The Horrifying legend of Sawney Bean, Scotland’s most notorious cannibal

Sawney Bean is the name of a legendary 16th century Scottish mass murder and cannibal who dwelled in a cave in Bennane Head, East Lothian.

The story goes that with his wife Agnes Douglas, they killed and eaten over 1000 victims, creating a gigantic incest clan of over 40 children and grandchildren, before they were ultimately captured and executed at the behest of King James VI of Scotland himself.

The story goes that Sawney Bean was an unemployed labourer who had nothing going for him, so he and his wife Agnes turned to a life of crime. However, in committing robberies they soon found it convenient not only to kill their victims to hide the evidence, but also to eat them for food.

They chose Bannane Cave as their lair, an isolated spot located on a peninsula which was covered by the tide twice a day and therefore difficult to reach. The cave itself extends up to one mile into the cliffside, making it a perfect hiding place. Here, they created a massive family of over 20 children, feeding them on human flesh, before forcing those children to reproduce with each other.

The Bean clan were said to hunt their victims in a military like manner, encircling, trapping and killing unsuspecting prey who had no means to resist. They took the bodies back to the cave where they devoured them, pickling and preserving left over parts, while also casting disembodied limbs into the sea which washed up throughout the east coast of Scotland.

The planning and execution of their murders was so well organised that for years the clan went undetected, that was until one day they accidentally botched the killing of an unsuspecting traveller and his wife. Attacking their passing carriage, they killed the man’s wife by slitting their throat and disembowelled her on the scene. However, her husband survived by charging at them with his horse and reported it to the authorities.

The Magistrate of Edinburgh was so shocked at the story he appealed to the King himself, who responded by gathering an army of men and hunting dogs to trade down the killers. The dogs were able to smell human flesh and blood, and the travelling militia soon found the cave, where they discovered scores of human limbs and body parts strung up, pickled and preserved in a horrifying fashion.

Encountering the clan, there was a brief battle and soon all the inhabitants of the cave were arrested. Legend goes that because the evidence of their misdeeds were so clear cut and so evil, a formal trial was absconded and the entire family were executed immediately in Leith. The men had their arms, legs and genitals cut off, and were left to bleed to death, whereas the women were burned alive.

Despite the extraordinary details of the legend, there is little actual historical evidence to prove it happened. While Sawney Bean’s cave is a real location, records of such mass murder, missing people and executions from this period are absent. This has led to questions about what time period it truly occurred in, or if the story has been subject to exaggeration.

Either way, Sawney Bean has firmly established itself as a terrifying story of Scottish Folklore, and it is featured in the Edinburgh Dungeons attraction near the city’s railway station.

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