See caption
The cave at Bennane Head in which Sawney Bean and his family are reputed to have lived
Atlas Obscura

Sawney Bean is a legendary Scottish cannibal who, along with his family, is said to have lived in a cave at Bennane Head, three miles (5 km) north of Ballantrae on the west coast of Scotland. Bean and his wife had fourteen children, eight sons and six daughters, who mated among themselves to produce thirty-two grandchildren.[1]

To support themselves, the Bean family waylaid lone travellers along the shore road, robbed them, and carried their victims back to the cave to be butchered and eaten, “their only sustenance”.[1]

Doubts have been expressed over whether the story of Sawney Bean is based on historical fact or is a literary invention designed to sell books.[2]


The earliest accounts of Sawney Bean appear in The Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen, written by the probably pseudonymous Captain Charles Johnson and dated 1734, along with four undated chapbooks.[a]A chapbook is a small booklet sold by peddlers. Details vary, but most accounts agree on the following series of events:[2]

  • Sawney Bean was born on the outskirts of Edinburgh some time in the 16th century.
  • His father was a hedger and ditcher, but having no taste for such hard work himself, Bean ran off with a like-minded woman and set up home in a rock by the sea on the west coast of Scotland.
  • The couple had a great many children and grandchildren.
  • The family lived by robbery, murder and cannibalism for upwards of twenty-five years
  • Disappearances in the area were initially attributed to several unfortunate innkeepers, who were executed after being accused of robbing and murdering their guests.
  • A man and woman were attacked, but although the husband was unable to prevent the death of his wife, he managed to keep the Beans at bay until help arrived.
  • Bloodhounds were used to track down the Bean family.
  • The entire family of forty-eight people was arrested and taken to Edinburgh, where they were executed without trial.


a A chapbook is a small booklet sold by peddlers.