The legend of Sawney Bean
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
Awhile back, I posted a video on my YouTube Channel about Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. If you didn’t see that video or don’t remember it, the plane crashed in the Andes mountains, and the survivors resorted to eating the flesh of the dead passengers in order to survive long enough to be rescued. That story is pretty dark, but the men who survived only resorted to cannibalism because their lives were at stake. What’s even darker is those who engage in cannibalism just because they want to. Let’s talk about a bizarre legend out of Scotland that you may have already heard about but I had to talk about anyway. This is the legend of Sawney Bean.
Just to start out: There is quite a bit of information out there about Sawney Bean, both on and offline. From my research, I’d say about 1/4th of it is from reliable sources. The rest is unverified at best. And there’s plenty of debate as to whether the story ever even happened. So keep that in mind as we go — but here’s the story.
Alexander “Sawney” Bean was born in the county of east Lothian, not too far from the capital city of Edinburgh in Scotland. According to an early version of the story, he was born in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who ruled England from 1558 to 1603. I know it might be weird to reference a queen of England in a story that takes place in Scotland before the formation of the United Kingdom, but more on that history later.
Most accounts say Sawney’s parents were hedgers and ditchers, a career that basically involves building fences. One source said they were actually tanners. But whatever they did, Sawney wanted no part of it, having no desire to make an honest living at all. He eventually left home and headed for South Ayrshire, in southwest Scotland. Somewhere along the way, he met the woman who would become his wife, though it’s not clear how they met or if they were ever legally married. The woman has been called Agnes Douglas or Black Agnes, and was rumored to be a witch.
The couple settled in a cave called ‘Bennane Cave’ in Galloway. They lived there for the next 25 years without ever visiting another town or interacting with anyone other than their family — and their victims.
Over the years, Sawney and Agnes had 14 children and 32 grandchildren. Since they didn’t interact with the outside world, at least not to the extent necessary to conceive a child, you can use your imagination to figure out how their grandchildren came about.
But with all those people living in a cave, they needed a way to support themselves — and not by making an honest living, that would be crazy. Instead, the family took advantage of anyone who came across their cave, robbing and killing them. Men, women, children — it didn’t matter. Anyone who happened to cross paths with them was never seen again. After they were dead, the family would eat their flesh. What parts they didn’t eat were thrown into the sea, the limbs often washing up on shore in other parts of the country. (Another source said they salted and pickled some of the leftovers and threw out the rest.)
With all the missing people and limbs washing up, people naturally started to talk. Nobody knew what was going on, but they were scared. People stopped traveling in the area of the cave if they didn’t have to. Spies were sometimes sent there, but they never returned.
Many innkeepers and travelers were wrongly accused of being involved in the disappearances. Travelers were suspected because they could go from place to place easily without being detected, and innkeepers because they were associated with travelers. A lot of innkeepers quit their jobs so they wouldn’t look suspicious, and some of these “suspects” were even hanged for the “crimes.”
After word got out, the Beans were more careful. They wouldn’t attack large groups of people if they were on horseback, because they had to take extra care to make sure none of them escaped and I guess this was harder if they were on horseback. But the Bean family was huge, so it probably wasn’t difficult to take down groups of people on foot. The few who did make it out of the area unscathed never saw anything because they always went out when the tide was high and it hid the entrance to the cave. The Bean’s victim count is unknown, but it’s thought to be at least a thousand.
One day, a husband and wife were returning home on horseback after spending the day at a local fair. Unfortunately for them, their route took them by the Bean’s cave. They were attacked, and the wife was killed almost immediately, the family tearing into her corpse like zombies — right in front of her husband. The husband managed to fight back, partially because he knew he would suffer the same fate as his wife if he didn’t get away. Fortunately, he was in luck that day. He didn’t have to fight long before a group of twenty or thirty people came by, also on their way home from the fair. Between all of them, they were able to drive the family back.
The man told the group what had happened and showed them his wife — or at least what was left of her. He reported the incident to the provost of nearby Glasgow. (a provost is basically the equivalent of a mayor). The provost, in turn, reported it to King James I. The king visited the area a few days later with the surviving husband, bloodhounds and about four hundred other men.
