According to legend, Sawney Bean was the head of a cannibalistic clan that operated out of a network of caves on the coast of Scotland. It took 400 men and a pack of dogs to bring the clan to justice, and it was only after killing more than 1,000 people that they were executed. The problem is, no one knows how much—if any—of it is true.
According to the story, Alexander Sawney Bean was the patriarch of a Scottish family that made their home in the caves near either Galloway, Ayrshire or Ballantrae on Bennane Head. He ran away from his home village of East Lothian with a wife that was just as mean, lazy, and hateful as he was. In time, their family grew to include 14 children and 32 grandchildren, all from incestuous relationships.
Over the course of 25 years, it was said that they killed more than 1,000 people. They started out preying on single travelers, but as they grew in numbers they would accost groups of people on the road, then kill them and drag them back to their caves. Possessions would be stripped away and the bodies dismembered then eaten.
And more than just the people that the family killed and ate, there were other deaths attributed to them as well, albeit indirectly. Since the family was said to prey on travelers, suspicion would often fall on innkeepers who had guests regularly disappearing; it’s not known how many of these innocent innkeepers lost their lives after being falsely accused, but it’s said that the area around the Bean family caves became more and more desolate as the more honorable of the citizenry fled to safer grounds.
The Bean family eventually attacked a couple returning home from the fair. While the unfortunate wife was pulled from her horse, slaughtered, and butchered on the spot, the husband struggled long enough that a crowd appeared on the road behind them and forced the family to run away. When the husband took his case to the king, dogs were sent searching for the family and found a cave entrance that had been hidden from view for more than two decades decades. It took 400 men, but the Bean family was finally delivered to justice and dragged from their caves, which was described as being lined with body parts, both fresh and pickled in jars. The men were drawn and quartered, and the women were burnt at the stake.
But just how true is it? No one really knows.
The legend is told with a number of different elements, most drastically the time period it’s set in. According to some versions, the Bean family stalked the Scottish coast in the 15th century. In others, it’s a 17th-century tale. Sometimes, the king that brings the family’s rule to an end is James I, sometimes it’s James VI. Either way, there are no actual records of any such family or trial until at least the 18th century, and there are no records of large-scale murders or even of accusations hurled at local innkeepers and other scapegoats. And when the legend does first appear, it appears in England.
While some people believe the story to be a historical fact, others say it’s nothing more than some impressively gruesome English propaganda. It appeared in its earliest written forms during the Jacobite risings, and this was a time when the English particularly scoffed as the uncivilized, unnecessarily aggressive Scots to their north.
Now, it’s become a strange tale between truth and fiction, and a popular tradition that more people embrace than hate.