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Kyleakin in the Isle of Skye
(Photo: Twenty20)

What a Scottish Hermit Taught Me About Travel

The news came in a text—a link to an article announcing that “Scotland’s Leopard Man” had died. I blinked. I paused. And then I remembered the hermit who wanted cookies, and how my encounter with him 20 years earlier taught me one of the most important travel lessons I’ve ever learned.

It was 1996, and I’d been wandering the British Isles with my childhood friend Rebecca. We were two college students with five weeks and not quite enough money between us, content to let curiosity lead the way. We’d found a half page write-up in our Lonely Planet guidebook about a mystical fog-shrouded island two days away by train. We had the time and we had the rail passes, so we headed north to the Isle of Skye to see what it was all about.

We didn’t know we’d soon be recruited by a hostel manager in the village of Kyleakin to deliver cookies and a newspaper to the world’s most tattooed man, a local hermit who lived on a rocky beach accessible only by boat. But after a week of sleeping in hostels (when there was room) and on beaches or under trees (when there wasn’t), we must have proved ourselves hardy enough to be entrusted with this unusual task.

We immediately agreed. We were still figuring out what it meant to travel back then, to not just see the world but be in the world, and it never occurred to us to say no. Jack, the hostel’s newest employee, volunteered to join us.

‘Is This Weird?’

“Keep paddling until you see a little bay, then hang a right,” we were told. We stopped at the village’s only shop and gathered our provisions, buying an extra batch of cookies for the long paddle out. Then we cast off from the village’s thin ribbon of beach.

It was July, but the wind blew in like it had come straight from February. We shivered and ate the first tin of cookies, hiding the second so we wouldn’t be tempted to try and bulk up against the cold. A group of seals poked their heads up from the water to inspect us.

As we paddled toward the inlet and the first signs of his camp began to take shape, I wondered out loud for the first and only time, “Is this weird?”

A squat hut made of the same wide grey rocks that dotted the long beach waited for us just above the high-tide line. A bit of tarp flapped from the roof like a battle-worn flag, and a kayak rested serenely along the water’s edge.

When you go into an unfamiliar town or city for the first time, you don’t need to wait for an invitation. But what, I wondered, are the rules for visiting a hermit?

“Well, we’ve got cookies,” Rebecca pointed out. That settled it.

The Scottish Leopard Man

As we drew up to the beach, we saw Tom Leppard for the first time. He walked to the water’s edge from his stone hut, bundled in a heavy wool sweater and knit cap. I wanted to wave the cookies over my head by way of explanation. We called out a ‘hello’ as our boat knocked against shore; Tom smiled and nodded in greeting as he reached out to steady the small rowboat so that we, his unexpected guests, could jump out and drag it onto land.

As we introduced ourselves, I scanned Tom’s gently weathered face for signs of ink. Against the bright beach, they seemed subtle, a faded treasure map on creased paper. The leopard spots created a sort of reverse mask that peeked out from beneath his wool cap and crept around his temples to the apples of his cheeks.

I didn’t want to stare, and from the way he just stood there, waiting for our manners to catch up with our curiosity, I suspected already that he was a man used to being looked at but not seen. I remembered the cookies and handed them to him with both hands. “You brought biscuits,” he said as he accepted them. “How kind.” The cookies broke the ice. We tumbled into conversation, handing him the newspaper next and catching him up on the village gossip we’d been sent along with.

Tom invited us into his narrow kitchen to wait while he balanced a pot of water on a single camping burner for tea. He lined up cups and readied the tea bags, speaking with quiet pride about the house that he’d built stone by stone. The blue tarp ceiling undulated with the breeze, cast a soothing underwater light over the small room. When the tea was done, he handed us each a cup and we returned to his wide, bright beach.

“It’s beautiful,” I remarked, looking out at the water.

“I love it here,” he said, simply. I wondered what makes a hermit. I wondered about how you even go about asking something like that. I wondered  if there was any place on earth that I could ever imagine spending a self-imposed exile.

Rebecca, cradling her steaming cup, asked Tom, “Why … tattoos?”

Tom shrugged. “I don’t have a deep connection to them or anything.” He rolled up his sweater arms and pointed to details, showing us the yellow wash upon which the leopard spots—each a slightly different shape and orientation—rested. “But people will pay to see them,” he continued, tracing a spot with his finger. A few times a year, he explained, he would leave his beach and fly around the world, showing off his ink-covered body. The rest of the time, he was content living out here by himself, the leopard of the Hebrides, clad in wool against the elements.

An Unexpected Lesson

To travel is to see, but insight often takes something more—repose. And repose is all too often a forgotten luxury for the traveler. But on that beach, I got a taste of it as the tea steamed in my mug while Tom shifted rocks with his foot and told his strange tales, speaking quietly about his contrasting lives as both a hermit and a world record holder.

I wasn’t even 20, and the internet had not yet knit the world together as tightly as it has today. When I traveled, I called my parents to check in once a week. There was no social media, and I ruined most of my film from that trip by dropping my camera—creating a light leak that exposed the film even as I earnestly documented the beautiful and curious. My time on the beach with Tom—indeed most of those five languid weeks in the British Isles—is truly a memory rather than a keepsake. Those moments are fewer now, and I treasure them more for it.

I don’t know anything about Tom’s burial. But I’d like to imagine that there’s a cairn now guarding his bay—carefully balanced stones, their exact past unknown, their precise balance points hidden, sheltering an underside of pale yellow watercolor and spots like small islands.

Two decades on, it’s good to be reminded that travel sometimes means just saying yes and grabbing a paddle. More than the internet, or phones, or social media, it’s the small adventures that bind us together and connect us to the world.

That’s what I learned when I took a chance on bringing cookies to Scotland’s most famous hermit.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Christine Sarkis on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.


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