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Sawney Bean: A Gruesome Scottish Legend

A writer from Wiltshire in the U.K., Joanne is curious about life. the past and where words come from.

Sawney Bean at the entrance of his cave.

Sawney Bean at the entrance of his cave.

Sawney Bean: Robber

Sawney (Alexander) Bean married “Black” Agnes Douglas, a suspected witch. They settled in Bennane Cave in Ayrshire, a network of tunnels that extended for over a mile through the rocks beneath the Bennane Headland. The entrance to the cave flooded every day, but this didn’t dissuade the couple from claiming it as their home.

Sawney Bean’s father’s ditch digging career held no interest for Sawney, so he decided to become a robber. He, in common with his fellow opportunists, took to the more isolated spots on the Ayrshire highways that were frequented by travellers day and night. The robbers lay in wait to make their hauls of rings, clothes, watches, jewels and any sundry items that might make money for them.

Sawney soon noted that there was a problem with the life of a robber. It was not that his conscience troubled him, but the fact that his victims were alive after the theft and they could relate their tale of woe to others. This was bad for business.

Bennane Cave, also known as Sawney Bean's Cave lies in South Ayrshire, Scotland.

Bennane Cave, also known as Sawney Bean's Cave lies in South Ayrshire, Scotland.

Sawney Bean and Family: Murderers and Cannibals

Bean's solution to his business problem was hideous and yet it made perfect sense to him: Kill his victims and remove the evidence. Sawney murdered his prey, cut up their bodies and then took the meat parcels home for Agnes and himself to consume. He pickled and salted the meat to preserve it. Agnes was not repulsed, and she readily agreed to become a cannibal.

Sawney and Agnes had 14 children. As their family grew, so too did the number of cannibals in the cave. The little Beans grew up to be as adept at murder, salting, pickling and eating their victims as their elders and to them it was utterly normal. Through acts of incest they procreated, and the next generation learned the family “trade”. Over two decades, the Bean family expanded until there were 48 of them living in the cave amidst the bones, flesh and detritus of human life.

Occasionally, parcels of discarded but preserved flesh would wash up on the shore. The locals were aghast. Yet, Clan Bean remained at liberty and not once did they fall under suspicion, despite repeated searches for missing people, perpetrators of murders or bodies. Instead, innocent people were arrested and executed. The always well fed and "respectable" Beans saved none of their unsuspecting neighbours from the charges and deaths. Allegedly, one of the search parties over the decades concluded that nobody would live in the cave, so they walked straight past the entrance. It has been estimated that the Bean family was responsible for at least 1000 disappearances that resulted in cannabalism across 25 years.

Bennane Head lies above Bennane Cave also known as Sawney Bean's Cave in Ayrshire, Scotland.

Bennane Head lies above Bennane Cave also known as Sawney Bean's Cave in Ayrshire, Scotland.

Manhunt Leads to the Bennane Cave

One day, fate caught up with Sawney Bean and his family as they attempted to remove the goods, chattels and lives of a man and woman travelling close to the Bennane Cave on the way home from the fair. The woman was swiftly relieved of her clothes and her bowels by the proficient cannibals.

The man charged his horse towards the attackers in a bid to escape and he must have been relieved when he saw at least 20 other people approaching, they too were on their way home from the fair. He called for help and the Beans found themselves outnumbered.

The family fled to the sanctuary of the cave. This was a new situation for them. They had left the woman’s corpse and her very much alive husband and witnesses behind. The man was taken to see the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow. The magistrate advised the king about the recent incident, the long list of missing people, the parcels of meat beached on the shore.

The king dispatched 400 soldiers and some tracking dogs and a local army was raised. The manhunt that followed was one of the largest in Scotland’s history. Finally, some tracking dogs scented some human flesh by the partially waterlogged entrance to a cave: The Bennane Cave.

Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977, 2006). Inspired by Sawney Bean.

Sawney Bean and Family's Edinburgh Reckoning

Their way lit by torches, the soldiers and dogs entered the cave and in time arrived at the Bean home. The walls were lined with countless human limbs and discarded bones lay on the floor. In another area of the cave clothes, watches, rings and trinkets were discovered in piles.

The Beans’ were forced to yield to the army men and volunteers. All 48 members of the family were taken across the country to Edinburgh and the king to answer for their deeds. Death was the only possible sentence the monarch could pass on them. Trials via the justice system were eschewed; their crimes were heinous and the Beans were thought to be inhumane.

The 27 male Beans were executed the day after the judgement. Their arms and legs were cut off and the female Beans’ watched as the men bled to death. The women were burned at the stake, the same punishment awarded to witches.

Another ending emerged in folklore, that tons of gunpowder was placed at the opening of Bennane Cave and the family suffocated inside their lair. The Edinburgh ending is most commonly accepted as true.

Scottish Fact or Folklore?

And now, you decide. The lack of documentary evidence and dates means that historians cannot confidently confirm that Sawney and his family existed. The inspiration may have been the 14th century tale of Andrew Christie, also known as Christie Cleek. Again, was he real?

Folklore and the tourist trade assert that the story of Sawney Bean is truth. Bennane Cave is still known as Sawney Bean Cave.

Will we ever know if he was real or the result of an over-productive imagination?

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle