The Horrible Tale of Sawney Bean

The Terrible Tale of Sawney Bean

Author's note, and warning

Sadly, I presented this online to a history mailing list in 1994. On recent view of the internet, I see this story, almost word for word, on several web sites. This is the first version, and I present it to you with a caution that this story is not for minors or for the faint of heart. It can be quite disturbing to some. So if you think you may not like such a horrible story, please don't read any further. This is one of those stories some believe to be true, others deny it is anything but a myth. I remain uncertain, but I present it to you as the 'legend of Sawney Bean', and you may make up your mind whether it has truth to it for yourself.

One warning: this is a ghastly story and not for the faint of heart. Please do not read if your sensibilities are easily offended by gore and depravity.

No grief-speaking tear o'er his cheeks ever strayed,
From his hovel, that knew not the sun's cheering light,
He darted at once on the poor passing wight,
And stretched him in death by the Dee's rolling tide.
(R.Malcolmson, "Black Murray")

Sources: from a collection of historical tales and folklore connected with the south of Scotland. Originally printed in a "broadsheet" sold on English and Scottish street corners, (like modern tabloids) round the year c.1660.


The following account, though as well attested as any historical fact can be, is almost incredible, for the monstrous and unparalleled barbarities that it relates; there being nothing we ever heard of, with the same degree of certainty, that may be compared with it, or that shows how far a brutal temper, untamed by education, and knowledge of the world, may carry a man in such glaring and horrible colours.

The Story

Sawney Bean was born in the county of East Lothian, about eight miles eastward of the city of Edinburgh, in the reign of James I of Scotland. Sawney's father was a hedger and ditcher and brought up his son to the same laborious employment. He got his daily bread in his youth by those means, but being very prone to idleness, and not caring to be confined to any honest employment, he left his father and mother, and ran away into the desert part of the country, taking with him a woman as vicoiusly inclined as himself. These two took their habitation in a cave, by the sea-side on the shore of the county of Galloway; where they lived upwards of twenty-five years without ever going into any city, town or village.

In this time thay had a great number of children and grandchildren, whom they brought up after their own manner, without any notions of humanity or civil society -- They never kept any company, but among themselves, and supported themselves wholly by robbing: being, moreover, so very cruel, that they never robbed anyone, whom they did not murder.


As you can imagine, the children of the original two, Sawney Bean and his common-law wife, were all bred of the same genetic pool. Their horrific story, could only be whispered by most, for fear of incurring the wrath of these foul creatures. Here then, is the rest of the tale of this incestuous family of living ghouls.

Sawney's Family

By this bloody method of robbing and murdering, and their being so retired from the world, they continued for a long time undiscovered, there being no person able to guess how the people were lost that went by the place where they lived. As soon as they had robbed any man, woman or child, they would carry off the carcass to the den, where cutting it into quarters, they would pickle the mangled limbs, and afterwards eat it; this being their only sustenance: And notwithstanding, they were at last so numerous, they commonly had superfluity of this abominable food, so that in the night time they frequently threw dismembered legs and severed arms of the unfortunate wretches they had murdered into the sea, at a great distance from their bloody habitation. The rotting , fish eaten limbs, were often cast up by the tide in several parts of the country, to the astonishment and the terror of all beholders, and others who had heard of it.

Persons who have gone about their lawful occasions fell so often into their hands, that is caused a general outcry in the country round about. No person knew what had become of their friends or relations, if they were once seen by these merciless cannibals.

All the people in the adjacent parts were at last alarmed at such an uncommon loss of their neighbors and aquaintances, for there was no traveling in safety near the den of these wretches. This occassioned spies to be frequently sent into these desolate parts, many of whom never returned again, and of those who did, after the strictest search and inquiry, could not find how these lurid matters happened. Rumors abounded, but none bore any fruit in pursuit of the instigators. Several honest travellers were taken up on suspicion and wrongfully hanged upon the barest of circumstances. Several innocent innkeepers were executed, for no other reason than that persons, who had thus been lost, were known to have lain in their inns, which occasioned a suspicion of their being murdered by them, and their bodies privately buried in obscure places to prevent discovery.

Thus an ill-placed justice was executed with the greatest severity imaginable, in order to prevent these frequent, atrocoius deeds. So many innkeepers, who lived on the western road of Scotland, left their buisness, for fear of being made examples of, and followed other employments. This, on the other hand, occasioned many inconviences to travellers, who were now in great distress for accommodation when they were disposed to refresh their horses and themselves, or take up lodging for the night. In a word, the whole country was almost depopulated.

