters on the subject at the time. He sent a group of his vaqueros with cattle for the Donner survivors. The women lost the cattle and ate the vaqueros.

    It's an item of women's history that's not emphasized, but it was the women who ate the men, who were dying off, having exhausted themselves in their efforts to get the party through the snow. One man got down to Sutter's ranch for help.

    In the spring the women were guided down to safety and, being widowed now, eventually made very good marriages. I guess the ability to survive was highly prized in the West.

  8. Thanks to Regency Romance author Regina Jeffers for sharing her insights into The Legend of Sawney Bean - Real or Fiction? I especially appreciate this article, as this family inspired a short story that I wrote about 30 years ago, which forms part of my soon to be released historical fantasy, horror novel.

  9. There is some who believe the story of Sawney Bean was part of the "literature" found in the chapbooks, which were quite popular in the 1780s.


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