One of the most terrifying figures in English folklore may be a product of anti-Scot propaganda.
Believed to have lived in a cave with about 50 immediate family members, the Beans were known for robbing, kidnapping, and eventually murdering strangers, whom they later dismembered and ate. The story of Sawney Bean, who may or may not have even existed, has gone on to reach legendary status in his native Scotland.
The Birth Of The Beans
The man known as Alexander Sawney Bean was born in the late 1300s near Edinburgh. Some accounts list him as a tanner, others as a hedger and a ditcher. Nevertheless, all agree that he left these early trades behind upon meeting the woman who would go on to become his wife.
Together, they retreated from society, confining themselves to a cave located in Ayrshire. Called Bennane Cave, this giant rock formation equipped with various tunnels spanned over a mile in depth, allowing ample space for the young couple to start and raise a family.
The Bean clan grew quickly, with Sawney Bean’s wife birthing 14 little ones of her own. With ever-increasing mouths to feed and no real trade to fall back on, the patriarch turned to robbery and murder to make ends meet.
Working with his family to ambush lone travelers and local passersby, the Beans were now left with a mountain of bodies to dispose of, and so began the cannibalistic era of the Beans’ gruesome 25-year reign.
Now butchering their kill, the family would survive on a high-protein diet of pickled and salted human remains. With its members growing stronger, the family grew larger, eventually housing 46 sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters in their isolated cave, all of which were conceived through incest.
With what was essentially a small army to help him, Sawney Bean orchestrated ambushes with military precision, tracking and pouncing upon their victims before dragging their lifeless bodies back to the cave to be consumed.
With a list of missing persons growing by the day, and the occasional limb washing ashore down current, suspicions in the area began to arise. Still, no one ever thought to look toward Bennane Cave.
As many of the missing were travelers visiting the area, the local innkeepers were suspected of kidnapping, as they were the last to have seen the person in question, causing many keepers to abandon their inns for other occupations entirely.
The King Intervenes
Like all sure bets, the Beans’ foolproof plan would one day catch up with them. Working as a team, the Beans targeted and circled a husband and wife on horseback as they returned from a local fair. Ambushed from behind, the Beans took the woman down immediately, gutting her and gnashing on her entrails right there on the spot.
Her husband, who witnessed this entire horrific sight, put up a fight against the swarm, barreling over several of them with his horse, and pulling out both a sword and a pistol until released from their grip.
By this time, a group of about 30 fellow fair-goers had made their way along the same path, forcing the family to retreat back into their cave, though not before exposing themselves as the cannibalistic, cave-dwelling murders that they were.
Making his way to Glasgow, the surviving husband reached King James IV, who personally led a group of 400 to the cave to capture the Beans. The bloodhounds in tow apparently led the charge right to Bennane Cave, where a horrific scene of severed limbs, hanging bodies, and piles of stolen loot littered its confines.
Captured without incident, the Beans were arrested and taken to Leith, where they awaited execution.
The locals were said to have been so disgusted with the Beans that they demanded a more painful punishment, resulting in the burning deaths of 21 women and dismemberment of the men until they eventually bled out.
Sawney Bean: A Form Of Anti-Scot Propaganda?
A horrific story without a doubt, most will attest to the fact that the tale of Sawney Bean is just that – a story.
With exactly zero contemporary records found, be it of the missing persons, the various innkeepers forced into abandoning their trades, or even the 400-person manhunt led by the King of Scotland himself, it’s fairly safe to say that the grisly life and times of Sawney Bean and family are no more than a tale used to keep kids up late at night, and as far away from caves as possible.
Some attribute the tale to propaganda, a knock at the Scots by the English press. In an interview with BBC, Scottish historian Dr. Louise Yeoman lays out the facts behind the fable.
“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,” she says, of the legend.
“It also has a more sinister subtext – the books it sold were published not in Scotland but in England, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots.”
Yeoman goes on to explain how the English media often portrayed the Scottish as sinister in nature and notes that the name “Sawney” was actually a term used to describe a cartoonish Scottish character.
“It’s like calling a cartoon Irishman Paddy. 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.”
Regardless, the tale of Sawney Bean would go on to inspire horror for years to come, the most well-known being the Wes Craven cult classic The Hills Have Eyes.