Who was Sawney Bean?

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

  • Published
David Hayman plays Sawney Bean in a new film version of the legend
Image caption,
David Hayman plays Sawney Bean in a new film version of the legend

Sawney Bean, the cave-dwelling cannibal, is one of Scotland's most shocking and gruesome legends. A new horror movie, starring David Hayman, is being premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival, but who was Sawney Bean?

Forget Hannibal Lecter, Caledonian cannibal Sawney Bean makes him look like a fussy eater.

According to legend, the Bean clan killed and ate 1,000 people in a 25-year reign of terror, while hiding out in a sea cave on Scotland's south-west coast, between Girvan and Ballantrae.

The infamous tale of Sawney Bean has, over the years, inspired novels, plays, operas, and at least one major Hollywood movie - The Hills Have Eyes.

Image caption,
Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes was remade in 2006

Its writer and director Wes Craven said he used the story of Sawney Bean as a primary source for his script.

But where did the story come from?

Scottish historian Dr Louise Yeoman says: "It sounds like the plot for a box-office topping horror film and that's because it was invented to serve a very similar purpose - to sell books.

"It also has a more sinister subtext - the books it sold were published not in Scotland but in England, at a time when there was widespread prejudice against Scots."

Dr Yeoman says despite most often being set at the turn of the 17th Century, the story of Sawney Bean cannot be found until more than 100 years later.

At the time of the Jacobite risings in the 18th Century, the English press regularly portrayed 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.

Image caption,
The Edinburgh Dungeons uses the Sawney Bean legend to scare tourists

"The Sawney story was a dig at Scots - a people so barbarous they could produce a monster like Sawney, who lived in a cave and ate people."

The earliest dated versions of the tracts surviving in National Library of Scotland are from 1775, says Dr Yeoman.

"Interestingly enough, this is the year that Johnson and Boswell's Tour of the Hebrides was published - so perhaps the schlock horror story was cashing in on a bit of a vogue for strange tales from Scotland," Dr Yeoman says.

Some sources place Sawney in the reign of James I of Scotland in the early 1400s but most seem to have him in the time of James VI of Scotland (who was James I of England) around the turn of the 17th Century.

Seized and executed

Dr Yeoman says historical inaccuracy is just one of the reasons why Sawney Bean is thought to be legend rather than reality.

The legend runs that the Bean clan took up residence in a sea cave which was hidden every high-tide and they raised a brood of 14 children and 32 grandchildren - all from incest.

The Beans were murderers and cannibals who preyed on travellers, robbing them, killing them and eating them, hacking the bodies into quarters and pickling them in their cave.

They came unstuck when they set upon a man at a fair who fought back with a pistol.

The clan were reported to the magistrates of Glasgow who, in turn, informed King James.

He was said to have assembled 400 men and a huge number of bloodhounds to track them down.

Image caption,
The new film is set in the present day with Sawney Bean as a black-cab driver

Dr Yeoman says the later King James was a very keen hunter but he was unlikely to have put himself in danger by leading this perilous trek.

The historian says when James's life was actually thought to have been in danger, such as the Gunpowder Plot, he made sure his subjects knew about it.

"If James had successfully led an expedition to face down a well-armed group of bloodthirsty cannibals - we would have never heard the end of it," Dr Yeoman says.

The horror of the Sawney Bean legend continues to intrigue, with an exhibit at the popular Edinburgh Dungeon attraction being devoted to the legend.

Lyndsay Hebert, performance manager at the dungeon, says there were "lots of contradictory versions of the Bean legend" so they took the King James VI story with the king's men chasing down the clan in their gory lair.

The dungeon has a "boat ride" in which the visitors become part of the king's party trying to flush the Beans out of their hiding place in the sea cave.

Ms Hebert says Sawney Bean is not as well-known as Burke and Hare, one of the dungeon's other exhibits, but it is a very familiar Scottish tale.

Actor David Hayman says his father used to tell him the story as a child, leaving him "absolutely terrified" before he went to bed.

He says: "We used to go for holidays to Girvan, so one day, I think I was 10, my father took us to the actual cave and we went into it.

"It was really scary and creepy. As a young boy you can just imagine all the things that went on in there."

Period piece

The 62-year-old actor is now playing the cannibal in a new Scottish film Sawney: Flesh of man.

The film's director Ricky Wood also says it is a story he has heard since he was a child.

"I always thought it would make a great movie," he says.

"But it is a period piece and we are making a low-budget film, so we have made a modern-day version."

Wood adds: "Instead of Sawney abducting passers-by on horseback he's got his black cab and prowls the cities and towns of Scotland."

The premiere of the film at the Glasgow Film Festival is a sell-out and the makers are discussing worldwide distribution deals.

Historians may dispute the existence of Sawney and his family but it seems the audience has not lost its appetite for this Caledonian cannibal legend.

Sawney: Flesh of Man will be screened at the Glasgow Film Festival on Friday 22 February.

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