Weird Wednesdays: Actual Cannibal Sawney Bean

Every tourist town needs some local personality to advertise/exploit. Bonn, Germany has Beethoven. Soweto, South Africa has Nelson Mandela. Edinburgh, Scotland has the faithful dog Greyfriars Bobby and… a cannibal.

To be fair, when you openly advertise being the home of a man-eater, you hit a bit of a niche. The Elephant House is always packed, Edinburgh Castle is expensive and Arthur’s Seat is just plain windy. It’s only logical that you skip the standard tourist stuff and get a postcard about a murderer.

Alexander “Sawney” Bean (sometimes spelt “Beane”), according to a 18th century publication of a London-based crime log, was an unskilled son of a ditch-digger in the 16th century. With little inclination to work, he instead married and (like all young couples) took his new wife to live in a mile-long sea cave around the coast of Galloway.

At first, Mr. Bean (no, not the television one) turned to a life of crime, robbing local farms and mugging travelers for their goods. After awhile, he took to murdering any witnesses in order to prevent lawmen from tracking his activities. Eventually, he, his wife and their growing number of children realized a good body oughtn’t go to waste and took to snacking on their victims. It only escalated from there.

For 25 years, the Bean clan terrorized the countryside. The murders were said to be numbered in the thousands with the amount of missing travelers increasing each year as the clan grew. Though several innkeepers and locals were arrested (and some reportedly hanged) on suspicion, the disappearances continued until the area had become “quite depopulated.”

Efforts to find the clan were fruitless, partly due to the family’s hideous hideaway. The entrance to the sea cave was well covered during high tide (which would have been during the daytime) concealing the spot from any nosy investigators. Those who did manage to stumble upon the cave were, without fail, captured and devoured.

The family made sure to hide their activities by leaving no witnesses. More often than not, they would attack loners or set up ambushes and pick off any would-be escapees. Their victims would be killed and devoured right on the spot, or herded to the caves to be processed (and, by some accounts, fattened up) for consumption. Leftovers were pickled by Mrs. Bean, or simply tossed into the sea, only to be found later by some hapless local miles away.

Six daughters, eight sons, 14 grandsons and 18 granddaughters later, the clan bit off more than they could chew. What should have been a simple raid on a husband and wife turned sour. Though the cannibals managed to capture and partly devour the woman, the man fended off his attackers until they retreated in the wake of a larger group of travelers arriving on the road from a local fair.

The hunt was on. The sole survivor of Sawney Bean’s exploits reported his account to the military, who took it up to King James I himself. The king subsequently led a charge of 400 men and over a dozen bloodhounds to track down the clan. The dogs led the party to a strange sea cave which the group entered, torches ablaze.

What they found was pretty gruesome. Limbs hung from the dripping cave roofs, left to dry like jerky. Bones and plundered gold and silver lay strewn about, jumbled together like some ghastly trail mix. Jars of hands, toes and miscellaneous entrails were neatly stacked in one cavern.

The clan itself was captured in its entirety and marched to Edinburgh. There, they were pronounced guilty without trial and summarily executed. The men had their limbs hacked off and were left to bleed to death and the women were burned alive.

Thus ends the tale of Sawney Bean—at least on his part. Today, there’s the eternal conundrum: did it truly occur?

The account, though detailed, begs many questions. How could a nearly 50-person strong clan go unnoticed for so long a time? Why isn’t King James’ triumph loudly trumpeted in his official records? Why can the only recorded instance of this whole affair be found nearly 200 years after the fact? And where on earth did Mrs. Bean get all those pickling jars?

These questions only serve to further shake the already-shaky story. Even the name of the beast smacks of a hoax. “Sawney” was a common English derogatory applied to Scotsman at the time (much like “Paddy” was applied to the Irish).

Whatever the case is, the city of Edinburgh has certainly capitalized on the Bean clan’s story. You can’t go on a ghost bus (double decker, of course) tour without some mention of it. The infamous horror crawl The Edinburgh Dungeon has a whole sequence about it. You can get keychains and have your photograph taken with reenactors (for a price, of course.) The tale itself has gone on to inspire other horror stories such as “The Hills Have Eyes” and remains a Halloween favorite in Scotland (despite the possible original anti-Scot spin).

Whatever you believe, Sawney Bean certainly isn’t talking. Remember this tale next time you take a holiday to Scotland—or the seaside. Travel in groups, avoid caves, always finish your meals and remember…. stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.