For nearly a two year period , large portions of the western road that went through that section of SW Galloway was kept closed to deny any further victims to the monstruos creatures that surely committed the horrifying acts.

Then, even worse and even more unimaginable incidents began to occur. The recently deads' graves from graveyards skirting the area were regularly dug up and the bodies removed. Most bodies of the recently buried were never seen again. However three bodies were found hidden under rocks, branches and a small covering of dirt near the edge of a sparsely populated town. Upon examination of the bodies, two females and a male, the insanity of the demon-like creatures could no longer be denied. Both of the womens bodies had been savagely assaulted in the most lurid manner imaginable, even in death, and then body parts were removed, some of the parts too graphic to be written of, were obviously eaten right over the female corpses and many parts were left behind as "unedible". The bodies were still largely intact and it was believed that the only reason they were not taken away, as the other bodies must have been, was suspected to be due to a small patrol of Scottish soldiers making their way home the night the bodies were dug up. The body of the dead male had his eyes removed, along with other soft flesh parts of the bodies that probably were taken first as items to be ingested immediately. Besides the beastly sexual corruption of the female corpses, specific body parts had also been removed as "trophies".

Now the population was scared beyond scope for it was certain that it must be witches or demons that would partake of necrophilia and cannibalism of corpses. The absolute blockade of the area was lifted in an attempt to catch the demons red-handed. Still the king's subjects were as much missed as before, so that it became the bewilderment of the whole kingdom how such villanies could be carried on, and the perpetrators not discovered. A great many had been executed, not one of them made any confession at the gallows, but maintained to the last, they were perfectly innocent of the crime for which they suffered.

When the magistrates found all was in vain, they terminated these rigorous proceedings, and trusted wholly to Providence, for the bringing to light of the authors of these unparalleled barbarities when it should seem proper to the divine wisdom. So they prayed for intervention.

Sawney's family was at last grown very large, and every branch of it as soon as it was able, assisted in perpetrating their wicked deeds, which they followed with impunity. Sometimes they would attack four, five or six footmen together, but never more than two, if they were on horseback; they were, moreover, so careful, that not one of whom they had set upon should escape, that an ambuscade was set on every side to secure them, let them fly which way they would, provided it should ever so happen that one or more got away from the first assailants. How it was possible they should be detected, when not one that saw them ever saw anybody else afterwards, was apparently not taken into consideration.

The place which they inhabited was quite solitary and lonesome, and, when the tide came up, the sea water went nearly two hundred yards into their subterraneous habitation, which reached a mile underground; so that when people, who have been sent armed to search all the places about, have passed by the mouth of the cave, they'd have never taken any notice of it, never supposing any human being being would reside in such a place of perpetual horror and darkness.

Below is an attempt to show a crude diagram of the caves along Galloway's coastal area and the occasional surface caves that led to ground level.

Sawney's Cave
[cave of Sawney Bean]

The exact number of people these savages destroyed was never exactly known; but it was generally computed that in the 25 years they continued their butcheries, they may have washed their hands in the blood of as many as one-thousand men, women and children. This number is disputed by many. But there is no disagreement that the real figure must have been astonishingly high and likely approached hundreds of victims. Below, in the next few passages, I have included some "eyewitness" accounts that became record 35-50 years after the actual incidents. I have included them for two reasons:

1- One cannot discount their testimony as purely fictional, despite some obvious credibility problems, since there is scant little other evidence that would disprove their claims, and :
2 - it was printed in the second publications of the tales of Sawney Bean years after the incidents, but are quite intriguing. However, take them as you will, fiction or fact -- they are both presented here in excerpt.

This is the account of two women, Marjorie and Nell Kennedy with their friend Launce and the Schoolmaster (Dominie), who had ventured into the cave for exploration after hearing the rumors of Sawney Bean's terrifying family.

Not believeing it, they descended to the cave entrance on low tide and entered, and secretly watched in horror from a ledge above the hideous cannibal families lair:

"Then I knew that these execrable hell-hounds must be the hideous crew who called Sawney Bean lord and master. They were of both sexes and all ages, mostly running naked, the more stalwart of them armed with knives and whingers, or with knotted pieces of tree in which a ragged stone had been thrust and tied with sinew or tags of rope. The very tottering children were striking at one another, or biting like wolves, till the blood flowed. In the corner sat an old bleared hag, who seemed of some authority, for her uproar calmed things a little. The shameless naked women-crew began to bestir themselves, and heaped broken driftwood upon the floor, to which presently a light was set....."

