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Who Was Sawney Bean?

Sawney Bean, a name shrouded in macabre legend, refers to the purported leader of a 16th-century Scottish clan infamous for cannibalism and heinous crimes. While his existence is debated, the tale reflects deep-seated fears and folklore. As you ponder the line between myth and reality, consider what truths may lie in the shadows of such tales. What will you uncover?
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Be forewarned: the following article is very gruesome and not for the faint of heart!

Sawney Bean (or Beane) was the head of a legendary clan of inbred cannibals living in a cave in Galloway, Scotland in the 16th century. The story of Sawney Bean was famously recorded in a mid-18th century publication on criminal cases called The Newgate Calendar. The outlandishness of many parts of the story and the lack of any corroborating accounts or evidence lead historians to doubt its veracity, or at least to suspect that the Newgate Calendar version was significantly exaggerated. However, the tale struck the morbid imagination of the public and has remained a favorite horror story for centuries. Sawney Bean and his family have inspired such modern day horror film classics as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

A Sawney Bean exhibit can be found in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Edinburgh Dungeon.
A Sawney Bean exhibit can be found in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Edinburgh Dungeon.

The Newgate Calendar recounts that Alexander "Sawney" Bean was the son of laborers. As a young man, he tired of the family work and ran off with a woman. The two took up residence in a cave and began a life of lawlessness. They had children and grandchildren, through incest, until the family numbered 48, and made their living by robbing, murdering, and cannibalizing travelers who passed their way.

The Bean family was supposedly at large for 25 years, during which time the local communities tried and executed many innocent people in their search for the culprit behind all the disappearances. Anyone who encountered Sawney Bean and his family never lived to tell about it. Their settlement did not attract any attention, as it was deep inside a cave that was partially obscured during high tide.

Eventually, one man survived an encounter with the Sawney Bean clan, though his wife did not. He met up with a large group of men from the fair he had just left and told them about his experience. As a result, King James VI of Scotland dispatched a hunting party and the Sawney Bean family was finally discovered and brought to justice, after killings estimated to be in the thousands. Their lair, when discovered, contained ample evidence of their thievery and cannibalism. Every member of the family was executed without trial.

The tale of Sawney Bean has many problematic aspects for historians. First of all, there are no primary records of the event. Various versions, appearing mostly in cheaply printed pamphlets from the 18th century, vary widely in the details. Nutritionists have argued that 48 cannibals could not have survived for 25 years without killing significantly more people than the Sawney Bean family allegedly killed. As "Sawney" was a generic name for Scotsmen at the time this story first appeared in print, some have speculated that the Sawney Bean story was fabricated in its entirety as anti-Scottish propaganda.

Despite the lack of evidence that any part of the Sawney Bean legend is true, purveyors of horror entertainment and the tourism industry in Scotland and England continue to exploit it. A Sawney Bean exhibit can be seen in the London Dungeon Wax Museum, as well as in the Edinburgh Dungeon in Scotland. Bennane Cave in Ayrshire, formerly Galloway, is claimed to be the cave where Sawney Bean and his family made their home.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Sawney Bean and is his story true?

According to legend, Sawney Bean was the head of a 16th-century Scottish clan who were purported cannibals, living in a coastal cave and responsible for the deaths of numerous individuals. However, the veracity of this tale is highly debated among historians. There is a lack of contemporary evidence from the period to support the existence of Sawney Bean, leading many to consider the story more folklore than fact. The tale likely serves as a sensational narrative reflecting societal fears of the time.

What did Sawney Bean's clan allegedly do?

The Sawney Bean legend claims that his clan ambushed travelers, murdered them, and then consumed their flesh. They supposedly lived in a cave on the coast of Galloway, evading detection for 25 years and killing over a thousand people. This macabre tale, while gripping, lacks historical documentation and is often regarded as a myth or propaganda from later periods to demonize the Scottish people during times of political tension.

How was the Sawney Bean clan supposedly discovered?

According to the legend, the Sawney Bean clan was discovered after a narrow escape by one of their intended victims. The survivor alerted authorities, leading to King James VI of Scotland sending troops to capture the clan. They were reportedly found in their cave, surrounded by human remains, and were then executed without trial. This dramatic tale, while part of Scottish folklore, is not supported by historical records from the era of King James VI.

What is the significance of the Sawney Bean story in Scottish culture?

The Sawney Bean story has become a part of Scottish folklore and is often used to illustrate themes of barbarism and otherness. It has been suggested that the tale was used to stigmatize the Scottish as savages, particularly by English sources during periods of conflict. The story also serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of isolation and the breakdown of societal norms. Despite its dubious historical accuracy, it remains a fixture in Scottish cultural narratives.

Are there any historical records that mention Sawney Bean?

There are no surviving historical records from the time when Sawney Bean supposedly lived that mention him or his clan. The earliest accounts of the Bean story appear in sensational British chapbooks and pamphlets from the 18th century, long after the events would have taken place. This lack of contemporary evidence strongly suggests that the Sawney Bean legend is apocryphal, possibly concocted as a form of entertainment or as a means to convey moral lessons.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon349394

What a crazy story. Definitely not related to Texas Chainsaw, but I can totally see "The Hills Have Eyes" being somewhat based on this story. This totally gave me the creeps.

anon348704

As a child my mother (maiden name Beane) told me that two of the sons of Sawney Beane escaped across the border into England and settled in Norfolk. There is evidence in my family tree of two persons of Scottish descent in or around the late 1600's. Oddly enough, I don't care for rare meat.

anon17238

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has multiple inspirations, as well as much that was simply invented for the movie. The character of Leatherface, among other elements, were indeed loosely based on Ed Gein, but the idea of the cannibalistic family feeding on lost travellers has affinities with Sawney Bean and similar tales. In fact, all of Ed Gein's family members were deceased before he became an active serial killer, whereas Leatherface's family plays a major role in the film.

anon17119

Texas Chainsaw massacre had nothing to do with this. That story was an exaggerated version of the ed gain story.

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    • A Sawney Bean exhibit can be found in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Edinburgh Dungeon.
      By: Jörn Steiner
      A Sawney Bean exhibit can be found in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the Edinburgh Dungeon.