TELL-TALE CRIMES: The Sawney Bean cannibal clan

TELL-TALE CRIMES:  The Sawney Bean cannibal clan
Photo Courtesy of

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Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes, the crime column of the QC. Tell-Tale Crimes will aim to provide a look at both local and national crimes and cases that are sometimes interesting, sometimes relevant, and sometimes both, from perspective of a true crime enthusiast. 

 Trigger warning: this piece containts mentions of physical assault, murder, and cannibalism.

Maggie Harvey


The amount of times that I have driven through a patch of beautiful hills and had some primordial voice in the back of my head mutter “the hills have eyes . . .” is uncountable. For those unfamiliar, The Hills Have Eyes is a 1977 horror film about a very blonde, all-American family that gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, only to be attacked by a group of ravenous cannibals; it was later remade in 2006. While the way I have summarized the film may be campy at best, the concept is truly terrifying. Imagine getting stuck on the side of the road, the closest help hours away, with the overwhelming feeling of someone watching you setting in. The scale between rational and irrational fear teeters back and forth as your heart starts racing, and you try to settle in for the night. While it is highly unlikely that you will get eaten by cannibals in the contemporary U.S., it may interest you to know that The Hills Have Eyes was heavily inspired by the Scottish legend from the 1600s of the Sawney Bean Clan. 

The legend of Sawney Bean is just that — a legend — so facts are hard to come by. However, he is thought to have been born in East Lothian in the late 1400s, where he was a tanner by trade (tanners are people who process and tan the skins of animals, though I’m sure he applied his skills a little differently). After his marriage and his relocation to Ayrshire, his life is a little better documented. 

The new couple set up home in Bennane Cave because houses were just not good enough for Sawney Bean’s new wife. In order to support her and their lavish cave lifestyle, Sawney Bean decided to turn to a life of crime, specifically robbery, according to Bennane Cave was some distance outside of the nearest town, so ambushing travelers on the road would be an easy task. 

The only thing to consider was the victims going back to the town and telling everyone what he had done. But, fret not, he had a solution: kill and eat them! It was really his pregnant wife that he fed the human flesh to, in order for her and the baby to have sustenance — and that plan worked out pretty well. It is uncertain as to whether or not she was aware of this, but the family grew into a bigger clan. Over 20 years, the Sawney Bean Clan grew with 14 children, many incestuous grandchildren, and so on. During those 20 years, the legend says that the Sawney Bean clan claimed the lives of 1,000 victims, which was probably not hindered by the immense pack of cannibals they had established. 

The Sawney Bean Clan finally made a mistake (I mean, most of what they did were mistakes, just ones without consequences) when they ambushed a couple that were leaving a local fair. In the process, they fatally mauled the wife. However, the husband was a skilled fighter and marksman who reportedly held them off with a pistol until other fair-goers arrived to help. For the first time the Sawney Bean Clan was outnumbered, so they fled to their cave. 

The very angry man who survived their attack went to the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow, who then reported the story to King James I. King James was not a man to be bested and, according to and BBC, faced with the prospect that he had not done anything about 1,000 citizens going missing by the hands of cannibals, he gathered 400 men and led them to Bennane Cave to face off against the Sawney Bean Clan. After entering the cave, the soldiers arrested the Sawney Bean Clan and marched them off to Edinburgh. Their crimes were deemed too heinous to be tried like normal criminals, so all of the men had their arms and legs cut off and were left to bleed to death, and all the women were burned at the stake like witches. 

Now, while this is a very interesting story — and maybe have happened — there are some aspects of it that put it into question. First of all, according to BBC, the story of Sawney Bean is claimed to have happened in the 1400s, but the earliest recording of it is from the 1600s in England. During that time England was the home to some very strong anti-Scottish sentiments, and the name Sawney was a popular English name for a cartoon barbaric Scotsman, similar to calling a cartoon Irishman Paddy. There is also no record of King James I gathering 400 men and leading them to Scotland, and King James was a man who liked his people to know if he was doing something heroic and dangerous. Also, if King James had gathered 400 men to send to Scotland, he probably wouldn’t have led them himself. 

So, there are many parts to the story that point to it being just a legend, but it’s really up to you to decide what you believe. It’s always possible that Sawney Bean existed, maybe just not with as much notoriety as his legend, or maybe with word of mouth rather than written word. Maybe historians will someday discover conclusive evidence that Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic family existed. But, in the meantime, stay safe, stay alert, and don’t stay out too late at night. You never know who’s watching you.