What are the origins of Sawney Bean's dark legend?
“So if you ride frae there tae here
Be ye wary in between
Lest they catch your horse
and spill your blood
In the cave o' Sawney Bean”
— Lionel McClelland, The Ballad of Sawney Bean
Every country has its dark legends. Their main purpose is to scare children at night, but they also reflect the fears and beliefs of the culture. All of these elements and more are at the core of one of Scotland’s most gruesome legends: the cannibal clan of Sawney Bean. The legend tells the story of a despicable man named Alexander “Sawney” Bean, who abandoned his hometown after marrying a woman as twisted as he was.
The newlyweds moved into the Bennane Cave, and Mr. Bean supported his wife by becoming a highwayman, robbing and killing unsuspecting travelers on nearby roads. To avoid leaving any evidence of his crimes, he would take the bodies home, and his lovely wife would use them to make dinner. And so began a series of gruesome murders and mysterious disappearances that terrified the town for the twenty-five years the Bean family lived hidden in that cave.
In case you thought that wasn’t blood-curdling enough, throughout those 25 years, the couple had eight sons and six daughters, as well as eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters, all of them the a product of incest. As the family grew, so did their need for more meat, so they started to target larger groups and kill more people to feed all those mouths.
This would end up marking the end of the Bean clan. One night, the Beans ambushed a married couple who were going home after a party. However, the husband was a skilled fighter, so they couldn’t kill him as they had his wife. As they kept fighting him, more people returning from the same party saw the assault and decided to help him, forcing the Beans to run away.
Now, people knew who the monsters behind the disappearances were and decided to end their reign of terror once and for all. King James VI heard of this family of cannibals and decided to hunt them down. When he and his soldiers traced down and captured the Beans, they brought them to Edinburgh to execute them without a trial. The corpses they found at their home and their wicked behavior were evidence enough. The next day, the men had their limbs severed and bled to death, while the women were burned at the stake.
At first sight, this would look like a legend to scare children and tourists visiting Scotland. However, it all gets even darker when we trace the origins, and more importantly, the purpose of the legend. Many historians have tried to search for the actual case that inspired the legend, but the earliest records of this event are from the eighteenth century, that is, 100 years after the time the story was said to take place, and not in Scotland, but in London.
At the time, England used to satanize and vilify Scotland because of the political conflict between them. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, also known as “the Young Pretender,” led a rebellion to reclaim the British throne for the house of Stuart, which (by the way) King James VI –who would later become King James I of England– belonged to. According to historian Dr. Louise Yeoman, the English used the name “Sawney” to make cartoonish interpretations of Scottish people.
Illustration of Sawney Bean's clan from the book, The Grey Man, by S.R. Crockett.
If we consider this historical context, as well as the fact that there are no accurate dates stating when the alleged crimes of the Bean clan happened, it’s more likely that the legend was born as a way to stereotype Scots and portray them as barbarous and savage. The legend sounds way too gory and monstrous to be true (Really? A whole clan of incestuous cannibals living in a cave?). But who knows? Human nature is so strange that there might be people capable of committing even worse acts.
Although this legend might have encouraged the discrimination towards Scots around that century, it was later appropriated by Scotland and turned into a local legend to feed the collective imagination. The thing is that the best quality of legends is that they can be believed because they sound partly true. So, more than being based on an actual case of cannibalism, the legend of Sawney Bean keeps moving audiences, not only in Scotland, but all around the world, because it’s perceived as a raw depiction of the worst actions people are capable of committing.
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