Friday, February 6, 2015

Sawney Bean.

 I was running about as I do, listening to a fine account of the first serial killer well documented in British history, in Colin Wilson’s Mammoth Book Of Murder.


So to set the scene; Scotland. 1400, James 1st is on the throne. Edinburgh is little more than a village. Glasgow, which means dark glen, is exactly that. All of Scotland is wild and green. And cold. And empty.
(Not much has changed)


And then there started a reign of terror. Down in Galloway people started to go missing. Travellers on the coast road simply vanished off the face of the earth. At first it was thought to be wolves but there was never any trace left, no bones, no clothes, no jewels. When the list of disappearances topped a thousand over a period of twenty plus years, the King sent out a posse.  They hung a few tramps, a few innkeepers and anybody else they didn’t like the look of. But the disappearances continued.

Then a couple were riding their horses on the coastal path coming home from a fair. Savages appeared, dragged the woman her from the horse, slitting her throat and disembowelling her there and then. The man, still on his horse, fought with his cutlass until some other travellers came round the corner, returning from the same fair. The attackers fled.

The horse and the man were the first survivors in 25 years.

Word got back to the King who turned up four days later with a small army of 400 men. They found nothing. Eventually they went down to the beach and at low tide rode along looking up at the caves in the cliff face.  Narrow and jaggy, maybe broad enough to allow a man through but little more than that. Then two of the hunting dogs got a scent and ran up to a cave mouth. Once past the narrow entrance the cave widened out, the king recalled his men and waited for torches to be lit.

Outside the caves the dogs went crazy. Deep inside were 48 people living in squalor, body parts lay around the cave, some hanging from higher rocks, clothes and jewels scattered the floor. The cave is said to have been 200 feet deep and its entrance became totally submerged at high tide.

They were all captured and taken back to Edinburgh as the King’s men buried the remains of the dead.

The leader was identified Sawney Bean who had been born Alexander Bean in East Lothian. He had left Leith 25 years before with his wife. They had 8 sons and 6 daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters all inbred. And they were cannibals. The story appears well documented in The Newgate Calendar, a crime catalogue of the notorious Newgate Prison in London. It says that Bean was the son of a ditch digger and hedge trimmer but Bean Jnr soon realised he had no taste for honest  toil.

And a taste for human flesh.

                                                     The lay out of the cave 

All were executed without trial because the king regarded them as beasts and therefore had no right of trial, no right to any kind of human dignity. The men had their hands and feet cut off and were left to bleed to death. The women were all burned alive in three separate fires.  The chronicler John Nicolson said ‘They all died with no repentance, cursing up to the last gasp of life.’

The story of Sawney Bean has been used time and time again in horror films and books.  Wes Cravens, The Hills have Eyes for example.


None of it is true.

It is now popularly thought, with some pride it has to be said, that it was all anti-Scottish propaganda to portray the Scots as ‘dangerous savages’ at a time of political difficulties within the Union.

                                                   There are many things wrong with the picture. The corpse, the kilt, plaid with laces!!! 

Scottish historian Dr Louise Yeoman says about the books published about the story: "the books it sold were published not in Scotland but in England, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots." She points out that despite the story being set in various times, the story of Sawney Bean cannot be found until the times of the Jacobite risings. The English were looking to show the Scots in a negative way “either as subjects of ridicule or as having a sinister nature.” Dr Yeoman adds: "The name Sawney itself was a popular English name for the barbarous cartoon Scot."It's like calling a cartoon Irishman Paddy.”
                                                         James The King, with a better stylist.

There is huge historical inaccuracy.  His reign of terror ranges from James I of Scotland in the early 1400s, to James VI of Scotland (who was James I of England) around the turn of the 17th Century. So, legend rather than reality.
David Haymam, in the film....

where he stalks the city in a black cab then takes his victims out to the hills...The Flesh Of Man...

I did giggle when Dr Yeoman pointed out a very humane fact. Although King James was a keen hunter he was unlikely to have put himself in danger by leading this perilous trek against the savage beats living in the caves. He would have sent somebody else. If he had gone there and rounded up the tribe by his own fair hand, we would never have heard the end of it and he would be regarded as a hero of the time.

He wasn’t.

Reading round the internet, it seems cannibalism was not unknown in medieval Scotland. And Galloway can still be a pretty wild place. I know. I've been to the Wigtown book Festival.

Caro Ramsay  06-02-15


  1. So, Caro, the Scots, whom I have always found to be jolly and great companions, might not be the blood thirsty lot that popular culture has cracked them up to be? I am so relieved. Now I can enjoy your company without those niggling little fears for my life!

  2. or are we just lulling you into a false sense of security.............

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  4. I really relish the tales you tell. I'm glad it's a just a tale. Sounds horrific.

  5. I suppose in areas with dangerous coastlines, there is a tendency for stories like this to be passed on, generation to generation, to keep youngsters safe. 'Don't go there, or Sawney will eat you!'
    This story has really entrenched itself into archives that consider themselves reliable and historical. Which proves that old adage I suppose, that all history is up for grabs.

  6. I heard at some point, and it may have been from you, that the Romans built Hadrian"s Wall to keep out the barbarians. Some think it still serves that purpose.

  7. Well, we like to think that the Romans 'came, saw and conquered' all over the place. Except here. They marched up until they got to Albion/Caledonia/The wet bit, took fright and thought they may as well not bother. Nothing to do with the natives, just the awful weather...
    I recall from history that the Romans only ever occupied 30% of 'Scotland' at most, and even that was only for a few years.

  8. I've heard rumors that even TODAY there are people who are making up fictitious stories about attrocities that were supposed to have happened some time in the past and trying to get people to buy into them. Hard to believe, I know, and I can't understand what kind of person would do such a thing...

  9. Great post, and a fascinating story. I suppose the "urban legend" idea has far older roots than many of us know.

  10. I guess you could say Sawney gave new meaning to the phrase, "Let's have guests for dinner."

    By the way, Caro, you inspired me to just have a salad for dinner...hold the beans.