A Monster a Day, Sawney Bean, Scotland’s Man Eater

A cannibalistic family affair…

by The Fairytale Traveler’s contributing author, Christy Nicholas


photo by macemeuk

photo by macemeuk

Scotland has many tales of creatures, monsters, gods and goddesses; however, some may have been human monsters. This particular gruesome legend would make a great horror movie; a couple of books and horror films have certainly drawn on the legend.

Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean may have just been a creation in folklore, but the story has survived since the 15th century. Sawney Bean was the head of a criminal, cannibalistic family. Legend says he and his wife, along with their 46 children and grandchildren, killed and fed on over a thousand people before they were captured and executed.

The family lived in a cave near Bennane Head (between Girvan and Ballantrae) for over 25 years. They had eight sons, six daughters, 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters. The grandchildren were, supposedly, the result of incest.

Not caring for ‘honest labor’, the family ambushed, robbed and murdered travelers, the bodies brought back to the cave, and eaten. The discarded bits washed up on nearby beaches, and were noted by the nearby villagers, along with the disappearances.

When searching for the family, several innocent people were lynched; some were local innkeepers, being the last to see many of the victims. One night, they ambushed the wrong folk, as the man was skilled in combat, and fought the family off long enough for a group of fair goers to come by and see them. Now that the culprits were known, a manhunt was organized with 400 men and bloodhounds. When the cave was found the family was captured alive and taken to Tolbooth Jail in Edinburgh. They were executed without trial. The descriptions of the executions were grisly, as well. Wikipedia states:

They were transferred to Leith or Glasgow where they were promptly executed without trial; the men had their genitalia cut off, hands and feet severed and were allowed to bleed to death; the women and children, after watching the men die, were burned alive. (This recalls, in essence if not in detail, the punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering decreed for men convicted of treason while women convicted of the same were burned.)

The town of Girvan, located near the macabre scene of murder and debauchery, has another legend about the cannibal clan. It is said that one of Bean’s daughters eventually left the clan and settled in Girvan, where she planted the Hairy tree. After her family’s capture, the daughter’s identity was revealed by angry locals who hanged her from the bough of the Hairy Tree.”

Hear the legend at the Edinburgh Dungeon

Much of this information comes from local broadsheets and diaries of the time, which are, but kernels of truth may be the sources of the legends.

To read more, please check out Christy Jackson Nicholas’ new eBook,

Ireland: Mythical, Magical, Mystical; A Guide to Hidden Ireland


Find Christy here:








About Christa Thompson

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Christa Thompson is the Founder and Chief Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. She started traveling the world in 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

13 Comments on this post

  1. I love your new layout of the blog! This is a scary family- the ancestors of the Addams family?

    The Rider / Reply
  2. Thanks for hosting me!

    Christy Nicholas / Reply
  3. I don’t think the Addams family ate people, though they did suck their blood . . . supposedly.

    Interesting read, Christy! Will you be adding this to your Scottish guide?

    Kemberlee / Reply
  4. Ewwww. That’s some story and it sounds vaguely familiar. Thanks!

    Map of Time / Reply
  5. http://brookswaldhart.com/cannibal_god/authors-note/the-ballad-of-sawney-bean That’s the poem about it we learned about it in school. It’s a brilliant but gruesome story.

    bookgeeking / Reply

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