"The cavern was very high in the midst, but the sides not so high -- rather like the sloping roof of an attic which slants quickly down from the rooftree. But that which took my eye amid the smoke were certain vague shapes, as it had been the limbs of human beings, shrunk and blackened, which hung in rows on either side of the cave. At first it seemed that my eyes must certainly deceive me, for the reek drifted hither and thither, and made the rheum flow from them with its bitterness. But after a little study of these wall adornments, I could make nothing else of it, than that these poor relics, which hung in rows from the roof of the cave like hams and black puddings set to dry in the smoke, were indeed no other than the parched arms and legs of men and women, who had once walked up upon the upper earth -- but by misfortune had fallen into the power of this hideous, inconceivable gang of monstrous man-eaters....."

"But there was that nearer to me which smote me down like a blow taking a man unawares. As I stood up to look, gripping nervously at my sword and peering over, there came a gust off the sea, roaring up the passages of the cavern. For with the moon the wind had risen without. The fire on the floor flickered upward and filled the place with light. I felt something touch my cheek. Speedily I turned, and, lo! it was a little babe's hand that swung by a cord. The wind had caught it, so light it was, and it rubbed against my cheek."

A while later in the account, a sound was heard in the passageway and the dark shadow of a huge, bent man appeared in the doorway. "The monster stood a moment in the doorway as though angered at something, then he spoke in a voice like a beast's growl, certain things which I could not at all understand -- though it was clear that his progeny did, for there ensued a tumultuous rushing from side to side. Then Sawney Bean strode into the midst of his den. It happened by misadventure he stumbled and set his foot upon a lad of six or seven, judging by the size of him, who sprawled naked in the doorway. The imp squirmed round like a serpent and bit Sawney Bean in the leg, whereat he stooped, and catching the lad by the feet, he dashed his head with a dull crash against the wall, and threw his quivering, spasming form, like a dying rabbit, into a corner. "

"The rest stood for a moment aghast. But in a trice, and without a single one so much as going to see if the boy was dead or only stunned, the whole hornet's byke hummed again, and the place was filled with the stifling smell of burning fat and roasting victual, upon the origin of which I dared not let my mind for a moment dwell."

Then the account or story of the account gets oddly surreal , as if it wasn't already strange to begin with; It goes:

"Sawney Bean then approached the corner in which they were all hidden. Discovery by these monsters inevitable and escape impossible, the men decided to kill the women themselves rather than to allow them to fall into the hands of the cannibles; then fight to the death taking as many of them as possible with them. Just as the men readied their swords to plunge into the necks of the women, a tremendous rush of sound filled the cave."

"With the noise, the blade fell from my hand, and by instinct, not knowing what we did, Nell and I clapsed one another. I whirled around to see what on earth the sound could be and saw my friend, Dominie; his cheeks distended, and he was blowing upon his great war-pipes such a thunderous pibroch as had ever been heard east of the Minch since the Island pipes skirled on the Red Harlaw."

"The pack of fiends that caroused and slew beneath, stood stricken a moment in amaze at the dreadful; incomprehensible sounds. Then they fled helter-skelter, yellyhooing with fear, down the narrow sea-way from which the tide had now fully ebbed. And when I looked again, there was not a soul to be seen. Only over the edge of a lappered cauldron the body of a murdered woman (or, at least, a part of it), lay doubled -- bloody incentive to make haste out of this direful cave of death...."

And so you have some of the accounts of "eyewitnesses" that lived to tell of Sawney Beans cave.

Now to return to the actual account of how they were finally caught. The manner they were at last discovered was as follows:

A man, his young wife behind him on the same horse, coming home one evening from a fair and autumn crop sale, fell into the ambush of these merciless wretches, who fell upon them in a furious manner. The man to save himself as well as he could, fought very bravely against them with sword and pistol, riding some of them down by main force of his horse. In the conflict the poor woman was pulled from the horse from behind, and was dragged a short distance away. The man was surrounded by the hordes of Bean's family as he fought desperately to get back to his screaming wife. For every two yards forward he made, he was forced back a yard to defend himself and watched helplessly as the males creatures began to rip the clothes off his wife and commit terrible acts upon her bare and beaten body. The husband desperately turned his horse in a circular motion to knock away the attackers who were starting to slice at the horse and eat it while they fought him.

