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Sawney Bean the cannibal – all a product of English propaganda

HIS dishes were fresh, organic and served with a novel twist that would unsettle the stomach of even the hardiest bon viveur.

The tale of Sawney Bean, the culinary cannibal, may have done more damage to Scots cuisine than the deep-fried Mars Bar, but in fact he was an English invention designed to portray the Scots as depraved savages unable to distinguish between la carte and the awful and illegal.

It was believed that Bean, a forerunner of Gordon Ramsay when it came to an aggressive attitude in the kitchen – or cave as it was then – was said to be the head of a large family of cannibals who perused the highways of the Ayrshire coast, as we would the aisles of a supermarket, in search of Sunday lunch.

During the 16th century, Mr Bean and his incestuous family reportedly based themselves in a hidden sea cave on Bennane Head, near Ballantrae, to conduct a reign of terror that lasted 25 years and resulted in 100 victims before he and his clan were finally hunted down by James VI and burned alive.

The story has gone on to inspire movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, which both involve cannibalistic families in quiet rural settings.

However, a new documentary broadcast on Radio Scotland next week concludes that the myth was an English invention designed to denigrate the Scots at the time of the Jacobite rebellions.

Fiona Black, a graduate of Glasgow University, told Radio Scotland's Case Re-Opened that the word "Sawney", which is short for Alexander, first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1704 as a derogatory term for a Scotsman.

"The monstrous figure of Sawney was probably an English invention.

"Cannibalism has a long history as a means of political propaganda used by a dominant culture against those they want to colonise," she said.

 
 
 

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