The Legendary Scottish Family That Allegedly Killed And Cannibalized 1,000 Innocent People

To call the story of the cannibalistic Sawney Bean clan "history" would be a bit of a misnomer; folktales or propaganda would be more appropriate descriptions. While there may be some truth to the legend of Sawney Bean, also known as Alexander Bean, his story does not have enough basis in fact to be considered true history. Nonetheless, he's still an impactful figure. Widely considered to be the real story behind The Hills Have Eyes, Sawney Bean is an important folkloric figure, and may be a product of propaganda; even if he didn't exist exactly as the tales suggest, his story is no less significant, especially in his native land.

Tales say that Sawney Bean was the leader of a Scottish clan sometime between the 1200s and 1500s. As the legend goes, he led his family to murder and cannibalize more than 1,000 victims. This idea of a family of killers who ambush victims is prime horror film fodder—and while the clan itself might not be the historical cannibals they're sometimes made out to be, they're still relevant as mythic figures. 

  • Sawney Bean Left A Life Of Work For A Life Of Crime

    Sawney Bean Left A Life Of Work For A Life Of Crime
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As the story goes, Alexander "Sawney" Bean was born to an honest ditch-digging and hedging family. Tired of manual labor and looking for an easy way out, Sawney left his family business along with a woman named, according to some stories, "Black" Agnes Douglas. Together, they moved into a cave somewhere on the southwestern coast of Scotland between Girvan and Ballantrae, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

    Isolated from society and refusing to work, Sawney and Douglas allegedly survived by ambushing travelers for 25 years. 

  • Black Agnes Was Believed To Be A Witch

    Black Agnes Was Believed To Be A Witch
    Photo: Hans Baldung / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Bean reportedly left his life as a laborer behind around the time he entered a relationship with Agnes Douglas. While much of her life before their relationship was a mystery, one of the key points of the legend is that after they got together, Douglas was accused of being a witch in East Lothian, Scotland. When Bean and Douglas left their home, it was as much because they no longer wanted to work for a living as it was because both had been rejected by society, as Bean's father was allegedly abusive and Douglas was accused of human sacrifice and conjuring demons.

  • Sawney Bean And His Clan Robbed Travelers On The Nearby Road

    Though Bean retreated from a life of honest work, living wasn't free. To make ends meet, he and his girlfriend (for lack of a better word) ambushed passersby on a nearby road. To maintain the secret of their whereabouts, Bean and Douglas had to get rid of the bodies, which they could do by tossing them from nearby cliffs or, as Bean discovered, turning them into a food source. Cannibalism became an intrinsic part of the Bean clan lifestyle, a gruesome but effective means of both sustenance and hiding themselves from authorities. 

  • Sawney Bean's Cave Provided Plenty Of Room For A Growing Family

    The cave where Sawney Bean's clan allegedly lived wasn't just a hole in a cliff face. It was a network of tunnels that supposedly extended for miles, giving him and Douglas plenty of room to live and expand their family. Even better for their purposes was the fact that the cave flooded during high tide, making it an unlikely place for people to live, and thus a place those searching for the reported thousand or so victims wouldn't bother to check. Because of its size and hidden nature, the Bean clan was able to grow to almost 50 people strong—all of them, aside from Bean and Douglas, related to one another.

  • The Bean Clan Was Almost 50 Inbred Family Members Strong

    The Bean Clan Was Almost 50 Inbred Family Members Strong
    Photo: Johannes Herold / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Inside their cave, Bean and Douglas had time and space to start having children. And have children they did: according to legend, they had eight sons and six daughters. Uninhibited by social mores—they were murderers, thieves, and cannibals, after all—those sons and daughters had 18 grandsons and 14 granddaughters with one another as well as with their own parents.

    Consanguineous fornication and procreation is a central thread in the tapestry of horror woven by the story of Sawney Bean's clan. It not only consisted of criminals of the worst kind, but interbred children likely born to very young parents who lived only among their own in a cave for 25 years.

  • The Bean Clan Pickled Human Meat To Preserve It

    The Bean Clan Pickled Human Meat To Preserve It
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    If the legends are factual, the Sawney Bean clan would have killed an average of 40 people per year. That's a lot of meat, even for 45 people. It's said they preserved what they couldn't eat by pickling and salting leftovers. Not everything stayed in their food stores, however. Preserved body parts were said to wash up on nearby shores, giving local towns some idea of the fates of their missing loved ones.