The legend of Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic, incestuous family is one of Scotland’s most gruesome dark legends. It’s violence and dark deeds linger long in the darker corners of your mind after hearing the story, as you try not to think of the nasty stuff humans seem capable of. Yet the story of the Bean clan is one that holds a certain fascination, as people come back to it time and time again, be it in tourist attractions or in movies. MJ STEEL COLLINS gives us 13 gruesome facts on Scotland’s own Hannibal Lecter…

1. Sawney Bean may not have existed.

Sawney Bean was supposed to be around during the 1500s, but his story didn’t actually make an appearance until the 1700s, when it showed up in The Newgate Calendar, the catalogue of crimes from London’s Newgate Prison. He was a staple of the lurid tales found in pamphlets and chapbooks designed to enthral. Also, it appears that the legend was an English invention designed to discredit the Scots following the Jacobite Uprisings, as there was a lot of anti-Scots feeling at the time. There are also no records of the incident, which would be a bit strange, given that King James IV is supposed to be involved in the case (see below). There is also little supporting evidence for the executions of the Bean clan and others involved in the case.

Sawney Beane at the entrance to his cave

2. Sawney was an East Lothian Boy who became an Ayrshire legend.

Sawney was born in Alexander Bean in East Lothian; his father was ditch digger and hedge trimmer. Despite trying following in his father’s footsteps, Sawney found the honest life wasn’t for him. Taking up with ‘a vicious woman’, Black Agnes Douglas, they wound up in a cave in Bennane Head, where they lived undisturbed for 25 years. Black Agnes was also reputedly a witch.

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3. His family created an awkward gene pool.

The Bean clan grew considerably – sources give numbers ranging from 25 to 48. And they were incestuous. All were involved in the family’s hideous goings on.

4. The Bean Clan killed hundreds of people.

Sawney Bean and family at suppertime!

As the family grew, they were able to attack enmasse, taking out large numbers of victims. These included unwary travellers and unlucky locals.

5. Their eating habits would make you shudder.

The family survived by feasting on the flesh of their victims. Usually, they would be devoured on the spot, whilst any left overs would be pickled and stored in the cave for later.

6. They evaded justice for years.

Owing to the fact they weren’t caught for a long time, Sawney’s insane brood got complacent. They would throw the chewed up limbs of their victims into the sea, which washed up on local beaches. Body parts were also hung from trees. These and the fact hundreds of people had vanished hadn’t gone unnoticed by the authorities, who hung several innocent people for the Beans’ crimes.

Inside-Sawney-Bean's-Cave

7. Only one person escaped Sawney’s family.

One day, the clan attacked a young couple returning home from a fair. The wife was quickly felled and dismembered by the female Beans, whilst the husband put up a fight. He fended off the marauding cannibals, until the arrival of more fair goers scared them off. The attack was reported to the authorities.

8. King James VI took charge of the search for the Bean clan.

The King led a 400 strong party of troops. It took a long time, but eventually the accompanying bloodhounds led the forces deep into a cave, where the Beans were cornered.

King James I of England and VI of Scotland
King James I of England and VI of Scotland

9. The Bean’s larder was disgusting.

In the cave, the search party found several pickled human limbs in jars, and other body parts hung from the walls. The belongings of the victims lay scattered on the floor.

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10. They had a nasty execution.

Sawney and his family were carted off to Edinburgh Tolbooth to face justice. And it was just as cruel as the Beans’ actions. The men were sentenced to having their hands and feet chopped off and being bled to death, whilst the women were burned at the stake, after being forced to watch the men die.

11. Execution didn’t subdue the Bean Family.

Apparently, the Beans were just as garrulous on meeting their maker, “…they all died without the least sign of repentance, but continued cursing and vending the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life”.

Sawney Bean's beach at Lendelfoot in Ayshire
Sawney Bean’s beach at Lendelfoot in Ayshire

12. The Bean Cave is allegedly haunted.

Psychic Tom Robinson says that the legend of Sawney Bean is true, but that the clan wasn’t executed in Edinburgh. He claims they were sealed up in their cave and burned alive. The victims of the Beans haunt the cave, according to Robinson, who seemingly witnessed apparitions of the victims re-enacting their murders, and heard them screaming. He exorcised the cave.

13. Sawney Bean isn’t the only legendary Scottish cannibal.

Christie Cleek (mentioned in Scottish serial killers who shocked the world) was a butcher from Perthshire in the 14th century, who joined a group of scavengers around the Grampians. When one of the party died, Cleek put his skills to use, and the dead man’s comrades feasted on his flesh. This gave the band a taste for human flesh; they caught and ate about thirty people and their horses until the authorities closed in. Christie himself escaped and re-entered society under a false name.

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Here’s a Sawney Bean poem to entertain you!

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