Book Review: Sawney Bean - Dissecting the Legend of the Scottish Cannibal

by Tom Doran

Scotland has many tales of supernatural beings haunting the countryside (and very occasionally its cities), though through the centuries, one has always stood out – the tale of Sawney Bean. The paterfamilias of a huge family of incestuously bred cannibals. Scotia-News has featured pieces on this supposedly real monster – and there lies the fascination with Sawney Bean – the belief that he was real.

Sawney Bean -  Dissecting the Legend of the Scottish Cannibal

Many articles, monographs, BBC Radio shows, and more have attempted to dissect the legend to get to the bottom of it all. Was Sawney and his clan real? Or the product of early 18th century English propaganda (promulgated by a series of cheap publications called chapbooks).

This book by Blaine L Pardoe, attempts to find an answer to the question: “Was Sawney Bean and his cannibal clan, real?” The answer is really not clear – probably and almost over-overwhelmingly the answer is “no”. But the author seems to think the story of Sawney is more important as “folk-lore” and that we should pay attention to that. Perhaps.

One of the issues I have with the book is that it repeats, endlessly, the slightest variations of the chapbook tale of Sawney Bean, attempting to find clues. It doesn't work – it instead foils our interest, as the minor details, settings, situations, and more, just confuse more than illuminate. They don't bring any more clarity than has already been shown and talked and written and broadcast about the cannibal king, that one can't readily find online. One of its only virtues is that is is a published book – which always appeals to me (instead of reading online) and has a lot of information in one place.

Some statements made in the book just seem to float in the air – one giant comment about an aspect of Scottish culture, and purely Highland in nature, referenced by one source only (a dubious one at that), and not further explained or elaborated on, is taken at face value. I don't know what it's doing in this book – save as an example of how people within and without Scotland may (mis)interpret or evaluate the history and people of Scotland. If it is intended just as what I surmised, then why not elaborate as to the authenticity of the statement and more importantly, how it may tenuously connect to the tale of Sawney.

He spends pages trying to find out actual time frame of the tale (a good thing), in order to track evidence to Bean's existence, and does so by examining the lives of James I and James VI-I, which has always been a problem. Separated by centuries, which King James did battle with Sawney as the story often relates?

In the end it is clearly neither – but he seems to indicate (but does say clearly enough), that when James VI of Scotland went south to take up the English crown, he turned his back completely on Scotland. Well, that may be true in one sense, but James VI-I did indeed physically return to Scotland, if only for three months in 1617 - the only time he was in Scotland AS James I (so to speak). James indeed even passed through Dumfries – close to where the Bean clan is reputed have been dwelling.

The author does look for the birth records of any “Alexander Bean” who lived from 1567 to 1603 – the reign of James VI in Scotland – but why not go further forward? Because he does not seem to know that James returned in 1617. He says we could go ahead in time (he does a wee bit), but dismisses it all because of the ages of the cannibal king cannot fit within the 1567-1603 time frame he champions.

Since there is no evidence that the King or his minions (in his name) at any time during his reign in Scotland went on the attack against the cannibals, we should also consider it did not happen in 1617 either and determine “evidence” to that as well.

If he does not know the King went back north in 1617, what else is wrong? Or rather let us say “unexamined.”

Whoever was doing some of his research fails on several other counts – including one where he mentions several movies based on the Bean legend (many clearly and obviously based on the tale) - but one he mentions is NOT based on Sawney. A low budget film entitled Sacrificed was made in Scotland to be sure, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Bean, or cannibals or anything else even remotely connected to the story. A minor error? Yes. But with something so recent and so obviously easy to check, what else, harder to research, is wrong? I mean, how did it even get in the book in the first place?

I'm not quite sure what he means when he closes his book referencing a trial about two young girls who stab someone they knew, over 19 times – he seems to think that the fantasy of believing in Sawney being real is relevant somehow – but neglects to tell us why he thinks so. Where the two young girls “emulating” Sawney when they attempted to kill another young girl? No. It was in fact a crime that took place in America, and where the monstrous (and completely made up) creature they were taking their cues from, was something called The Slender Man – a character devised recently, and totally (and obviously) fabricated with a trail that is easy to follow. What has this to do with the legend of Sawney? I don't know of any case of murder or mayhem actually attributed to anyone, anywhere, believing in Sawney Bean and trying to follow in his footsteps.

All in all, the book does compile a lot of information, but clearly nothing new, with no new conclusions, and a general sloppiness of form and presentation. It has all been said before. And better.



collected by cecilia