But despite the group’s size, none of them could find the cave right away. It was eventually discovered by the bloodhounds, who entered the cave and started barking furiously. At first, the king didn’t think anyone could possibly be in the cave because it was so dark, but the bloodhounds kept barking, so he went in. Finally, he and his men found the area of the cave where the family lived. They were shocked to find limbs hanging up “in rows, like dried beef.” Piles of money also lay around the cave, though I’m not sure what use the Bean family would have for it.
The entire family, as well as all the possessions the king’s men could carry, were seized and taken to Edinburgh. The family was taken to a “Tolbooth,” a building that housed things like council meeting chambers, courthouses and jails. The Beans were all executed the next day without a trial because it was believed to be “needless to try creatures who were even professed enemies to mankind.”
And their punishment was almost as brutal as their crimes. The men had their limbs sawed off and bled to death in a few hours. The women and grandchildren were forced to watch, then burned alive. Despite this torment, they all died “without the least signs of repentance.”
There were a few sources that said one of Sawney’s daughters or granddaughters escaped to a town called Girvan, in South Ayrshire. When the townspeople found out who she was, she was hanged from a tree she’d planted, known as The Hairy Tree.
So before we move on, I want to address something that comes up later. In some sources I came across, there was confusion as to who exactly the king was in this story. Sawney Bean was said to have lived in the 1600’s, when James I was king of Scotland. Some people think the James I the story is referring to is one who died in 1497, over a hundred years earlier — which would obviously create doubt. However, I don’t think that’s the case. Let me explain.
James VI was born in 1566 in Edinburgh. He became king the very next year after the death of his father, Lord Darnley. (By the way, side note: James’s mother was the famous Mary Queen of Scots.)
As he grew older, James also wanted to establish his claim to the throne of England. So he formed an alliance with Elizabeth I, who ruled at the time. When she died childless in 1603, he also became king of England. After this, he was known as James I. (Another side note: He’s also responsible for commissioning the King James Version of the Bible.)
Unsurprisingly, most sources state James VI/James I was the king featured in the story. (They are the same person, but I will refer to him as James I from now on for clarity.) So the information in the story on King James I lines up in my opinion. However, there are plenty of indications that the story of Sawney Bean is probably not true.
So let’s talk about some elements of the story that have had holes poked in them over the years. The Beans were supposedly housed in Edinburgh’s Tolbooth — but at the time, it wasn’t in good condition, and probably couldn’t have housed prisoners — especially almost 50 of them! Another source noted that the cave supposedly used as the Bean’s residence was way too small to accommodate a family of their size.
More notable, there’s no historical account of anything like this happening. There are no records of the family’s arrest or execution, or of any large numbers of innkeepers or travelers being executed around that time. It’s also believed that King James never would have let a story like this be forgotten if he’d taken part in it.
Another thing that I thought of after writing out most of this script is the fact that the Beans were executed in Edinburgh. Remember, Sawney was originally from Edinburgh, but the family lived in Ayrshire, on the complete opposite end of the country. Sure, he could have told his captors that he was from Edinburgh, but why would he? He probably knew he was going to be executed regardless of where. So why go all the way back to Edinburgh, especially if 1.) his crimes weren’t committed there and 2.) they were going to execute him the next day anyway? Could they have even made it there in the span of a day?
Something else we’ll get into later is the timing. Sawney Bean supposedly lived in the early 1600’s, but the story didn’t start appearing until at least 100 years later. Why would it take so long for the story to be written down?
theory # 1: anti-Catholic propaganda
So let’s talk theories. The first I want to mention is something I saw in the comments section of an article. This person said the story may have been made up by Protestants as anti-Catholic propaganda.
The Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and 1746 was sparked by supporters of James II, the grandson of the aforementioned James I. James II took over the throne in 1685, but he was Catholic and the English, who were mostly Protestant, didn’t want a Catholic on the throne. He was overthrown, but still claimed to be king for the rest of his life. His supporters came to be known as Jacobites.
