In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

135 CHAPTER 7 Retelling the Legend of Sawney Bean Cannibalism in Eighteenth-­ Century England JULIE GAMMON The sensational and gruesome account of a murderous family of cannibals living in a Scottish cave has circulated in print, song, and drama for over the past 300 years.1 Although the details of the many narratives differ slightly, the same common themes emerge: Sawney Bean was born near Edinburgh in the late sixteenth century to agricultural laborers. Being too idle and unwilling to work, he ran away with a woman of poor character to a deserted part of Galloway. They lived in a cave overlooking the sea for over twenty-­ five years without ever entering a town or village. They had eight sons and six daughters who,through incest,then produced eight grandsons and fourteen granddaughters. The Bean family survived by robbing travelers, then murdering them and removing their bodies to the cave, where they dismembered and pickled them.The Beans were thought to have been responsible for over 1,000 murders, and while they went undetected for years, it was claimed that many innocent local innkeepers were executed in the belief that they were responsible for the unexplained disappearances. The family was eventually caught when a young man managed to escape from the cave, but not before he witnessed his wife having her throat cut and the women drinking her blood while the men removed her entrails. King James VI of Scotland (who later became James I of England) was alerted to the survivor’s bloody account and personally took 500 troops and bloodhounds to search 136 Retelling the Legend of Sawney Bean the area until the cave was located.When the soldiers entered the cave, they saw how “such a number of arms, legs, thighs, hands and feet of men, women and children” were “hung up in rows like dry’d beef, and with a great many laying in pickle.”2 The family was captured and taken to Edinburgh, where they were executed twenty-­ four hours later without being tried. The executioners cut off the men’s penises, then removed their arms and legs. They were left to bleed to death. They forced the female family members to watch and then they burned them at the stake. Academic and popular interest in the story of Sawney Bean and his family has largely centered on trying to prove or disprove whether or not the family of cannibals ever really existed.3 Even a recent publication by Blaine Pardoe, which claims to be the most fully researched account of the story,concentrates on mining the archives for evidence to find whether or not Bean was a real person.4 Despite the fact that the Galloway tourist industry feeds off the fantastical story by offering tours of the supposedly genuine Sawney Bean cave and Bean continues to feature in several accounts of the worst Scottish criminals in history, the academic consensus now is that the story was fabricated.5 There are no archival records relating to Bean,to mass disappearances of the Galloway population, to the supposed executions of innocent innkeepers, or to the involvement of King James VI. Louise Yeoman astutely points out that it is unlikely that James VI would not have recorded his involvement in the hunting and capture of a gang of cannibals responsible for many murders.6 While the story of Sawney Bean was sensational and shocking for eighteenth-­ century audiences, as a tale of cannibalism it was certainly not unique. Stories of cannibals were told to horrify, amuse, and entertain readers. A fascination with men (and women) eating men (and women) existed in the popular imagination not because people did not believe it possible but because they were confident that it did occur.Many accounts of anthropophagy associate the practice with exotic, uncivilized tribes; for example, tales from the New World described a practice linked to warfare or pagan religions. But the truth is, alongside these narratives there also existed accounts of cannibalism, both historically and contemporarily, that occurred much closer to home. This chapter will provide a wider context for Retelling the Legend of Sawney Bean 137 the stories of cannibalism that circulated in England in the eighteenth century.First,it will demonstrate how the tale of Sawney Bean served a particular sociopolitical purpose by providing a convenient way to characterize the rebellious Scots as greedy, stupid, and brutish. The Sawney Bean narrative drew on a trope that linked Scottishness with cannibalism.Moreover,cannibalism was shown to...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.