The legend of Sawney Bean cannibal of the highlands


Hello All

Here is a legend that has always intrigued me since I first heard it.

According to the New gate calendar. Alexander Bean was born in East Lothian during the 16th century.His father was a ditch digger and hedge trimmer, and Bean tried to take up the family trade but quickly realized that he had little taste for honest labour.

He left home with a vicious woman who apparently shared his inclinations. The couple ended up at a coastal cave in Bannane Head near Galloway (now South Ayrshire) where they lived undiscovered for some twenty-five years. (The cave was 200 yards deep and during high tide the entrance was blocked by water, and is said to be today's Bannane Cave, located between Girvan and Ballantrae in Ayrshire).

Their many children and grandchildren were products of incest and lawlessness. The brood came to include eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. Lacking the gumption for honest labour, the clan thrived by laying careful ambushes at night to rob and murder individuals or small groups.

The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were dismembered and cannibalised. Leftovers were pickled, and discarded body parts would sometimes wash up on nearby beaches.

The body parts and disappearances did not go unnoticed by the local villagers, but the Beans stayed in the caves by day and took their victims at night. The clan was so secretive that the villagers were not aware of the fifty murderers living nearby.

As more significant notice of the disappearances was taken, several organized searches were launched to find the culprits. One search took note of the telltale cave but the men refused to believe anything human could live in it. Frustrated and in a frenetic quest for justice, the townspeople lynched several innocents, and the disappearances continued. Suspicion often fell on local innkeepers since they were the last to see many of the missing people alive.

One fateful night, the Beans ambushed a married couple riding from a fair on one horse, but the man was skilled in combat, deftly holding off the clan with sword and pistol. The clan fatally mauled the wife when she fell to the ground in the conflict. Before they could take the resilient husband, a large group of fair goers appeared on the trail and the Beans fled.

With the Beans' existence finally revealed to the world, it was not long before King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) heard of the atrocities and decided to lead a manhunt with a team of 400 men and several bloodhounds, soon finding the Beans' previously overlooked cave in Bannane Head. The cave was rife with human remains, having been the scene of hundreds of murders and cannibalistic acts.

The clan was captured alive and taken in chains to the Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh, then transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial; the men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed and were allowed to bleed to death, and the women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive. (This recalls, in essence if not in detail, the punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering decreed for men convicted of treason while women convicted of the same were burned. Presumably?whether or not the story had an actual basis?cannibalism was considered the equivalent of treason.)

Today there is a marker in the street where the Bean clan was allegedly executed. Was the story true or just a legend? Created by the Victorians to thrill the tourists visiting the region when opened up by the railways.

The story seem to first appear in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of the notorious Newgate Prison in London. While historians tend to believe that Sawney Bean never existed, his story has passed into legend and is now part of the Edinburgh tourism industry.

Today there is some debate over the truth of the legend. One researcher claims the story is much older from the 13th century and not around the time of King James the 4th of Scotland but around the time of a much earlier king of Scotland.

In the traditional tales of Scotland the lives of Alexander Bean & ? Christie {cleik} are linked by the following During the 20yrs.following the death of Bruce{1329} the Southerners invaded annually carrying out a scorched earth policy as they advanced North each year.

The Scots were wise & heeded the dying advice of Robert the Bruce & did not try to impede this advance but as the winter set in & the Southerners,cold & hungry,made for home
they were picked off by guerrilla bands. After 19yrs.two years of very cold & wet seasons set in & the Scots, with no reserves of food, suffered a severe famine. during the 3rd.winter of this famine two bands of people resorted to cannibalism.

One led by Christie operated at the Southern end of one of the passes which led through the Grampian mountains,the other in the South West, at the pass leading from Ayrshire to Galloway was led by Bean.

The King had been informed of these actions & with better weather setting in on the 3rd.year he sent men to bring these people to justice at Edinburgh.The band in the North had dispersed by the time the officers arrived & thus escaped justice. Bean & his band were captured & led off to Edinburgh.The people of Mid-Calder relieved the officers of their captives & put them to death.

The researcher claims his source was from  Wyntoun [c.1395} which allegedly gives details of the above story version. I have not to date be able to confirm this much earlier version of the legend.

Whatever the truth of the legend the thought of a cannibal clan preying of lonely travelers at night on the mountain roads of the wet mist shrouded highlands stirs the dark corners of the human imagination of anyone walking through the dark brooding landscape of the highlands of Scotland.


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Now that's a tale worth reading.

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Hello BA

I can imagine the story being told on dark winters night in Victorian times up in the highlands of Scotland, parents for generations telling their children the tale to stop then going out at night in the dark.

I wonder how many children was haunted by vision of Sawney Bean and his cannibal clan?


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It would sure have kept me away from the cave --- unless I was with a bunch of other kids out on a dare.

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That was a neat tale, morbid and different
if you get more info plz update.


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That story brings up a very intriguing question. If the children and grandchildren were raised not knowing that killing and eating humans is wrong, did they deserve to be executed?

I remember reading that years ago and have often pondered the ethical questions that it raises.

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