Sawney Bean: A History

According to lore, Sawney Bean and his clan were some of the most fearsome people in all of Scotland. If you believe the hype, the Bean clan purportedly killed (and ate) roughly a thousand people during a 25-year reign of terror. This cannibalistic clan lived in the sea caves dotting Scotland’s south-west coast and terrorized all those who dared pass.

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But before we get to the clan and the thousand dead, let’s talk a little bit about what we know about Sawney Bean, the man that started it all. According to Historic UK, “Sawney Bean was born Alexander Bean in East Lothian during the time of James VI.”  It was believed that during this time and his short time in East lothian that his main trade was as a tanner. He also was married during this time, shortly before he left East Lothian. Young Bean and his wife moved out of town to an isolated cavern named Bennane Cave.

This cavern was said to be about  200 feet deep, and, adding even more secrency to his dwelling, the entrance was completely obstructed during high tide. It as also said to have offshoot tunnels, creating a complicating and confusing web of rooms.

Shortly after the Beans got settled in, Mrs. Bean began having little beans at an astonishing rate. As the mouths to feed grew and grew to 14, Sawney no longer could hawk his meager trade and decided to turn towards the road to steal.

However, the more he robbed the more word spread about the dangers of the road. In an effort to cover his tracks, Sawney and his children began to murder their victims as well. But what to do with the bodies? Throw them in the water? Bury them? Hide them within the cavern?

How about none of the above?

This is where Sawney gruesomely killed two birds with one stone. Instead of disposing of the bodies, he decided to eat them. The Beans would bring the body back to their cave, bucher it accordingly, and salt the meat. This way, the Beans could enjoy a high protein diet without too many trips to town. It was also said that curiously preserved, carved body parts were discovered on nearby beaches.

The Beans and their 14 children grew strong and even acquired a test and craving for human flesh, apparently preferring it to other meats. For 20 years the Beans ruled the area through fear, butchery, and brute force. Their clan continued to grow due to incest and new generations of Bean children grew to help their forebears.

That was, until, one fateful night where everything went wrong. The Beans were on the prowl one evening and a man and woman riding  home from town were on the road alone. They saw their vulnerable victims and pounced from two different directions. One group mercilessly pulled the woman from her horse and were disemboweling her almost immediately. The second group, focusing on the man, were a little slower. He had already realized what fate he might shortly meet if he didn’t act fast. He fled for his life and attempted to run his horse through the throng of strange people. Luckily for him, a large group of about two dozen people were also on their way home from town. They happened upon the horrifying scene and a fight to save the man broke out between the Beans and those on the road. The Beans, not used to victims that fought back or outnumbered them, quickly retreated, leaving behind the mutilated body of their female victim.

Needless to say, the nearby towns were terrified when they heard about the grisly encounter. Police action was taken and the man went to talk about his tale in front of the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow. The Chief and his team put together the testimony from the attacked man, the long missing persons list from the area, and the reports of pickled body parts washing up near local beaches. Knowing how dangerous this situation could be and that there might be another attack, the case was elevated all the way to James I.

James, never one to shy away from a confrontation, quickly made for Ayrshire with 400 men, tracking dogs, and local volunteers. Before the Beans even knew it, one of the biggest manhunts the country had ever seen was searching for them.

As the search wore on, the army and volunteers kept coming up with nothing. However, they caught a lucky break when the dogs caught the scent of decaying flesh near the Bean lair. As the troops entered the water cave, Historic-UK writes ,”Nothing could have prepared them for the sight they witnessed that day. The damp walls of the cave were strewn with row upon row of human limbs and body parts, like meat hanging in a butchers shop. Other areas of the cave stored bundles of clothing, piles of watches and rings and heaps of discarded bones from previous feasts.”

Although they fought, the entire Sawney Bean family (allegedly numbering 48) were captured, rounded up, and marched all the way to Edinburgh. Their crimes were heinous that the normal justice system just couldn’t cut it. The women were burned in huge fires while the men of the family had their limbs cut off and were left alone to bleed to death.

But this legend might not be verifiable. In fact, many believe that the Sawney Bean story was a vehicle for anti-Scottish sentiment. The story, despite historians best efforts, can only be tracked to London-based books. The earliest mention of the Bean clan is over 150 years *after* the events were meant to take place. Now, just because there are no earlier accounts of the story does not mean it is entirely false...but it doesn’t help the validity of this clan.

Others believe this story may originate from actual roadside cannibal killers, like Christie Cleek who terrorized travelers in the mid 1300s. Although he had no clan and operated alone, it was said that he took cuts of his victims to stave off hunger.


The above image is of the alleged cave by Tony Page, "English: Sawny Bean's Cave Port Balcreuchan and the cave of Sawney Bean, Ayrshire's infamous serial cannibal. Mr. Bean and his family are credited with killing and eating over 1000 hapless victims in the 16th century - kind of makes Hannibal Lecter look like a pussy cat!" and is liscensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.