Sawney Bean Is Scotland’s Most Famous Cannibal And The Inspiration Behind ‘The Hills Have Eyes’

Published December 29, 2016
Updated February 25, 2020
Published December 29, 2016
Updated February 25, 2020

Sawney Bean, one of the most terrifying figures in English folklore, may actually just be a product of anti-Scot propaganda.

Illustration of Sawney Bean

YouTubeIllustration of Sawney Bean[

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 1500s near Edinburgh, Scotland, though very little is actually known about his early life. Some historical information lists Sawney Bean as a tanner by trade, others say he was as a hedger and a ditcher. Nevertheless, all accounts agree that he left these trades behind him when he met the woman who would go on to become his wife.

Together, the family retreated from society, confining themselves to a cave located in Ayrshire. Called Bennane Cave, this giant rock formation was equipped with various tunnels spanned over a mile in dept which allowed ample space for the young couple to start and raise a family.

The cave where Sawney Bean allegedly lived

Wikimedia CommonsPhoto of the Caves

The Bean clan grew quickly, with Sawney Bean’s wife eventually giving birth to 14 kids of her own. With ever-increasing mouths to feed and no real trade to fall back on, the patriarch Bean turned to robbery and murder to make ends meet. And it didn’t take long for his family to help him with his crimes.

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. As time went on, the family continued to grow and now on top of their 14 children, the cave eventually became home to 18 grandsons, and 14 granddaughters. The Bean family and their isolated cave living, eventually went to house a total 46 people, including sons, daughters, grandsons, and granddaughters, and all of which were conceived through incest.

With what was essentially a small army to help him, Sawney Bean went on to orchestrate ambushes with military precision, tracking and pouncing upon their victims before dragging their lifeless bodies back to the cave to be consumed.

An illustration of a man biting an arm

William De Falco/YouTubeAn illustration of a man biting an arm

With a list of missing persons growing by the day, and occasionally the family almost being exposed due to the occasional limbs washing ashore, suspicions in the area began to arise that something sinister was going on. Still, no one ever thought to look toward Bennane Cave or the Bean family.

As the number of missing travelers visiting the area started to rise, the local innkeepers were suspected of kidnapping by authorities, as they were usually the last people to have seen the missing person in question. This questioning and fear of being accused of something they didn’t do caused several 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 Bean family 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. Their cover was blown.

An illustration of Sawney Bean's Cannibal Family

William de Falco/YouTubeAn illustration showing Sawney Bean’s family

Making his way to Glasgow, the surviving husband reached King James IV, who personally led a group of 400 people to the caves where the Bean family were living and captured them. 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, Scotland, where they awaited execution.

The locals were said to have been so disgusted with the Bean family 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, however 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 his 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.”

Sawney Bean Family illustration eating

Wikimedia CommonsAn illustration of Sawney Bean’s family eating<.span>

Inspiring ‘The Hills Have Eyes’

Regardless of knowing the full truth around this family, 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.

The movie is all about a family who become stranded and trapped in the Nevada desert. The movie follows the horrors as the family is hunted and terrorized by a group of inbred mutant family members who were living in the mountains. The terrifying people living in the mountains try to hunt down the stranded family in an effort to murder them before eating them as a meal.

The original 1977 Wes Craven directed movie is said to be inspired directly by Alexander Sawney Bean and his family, and the parallels are very evident once you know the infamous story of Bean.

Sawney Bean The Hills Have Eyes

Spotlight PicturesStill shot from ‘The Hills Have Eyes’


After learning about Sawney Bean, learn about another terrifying myth, that of Slender Man, and terrifyingly real stories of cannibalism in the U.S.

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