Sawney Bean and his tribe

Sawney Beane and his tribe

Sawney Beane and his tribe

No-one is absolutely sure if these gruesome villains existed, or if they were just English propaganda to blacken the Scottish name after the Jacobite rising, but if you had been traveling in Galloway a few hundred years ago, you probably wouldn’t have wanted to test the truth yourself!

Sawney Bean and his wife were loving parents: passing on their trade to their 14 children; sharing their seaside home with all their 32 grandchildren; having huge family get-togethers whenever there was food to be had.

But you wouldn’t have wanted to be invited to one of those gatherings.

For Sawney Bean and his incestuous tribe were thieves, murderers and cannibals, and they ate all their guests.

The Beans lived a mile-long sea cave on the Galloway coast in the South West of Scotland, the entrance hidden at high tide.

If ever an unwary traveller or two passed along the coastal hills close to their home, the whole tribe would leap out of the heather and grab them, and take them back to their cave, either to eat them fresh, or to pickle them for hungrier days.

Legend says Sawney Bean and his wife reaped this disgusting harvest, with their growing number of children and grandchildren, for nearly 25 years.

It wasn’t that no-one noticed the travellers going missing, and occasionally people were worried by stray limbs washed up on beaches miles away, but they didn’t know who was taking them.

If concerned citizens searched the coast, they never found the cave, with its entrance underwater. And if they were suspicious of anyone, it was the innkeepers and tavern owners who were often the last to see the missing travellers alive. Several innocent people were hanged for murders they never committed in the years that the Beans were prowling the coasts and hills.

One day, a couple leaving a local town fair one evening were attacked by a horde of men, women and children. Under the onslaught of nails and hands, the wife fell from her horse, so her husband, laying about himself with sword and pistol, had to watch with horror as the young women who had pulled his wife down started to rip into her raw flesh and drink her blood.

The young husband was fighting hard and well, but he could never have fended off the whole tribe all night, if another band of fairgoers hadn’t appeared, also on the way home along the same path. As soon as the Beans heard this larger group approaching, they ran off.

But for the first time they had left a witness. A witness to the attacks, a witness to the cannibalism, and a witness to the direction of their escape.

Safely escorted by his rescuers, the lucky widower told his story and showed the mutilated body of his wife to the authorities in Glasgow, who contacted the King in Edinburgh, who brought a whole regiment of soldiers and an army of hounds to hunt for the murderers.

The men might have missed Sawney Bean yet again, but the bloodhounds were attracted to the cave, not just by the scent of the Beans, but by the stench of the limbs hung up to dry all along the walls of the sea cave.

So the 48 Beans were captured by the King’s men, at the back of their long and stinking cave. They were walked all the way to Edinburgh, then executed, every single one of them.

The men and boys bled to death after their hands and feet were cut off. The women and girls watched their fathers, brothers and sons die, then they were all burnt to death.

And travellers could then roam the Galloway hills as safely as any other part of Scotland.

But legend does not tell us what Sawney Bean requested for his last meal.

This legend was told for ScotClans by Lari Don, a storyteller and writer, who loves to tell tales from Scotland and all over the world to audiences of any age in any venue (she particularly enjoys tents and forests but has so far avoided caves). More details on

About Amanda Moffet

I run with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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