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Did the Scottish mass-murdering cannibal Sawney Bean actually exist?

Alexander 'Sawney' Bean, an infamous clan leader and cannibal, supposedly wreaked devastation in 16th-century Scotland. Find out more about his true identity…

Published: September 16, 2021 at 6:05 am
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According to most accounts, Alexander 'Sawney' Bean was a Scottish farm labourer born in about 1530 in Galloway. Soon after his marriage, and for reasons unknown, Sawney and his wife moved to live in the Bennane Cave. This cavern is over 200 metres deep and the entrance is covered by the sea at high tide. From this lair Bean ventured out to ambush, murder and rob unwary travellers. The bodies were brought back to the cave where they were butchered and eaten. Thus no evidence of the crimes was left.


In time his eight sons grew old enough to help him in this work. The sons then had children by the six daughters to give Sawney and his wife 32 grandchildren. The whole clan lived by robbery and murder, eagerly consuming their victims. Eventually a man escaped an ambush and survived to raise the alarm. A force of royal soldiers set out to hunt down the gang of outlaws – who were then executed.

However, the tale can be traced back only to London chapbooks more than 150 years after the events they claim to describe. These cheap publications concentrated on lurid crimes, scandals among the nobility and other sensational tales. There is no earlier evidence that Sawney Bean existed, though it must always be borne in mind that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. Just because no earlier accounts survive it does not mean that Bean did not exist.

However, it is possible that tales of Sawney Bean were based on the story of an undeniably real cannibal-robber named Christie Cleek. Christie was a butcher who became a highway robber in the Grampians in 1341. He equipped himself with a sharp hook on a long pole (a cleek) with which he pulled travellers to the ground before killing and robbing them. He is said to have eaten cuts of meat from his victims when he was short of food.


This Q&A was first published in BBC History Magazine


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