The Legend of the Scottish Cannibal Clan That May Have Killed and Eaten 1,000 People

The Legend of the Scottish Cannibal Clan That May Have Killed and Eaten 1,000 People

Patrick Lynch - October 14, 2017

If you ever happen to be in Bennane Head in Scotland’s Firth of Clyde, you may come across Bennane Cave. If the legend is to be believed, it was the home of one the most prolific cannibal clans in history. The cave was apparently where Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean and his extended family lived and were their HQ when they reputedly attacked and murdered travelers before eating their remains back at the cave. In all, the clan supposedly claimed over 1,000 victims.

Of course, there are severe doubts about the veracity of this entire tale. It could be a complete work of fiction or a highly exaggerated version of a real Scottish cannibal who lived approximately 200 years earlier.

Who Was Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean?

The entire legend of Sawney Bean began in an 18th-century publication known as The Newgate Calendar. According to the crime catalog, Bean was born in East Lothian, Scotland, during the first half of the 16th century. Other versions of the tale suggest he was born anywhere between the early 15th century and late 16th century.

In any case, Bean’s father was a ditcher and hedger, and while the family was known for its honesty and hard work, Bean was apparently uninterested in a life of manual labor. His father reportedly beat Bean regularly which may have been the reason why he ran away from home. Bean met a woman named Agnes Douglas while on his travels and the duo decided to shun society and live in Bennane Cave which is off the Ayrshire coast.

The Legend of the Scottish Cannibal Clan That May Have Killed and Eaten 1,000 People
A look inside the Beans Cave. Ghost Cities

Sawney Bean’s Cave

As he had no job and no means of supporting his family, Bean began to ambush and rob travelers who walked the lonely roads between the villages in the area. Rather than risk his victims reporting him to the authorities, Bean decided to murder them and dragged their bodies back to the cave where he and Agnes would feast on them.

In reality, the cave was the ideal location for Bean to conduct his grisly carnival of murder and cannibalism. The cave consisted of tunnels almost half a mile long penetrating the solid rock. There were a large number of side passages that the couple could flee into should they ever be pursued by the police. To cap things off, the entrance to the cave was flooded twice a day at high tide. With no evidence to link him to any of the crimes, Bean was free to carry out his incredible murder spree.

The couple produced a total of eight sons and six daughters. Through incestuous relations, a total of 32 grandchildren were produced over the course of a couple of decades. At this stage, the clan consisted of 48 people. Bean’s sons followed in his footsteps and together, they continued to murder innocent travelers unfortunate enough to cross paths with the cannibalistic clan. Over the years, an estimated 1,000 people went missing, and as the clan was continuing to grow and hidden away in their secret cave, it seemed as if they could continue indefinitely.

The Legend of the Scottish Cannibal Clan That May Have Killed and Eaten 1,000 People
Sawney Bean’s Cave – Atlas Obscura

The Beans Meet Their Match

Although the Bean clan ate the flesh of their victims, they still had to dispose of the remains. As a result, the local authorities were alerted to multiple discoveries of body parts, decayed flesh, and bones that washed up on the shore. Despite an enormous search to find the rest of the victims’ bodies or locate their murderers, the authorities came up short. By the time Bean’s sons reached adulthood, the clan was able to murder up to six people at a time and bring their remains back to the cave.

At this stage, it appeared as if the Bean clan’s murderous spree would never end, but one night, they picked the wrong target. There was a fair taking place nearby, and the gang knew there would be lots of easy pickings. They attacked a couple on horseback and pulled the woman to the ground. The unfortunate victim was stripped and disemboweled with grisly precision, and it seemed certain that her husband was next.

Despite the despair of witnessing the death of his wife, the man fought back valiantly and was able to hold the gang at bay for a short period. The commotion from the fight was heard by a group of up to 20 people who were also on their way home from the fair. The Sawney Bean clan initially held their ground but soon realized they were outnumbered and fled back to their cave. For the first time, they left witnesses alive; it would be their undoing.

Capture & Mass Execution

The man who escaped the Beans met with the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow and told him his story. The magistrate knew the perpetrators were responsible for scores of deaths and brought the matter to the King of Scotland, who was probably James VI at that time. He ordered a huge search of the Ayrshire coast, but initially, his men found nothing. That is until the bloodhounds picked up the scent of decaying human flesh near a waterlogged cave.

