Sawney Bean - Real Cannibal or Anti-Scottish Myth?
Sawney Bean at the entrance of Bennane Cave (Photo:wikipedia).
There are many variations of the tale of Sawney Bean, and it's quite well known throughout Scotland. The legend of the Scottish Cannibal has influenced at least four movies and countless retellings. The story is, of course, heavily marketed in Edinburgh through ghost tours and a whole segment of Edinburgh Dungeons.
Alexander Sawney Bean was supposed to have lived in the late 1500s to early 1600s during the reign of King James I. He originated in East Lothian however, after his marriage to 'Black' Agnes Douglas, he moved to Bennane Cave in East Ayrshire which consisted of tunnels over 200 metres deep. Whilst some legends point to Bean's origins as a tanner, others maintain he lacked the inclination to work. Either way, in order to support themselves, the newlywed couple took to robbery.
They began by ambushing their victims on the country roads between towns before robbing and releasing them. However, it quickly occurred to Sawney that this would ultimately lead to their capture. Thus began the Bean's 20-year murder spree. Their infamous tendency towards cannibalism was born out of convenience and a desire for a readily available method of disposal.
Bennane Head (Photo:wikipedia)
The couple's family soon grew with the births of fourteen children, eight sons and six daughters who, through incest, produced a further thirty-two grandchildren, all of whom were cannibals. Unsurprisingly, the more children produced, the greater the need for food. What originally began as one or two murders in a night increased to as many as six at once.
According to the story, the Bean's kept the meat fresh by salting or pickling the bodies. There was also the suggestion that they removed the arms and legs of their victims prior to their death. In order to avoid suspicion, they would regularly drop the disembodied limbs into the nearby water, which, when it was washed up on shore, gave the appearance of an animal attack. The countless searches that resulted from an ever-mounting list of missing persons proved fruitless, as no one seemed to search Bennane Cave.
Their downfall came about when a group consisting of Sawney Bean and his kinsmen attacked a man and his wife who had been travelling home after attending a fair in a nearby town. They quickly killed the wife but struggled over the man who shot at the group with his pistol. Just then, 20 people, also returning from the fair came to the man's aid, significantly outnumbering the Bean's who fled back to their cave.
The man and his 20+ witnesses filed a report with the Chief Magistrate in Glasgow who gave the case, the missing persons list and the occasional reports of limbs found on the beach, to King James I. The King arrived in Glasgow with a search party of some 400 men and several dogs. Their numbers were soon supplemented by outraged volunteers from the surrounding towns. The party scoured the beach and, upon reaching the mouth of the cave were alerted to the Bean's presence by their dogs, who had apparently picked up the scent of human flesh. Upon entering the cave, they found countless body parts hung from the walls and, scattered around the floor were piles of rings, jewels, clothes and bones.
After an initial struggle, all 48 members of the Bean family were arrested and taken to Edinburgh. It is claimed that the men's limbs were removed prior to their death and the women were burned like witches.
Fact or Fiction?
Whilst the history of cannibalism is well documented in a variety of times and cultures all over the world, most evidence suggests that Sawney Bean and his family are simply a legend. The story is not recorded until 200 years after the Bean's arrest and execution when it was told in London pamphlets. However, the date of the initial re-telling is significant in terms of its relation to the Jacobite Uprisings. Anti-Scottish sentiment was prevalent in England, and so it is unsurprising that a story which paints the Scottish in an unflattering light would be created. Furthermore, it is important to note that the story was being sold exclusively in England, likely to appeal to the market.
Further evidence that points to fabrication is in the names. Research suggests that Sawney's wife, 'Black' Agnes Douglas could be based on 'Black' Agnes Randolph who was hailed as a Scottish hero after beating back an English attack on the Castle of Dunbar in 1338. It has been suggested that a story born out of anti-Scottish sentiment, bearing her name (a reference to her dark hair) could be an attempt to discredit her. Furthermore, the name Sawney can be a nickname for Alexander, however, it was also a derogatory nickname for a Scottish man at the time, which further suggests the story was written as a piece of anti-Scottish political propaganda.
However, the story also bears similarities to other, older legends set in 1460 about a family who robbed, killed and ate people. It was suggested by Hobbs and Cornwall (citation below) that an existing story was taken and edited.
"a certain thief that with his family lived apart in a den"
Regardless of whether you think the story is real or not, it brings in countless tourists and seems to be a favourite at Edinburgh Dungeons. So what do you think - Fact or Fiction?
Brocklehurst, Steven, "Who was Sawney Bean?", BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-21506077
Hobbs, Sandy, and David Cornwell. “Sawney Bean, the Scottish Cannibal.” Folklore, vol. 108, 1997, pp. 49–54
Johnson, Ben, "Sawney Bean - Scotland's most famous cannibal", Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Sawney-Bean-Scotlands-most-famous-cannibal/
Mackay, Neil, "Scotland's Myths and Legends: The Real Story", The Herald, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/18011292.scotlands-myths-legends-real-story/