James II’s descendants weren’t too happy about losing their claim to the throne. In 1745, his grandson, Charles, sailed to Edinburgh and was declared King James VIII of Scotland by the Jacobites. But of course the British government didn’t like this. Charles was driven out of the city and eventually returned to France, where James II had been exiled. Charles died in 1788.
I didn’t find much else about this anti-Catholic theory, and I'm sure you could easily poke holes in it. But there was obviously religious tension in the area at the time, so I thought it was worth bringing up.
theory # 2: marketing
The next theory is that the story was either made up or at least largely embellished for monetary purposes. In the book The Legend of Sawney Bean, published in 1975, author Ronald Holmes says that stories with lots of gore sold pretty well at the time. According to Scottish historian Dr. Louise Yeoman: "It sounds like the plot for a box-office topping horror film and that's because it was invented to serve a very similar purpose - to sell books.”
On a similar note, some people think the legend was inspired by another Scottish cannibal named Andrew Christie — better known as ‘Christie Cleek.’ Christie Cleek was a butcher in Perth — Scotland, not Australia — and was said to have engaged in survival cannibalism during a famine. He took up with a group of cannibals that was eventually raided by a small army, but he managed to escape. Nothing about him after that is known.
theory # 3: anti-Scottish propaganda
But the last and most prominent theory is that the legend was made up, presumably by someone from England, as a form of anti-Scottish propaganda.
Like I said before, the story of Sawney Bean started appearing in print sometime in the 1700’s, though the time and location isn’t really clear. Some sources say 1701, others claim it was as late as 1775. Some sources say it first appeared in newspapers, other said it was first seen in broadsheets, which are similar to modern day pamphlets. I also mentioned earlier that the story takes place in the 1600’s, and that a lot of people think it was strange that it took so long to be written down.
In 1707, the Treaty of Union brought England and Scotland together to form the United Kingdom (which, of course, also consists of Wales and Northern Ireland). But despite this, there was still tension between England and Scotland at the time. According to Dr. Yeoman: "The Sawney story was a dig at Scots - a people so barbarous they could produce a monster like Sawney, who lived in a cave and ate people."
Sawney’s wife, Black Agnes, is also similar to Agnes Randolph, the Countess of Dunbar and March in 1300’s Scotland. (She was sometimes called Black Agnes due to her dark complexion.) Agnes once defended her castle against an English siege, and was seen as a hero in her native country. This could have been an intentional reference by whoever made the story up as an attempt to defame someone known and loved by the Scottish.
And James I, the hero of the Sawney Bean story, probably wasn’t very well liked by the Scottish either. According to an article on Brooklyn College’s website: “Since James was the first Scottish king on the English throne, and viewed as having opened the floodgates for unwanted Scots of any variety, attributing it to his reign makes a bit of sense.”
And then there was the name Sawney itself. It was a nickname for Alexander, but also a generic Scottish name, often used in a derogatory way — the equivalent of calling a cartoon Irishman ‘Paddy.’
If the story was written as anti-Scottish propaganda, there’s no telling who’s responsible for it. There has been speculation that it was written by English author Daniel Defoe, most known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. But, of course, there’s no proof of this.
Needless to say, real or not (and it’s probably not), the Sawney Bean legend continues to fascinate people today. There are dozens upon dozens of books and movies about or said to be inspired by it. Most famously, it served as partial inspiration for Wes Craven’s 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes. According to an article on Bloody Disgusting: “The filmmaker was struck by the parallel between the cave-dwelling cannibals and the animalistic revenge meted out by more “civilized” people.”
I’ve also read that the legend inspired Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I’m not sure about this. I already talked about that movie in another video I did awhile back, which you can check out here if you’re interested in that story.
So that’s all I have for you today on the legend of Sawney Bean. It’s apparently pretty well known in Scotland, so if you’re Scottish I’d love to hear what version you’ve heard. And, of course, whatever you’re from, I’d love to know your thoughts down below.
cave photos: Mary and Angus Hogg
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License