The Legend of Sawney Bean’s Cannibalistic Family

Sawney Bean
Alexander Sawney Bean was reportedly the head of a cannibalistic family residing along Scotland’s Ayrshire/Gallowy 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 a job, Sawney soon leaft home and took up with a woman who thought nothing of gaining what she wanted by devious methods.

With no means of supporting themselves, the Beans took up living in a sea cave in Galloway. They maintained their family 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 had taken 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 to hide their presence in the area, they were able to attack and then retreat to the cave, which went almost a mile into the cliffs. In addition, the tide filled the opening so people never suspected the cave as a possible hideout.
The Beans 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 personally took charge of the case. With 400 men and bloodhounds in tow, the hunt for the culprits began in earnest.

From the bloody scene, he bloodhounds took up the scent 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 left the criminals to bleed to death. The Bean women were burned at the stake.

Many “experts” believe the 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 Dungeon 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 finance a film based on the legend, but the attempt fell through. Snakefinger’s “The Ballad of Sawney Bean” was a part of Ralph Records “Potatoes” collection.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to The Legend of Sawney Bean’s Cannibalistic Family

  1. Monica P says:

    Good gravy, that is nasty! Incestuous and cannibalistic. Wow. I have always wanted to go to Scotland but I don’t know if I would add this creepy cave to my itinerary. Maybe.

    I do remember hearing of the Sawney Bean Clan in my British Lit class in college but I can’t remember why. (My prof was Ron Rash, who is also a writer. His stories are mainly set in rural SC/NC. Don’t know if you know of him but I thought he was a fantastic teacher.)

  2. You probably heard of the legend in reference to the author of “The Murder Hole.” His works were highly representative of the late Victorian period. Dracula came out in 1897. Rutherford’s story came out in 1894. He based his novel on the legend of Sawney Bean.

    I am not familiar with Ron Rash, but I will put his name in Google and see want I find.

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