It was the beginning of the end for the Sawney Bean clan because the king’s troops entered the cave when they had the opportunity and carefully walked through the twisting passage to the lair of the cannibals. They were aghast at what they saw; dozens of body parts and human limbs hung up like butcher shop meat, as well as clothes, jewelry and other possessions of the clan’s victims.

The Bean clan were shocked by the arrival of the troops, and while they tried to fight their way to freedom, the troops outnumbered them, and soon, the cannibals were under arrest. The king marched them to Edinburgh and rather than receiving a fair trial, all 48 members of the Sawney Bean clan were sentenced to death. The 27 men were the first to die; their arms and legs were cut off, and they bled to death. The 21 women were burned at the stake like witches. The entire story is almost certainly fiction, but it could be based on a real cannibal from 14th century Scotland.

The Legend of the Scottish Cannibal Clan That May Have Killed and Eaten 1,000 People
A depiction of Sawney Bean in the Edinburgh Dungeon. Scotland and Now Daily Record

Andrew Christie ‘Cleek’

As the story of the Sawney Bean clan wasn’t told for over 200 years after it supposedly happened, it is hard to take it seriously. Also, there is little or nothing in the way of cold, hard evidence to support the idea that a murderous family of cannibals was able to eat 1,000 people over the course of 25+ years.

There is also a possibility that the macabre tale was based on the apparently real-life cannibal, Andrew Christie. He was a butcher in the town of Perth but almost became a victim of a famine in the middle of the 14th century. Christie joined a number of scavengers on the foothills of the Grampians, and when one of the desperate men died, Christie used his butchering skills to carve up the corpse and serve a meal to the rest of the group.

As a result, the group developed a taste for human flesh and with Christie as their leader; they roamed the countryside looking for victims. Much like the Bean clan, Christie’s group ambushed lonely travelers and ate them, along with their horses. According to legend, Christie would pull victims off their horses with a ‘cleke’ (a hook), and this is how he got his nickname ‘Cleek.’

Overall, the gang murdered up to 30 people until one day, an armed government force arrived in the Grampians and found the cannibal group. They killed or captured the majority of the group, but Christie managed to escape into the mountains. His fate is unknown, but there is a suggestion that he moved to the town of Dumfries under the name David Maxwell. He got married, had three daughters and enjoyed a good life as a prosperous merchant. He only confessed that was Christie Cleek on his deathbed.

While the Sawney Bean clan is far better known, the story of Christie Cleek is far older; the cannibal was first mentioned in a chronicle of Scotland by Andrew of Wyntoun in 1420. He wrote about a figure called ‘Chwsten Cleek’ who set up traps to slay children and women and he “ate them all that he get might.”

In 1577, an English chronicler by the name of Raphael Holinshed wrote about a Scottish man he called ‘Tristicloke’ who fed on the flesh of women and children in 1341. There are also court records from the era which states that a husband and wife in Perth, Scotland, were executed for cannibalism at around the same time that Christie Cleek was apparently embarking on his murderous spree.

Does this mean that while the legend of Christie Cleek in the Grampians is a myth, it is based on the real-life cannibalism of a Scotsman and his wife? There were almost 100 famines in Britain during the Middle Ages, so it is hardly a stretch to suggest that at least one couple engaged in cannibalism to avoid starvation. While the Sawney Bean story is probably a myth, it is likely based on a real episode of murder and cannibalism in Scotland during the 14th century.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Who was Sawney Bean? – BBC Channel

Where is Sawney Bean’s Cave? – Ayrshire Scotland

Sawney Bean’s Cave – Atlas Obscura

Sawney Bean – Scotland’s Most Famous Cannibal – Historic UK

The Scottish Legend of Mass Murderer Alexander “Sawney” Bean and His Cannibal Clan – Owlcation

10 Eerie Details About Sawney Bean – Listverse

Sawney Bean and Other Spooky Happenings In Scotland – Arcadia Scotland

16 Macabre Instances of Cannibalism in History – History Collection

Was Scotland Once Home to Cannibals? – The Scotsman