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Colorized engraving depicting Sawney Bean. Source: Public Domain

Cannibalism in Scotland: The Dark Legend of Sawney Bean

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Sawney Bean is a legendary figure from Scotland, who is said to have been a prolific cannibal. Together with his equally cannibalistic family, Sawney Bean murdered and robbed unfortunate victims from their hidden sea cave on the Ayrshire /Galloway coast. These victims would then be eaten, and their leftovers pickled. According to the legend, the Bean family butchered and ate up to 1000 victims during a reign of terror that lasted for 25 years. They were eventually captured and executed. Whilst some argue that the legend is just a tale, others believe that it has its roots in real events that happened, though it grew and was exaggerated over time.

The Beans’ History

In the tales, Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean is said to have been born in East Lothian sometime either during the reign of James I of Scotland in the early 15th century, or (more commonly) during the reign of James VI of Scotland (known also as James I of England) around the end of the 16th century. In some versions of the legend, Bean’s father is said to have been a hedger and ditcher, whilst others place his family’s trade under the general heading of ‘laborer’s’. In any case, the Beans were honest workers, though the future cannibal is said to have not been interested in such work. One story claims that Bean had been frequently beaten by his father for not being a good enough son, perhaps as an explanation for his later decision to leave society, and to lead a life of crime.

East Lothian or Haddingtonshire Civil Parish map.

East Lothian or Haddingtonshire Civil Parish map. (Public Domain)

In any case, Bean met a woman, Agnes Douglas, who was just like him, and the couple removed themselves from society to live in a sea cave, commonly said to be Bennane Cave, on the Ayrshire coast. To support his wife, Bean began to ambush and rob travelers on the lonely narrow roads that connected the villages in that region. In order to prevent his crimes from being reported to the authorities, Bean murdered his victims. Furthermore, to dispose of his victims, and to avoid unnecessary trips back into society for provisions, he took to cannibalism.

Port Balcreuchan and the cave of Sawney Bean.

Port Balcreuchan and the cave of Sawney Bean. Tony Page (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At the same time, Bean’s family grew. According to the legend, Bean and Douglas had 8 sons, 6 daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters (many of whom were the product of incest). Together, the Bean family robbed, murdered, and ate their victims. The remains were pickled, and sometimes, the discarded parts were washed up on the shore. The disappearance of people was certainly noticed by the people living in the nearby villages, and efforts were made to hunt down the perpetrators. As the Beans were well-hidden in their sea cave, the villages were unsuccessful in their attempts to bring the criminals to justice.  

The Bean Family

The Bean Family (horrorpediadotcom)

The End of the Beans

Eventually, the Beans bit off more than they could chew. One night, the Beans spotted a couple on horseback who were returning from a fair. As they seemed like easy targets, the Beans attacked them. To their surprise, the man was a skilled fighter, who fought them with a pistol and sword. His wife was killed by the cannibals, but the man managed to hold them off long enough and was saved by a group of fair goers who were travelling further back down the road. The Beans were chased off, and their existence became known.

Sawney Bean

Sawney Bean (Public Domain)

The group then travelled to Glasgow, and the encounter was reported to the magistrates of the city, who in turn brought the news to James VI of Scotland. Intrigued by that which he had heard, the king decided to track down the cannibals himself. 400 men and bloodhounds were brought by the king to the scene of slaughter, and the hunt began. When they were discovered in their sea cave, the Beans surrendered without a fight. They were then led in chains to the Old Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh. No trial or judicial process took place, and they were executed – the men had their genitals, hands and feet cut off, and were left to bleed to death, whilst the women were burned alive at the stake. Thus, the Beans’ reign of terror came to an end.

Top image: Colorized engraving depicting Sawney Bean. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren



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@Cataibh you're an idiot.

There are still cannibals in Scotland, but they're much better at staying hidden.

No trial? That’s highly doubtful in that day and age.

Are you kidding me?? The men had their hands, feet, and not to mention, their GENITALS cut off, while the women were just burned at the stake. Still a terrible, painful way to go, but its better than having your body mutilated, dismembered, and bleeding to death.

interesting story

I noticed that the women were worse off than the men. Bleeding to death seems to me an easier way to die than burning at the stake.

Sunny Young


Frequently Asked Questions

Supposedly 1,000 people. Alexander "Sawney" Bean is a legendary figure, said to be have been the head of a 45-member clan in Scotland in the 16th century that murdered and cannibalized over 1,000 people in 25 years.

After a brief fight, the entire Sawney Bean family, all forty-eight of them, were arrested and marched off to Edinburgh by the King himself. Their crimes were considered so heinous that the normal justice system, for which Scotland is so renowned, was abandoned and the entire family were sentenced to death.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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