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Beane, Sawney (fl. 15th–16th cent.), legendary murderer and cannibal, is first mentioned in print in broadsheets about 1700. Various versions of his life appeared: in some he is said to have been active during the reign of James I of Scotland (1424–36), while other accounts date his crimes to the reign of James VI, who ruled Scotland from 1567 before succeeding to the English throne as James I in 1603. The story of Sawney Beane was collected in A Compleat History of the Lives and Robberies (5th edn, 1719) and in A General and True History of the Lives and Actions (1734) before the legend became enshrined in the Newgate Calendars.

According to legend Beane was the son of a hedger and ditcher. He had an unnamed wife with whom he had eight sons and six daughters, who incestuously produced a further thirty-two children. The Beane family lived in a cave by the sea in Galloway. They lived by robbing passing travellers, murdering them, and then consuming the bodies (uncooked but apparently smoked or pickled). This went on for at least twenty-five years, during which many of the local innkeepers were executed for murder as the last people to see the travellers alive, with the result that ‘not a few innkeepers … left off their business, for fear of being made examples of’ (History, 2). This in turn discouraged visitors to the area. Over a thousand people disappeared before a man and his wife returning from a local fair were attacked. The man defended himself while the female Beanes slashed his wife's throat and drank her blood before disembowelling her. A party of thirty people arrived while this was happening and the Beanes made their escape. The crime was reported to the provost in Glasgow, who sent for the king. The king brought 400 soldiers and a pack of bloodhounds which led them into a deep cave whose entrance was covered at high tide. There they found the limbs of men, women, and children ‘hung up in rows, like dried beef’ and ‘lying in pickle’ while heaps of loot lay on the floor (Life, 3). The soldiers buried the human remains and took the Beanes and the loot off to Edinburgh (Leith in some versions). The whole clan was executed, the men being dismembered and left to bleed to death while the women and children, having watched this, were burnt alive.

There is no contemporary record of any of this and all versions of the story contain internal discrepancies. The dates suggested for Beane's activities, as well as the appearance of printed accounts in eighteenth-century pamphlets, strongly suggest that the story had most appeal at times when anxieties about the union with Scotland and the barbarous image of the highlander were particularly contentious. Accusations of cannibalism are almost invariably levelled at those whose difference from the accuser is felt to be threatening. This, the constant emphasis in the early texts on the sufferings of ‘the King's subjects’ and the dismay of ‘the whole Kingdom’ (Life, 3, 4), and the heavily stressed intervention of the king himself, all indicate that this is a fable about the final omnipotence of the head of state over the furthest and most rebellious reaches of the country.

Sarah Moss


The history of Sawney Beane (c.1770) · The life of Sawney Beane the man eater (c.1814) · J. Nicholson, ed., Historical and traditional tales in prose and verse (1843) · R. Holmes, The legend of Sawney Bean (1975)