After the larger males had done harm to the barely conscious woman, they backed away and the screeching females of the ghastly family, wailed like banchees, leaped on the still conscious woman slitting her neck open widely and fell to sucking her life blood with great gusto, as if it had been wine. This done, they ripped up her belly, and pulled out her entrails even as she breathed her last breath. The horrifying, dreadful spectacle caused the man make more obstinate resistance, as he expected the same fate, if he fell into their hands.

It pleased Providence while he was engaged that twenty or thirty who had been at the same fair, came together in a body; upon which Sawney Bean and his bloodthirsty clan withdrew and, made their way through a thick wood to their den. This man who was the first who had ever fell in their way, and come off alive, told the whole company about what happened, and showed them the awful spectacle of his wife, whom the murders had dragged some distance, stripped, violated, cut her throat and removed her innards. But they had not the time to carry her entirely off, except for a few missing parts: her eyes, one ear, her upper lip and parts of the poor woman's insides had been removed or eaten and left her naked corpse exposed to the night air. They were all struck with stupefaction and amazement and horror at what he related to them. They took him with them to Glasgow, and told the affair to the magistrates of that city, who immediately sent to the King concerning it.

In about three or four days after, his majesty in person (this remains unproven), with a body of about 400 men set out for the place where the dismal tragedy was acted, in order to search all the rocks and thickets, that, if possible, they might apprehend this hellish crew, which had been so long pernicious to all western parts of the kingdom.

The man who was attacked, the man who lost his wife, was the guide, and care was taken to have a large number of hounds with them, that no human means might be wanting towards their putting an entire end to these cruelties. No sign of any habitation was to be found for a long time; and even when they came to the wretches' cave they took no notice of it, but were going to pursue their search along the sea shore, the tide being then out; but some of the hounds luckily entered the Cimmerian den, and instantly set up a most hideous barking, howling and yelping; so that the King, with his attendants, came back, and looked into it. They could not tell how to conceive that anything human could be concealed in a place where they saw nothing but darkness. Nevertheless, as the blood-hounds increased their noise they went farther in, and refused to come back again. They began to imagine something or other must inhabit there.

Torches were immediately sent for, and a great many men ventured in, through the most intricate turnings and windings, till at last they arrived at that private recess from all the world, which was the habitation of these monsters.

Now the whole body, or as many of them as could go in, were all so shocked at what they beheld, that they were almost ready to sink into the earth. Legs, arms, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and children, were hung up in rows, like dried beef; a great many limbs laid in pickle, and a great mass of money both gold and silver, with watches, rings, swords, pistols and a large quantity of clothes, both linen and woolen, and an infinite number of other things which they had taken from those they had murdered, were thrown together in heaps or hung up against the sides of the den.

The Execution of Sawney's Family
[cave of Sawney Bean]
Sawney's family, at this time, besides himself, consisted of his wife, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen grand-daughters, who were all begotten in incest. These were all seized and pinioned by his majesty's order in the first place: then they took what human flesh they could find, and buried it in the sands. Afterwards loading themselves with the spoils which they had found, they returned to Edinburgh with their prisoners; all the country, as they passed along, flocked to see this cursed tribe. When they came to the journey's end, the wretches were committed to the Tolbooth, from whence they were next day conducted, under a strong guard to Leith, where they were executed without any process, it being thought needless to try creatures who were even professed enemies of mankind.

The men were dismembered, their hands and legs were severed from their bodies, many were emasculated as well for the sexual crimes, by which amputation they were left to bleed to death in a few hours time. The wife, daughters and grandchildren having been made spectators of this just punishment inflicted on the men, were afterwards burnt to death in three seperate fires. Several of the older daughters shouted curses and threats at the crowds but none understood what language they were speaking. It was generally assumed the were speaking the tongue of the devil. Many spat, fought their bindings, seeming to feel no pain at first, screeching and wailing and clawing with their black three-inch nails, to the very end. They all, in general, died without the least signs of repentance, but continued cursing and venting the most dreadful imprecations to the very last gasp of life.

And thus, the end of the tale of the cannibal family of Sawney Bean. Scotland has some horrific stories, but none quite as repulsive as the one just presented.

This story is a fact based compilation, likely also legend, of "Sawney Bean" taken from four primary sources.
1- "Historical and traditional tales connected with the south of Scotland" (1843)
2- The book of Galloway - by J.A. Russell
3- Chronicles of Scotland - Lindsay of Pittscottie circa 1814
4- Galloway Tales (unknown author)

Other reading:

  • Witchcraft in medieval Scotland

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