After a lifetime spent on the run in the wild, Britain's most elusive hermit is behind bars

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The Independent Online
HE IS Britain's most famous and elusive hermit, who has spent the past 20 years living in the Scottish countryside in makeshift shelters, surviving on what he can catch and steal.

Yesterday, however, officialdom had finally lost its patience with Robert Sinclair, who was locked up in one of the country's toughest prisons after police tracked him down to an agricultural shed.

Mr Sinclair, who tried to hang himself when he was last incarcerated, in March, was being held in Glasgow's Barlinnie prison, far from the open spaces where he has made his life away from other people.

Arrested for failing to attend a court hearing, he awaits sentencing for a series of break-ins across Scotland.

In April, he pleaded guilty to stealing tins of food, clothes and alcohol from caravans and farm houses in Stirlingshire, central Scotland.

His haul included potatoes, cheese, crisps, cake, juice, tins of salmon, beans and spaghetti, a can-opener, soft drinks, bread, carrots, bananas, a caravan mirror, an empty purse, a lighter, a fork and knife, a torch and batteries, a screwdriver, a razor and a can of shaving gel.

In short, Mr Sinclair stole all the paraphernalia that a survivalist might need to make a life for himself in hollows and bivouacs.

But he did not take money. When he signed on for social security earlier this year and was given a pounds 49 crisis loan, it was the first time in 20 years that he had had cash in his pocket. Indeed, his defence estimated at his trial that the pounds 21,000 in housing benefit and pounds 32,000 in dole payments which he never claimed would easily have paid for the items that he stole.

Mr Sinclair was also good at evading the police. At one stage patrols on horseback were introduced to find the pony-tailed loner. He was eventually caught after a farmhand spotted footprints made by a pair of trainers Mr Sinclair had stolen.

Nevertheless, in April the authorities were sympathetic, despite the trouble Mr Sinclair had caused them. The court deferred sentence until August after hearing that Mr Sinclair planned to devote his life to teaching others survivalist skills.

It was revealed that he had collected clothes and food for refugees in Kosovo. His defence said that he was settling down to help a youth and community project and would be taking young people on walking trips to Glencoe. He had already raised money for the project by leading a sponsored hike.

Mr Sinclair, who holds City and Guilds qualifications in horticulture, said: "What I want to do now is grow some strawberries. I couldn't do any gardening when I was in the wild."

The authorities were satisfied that the man before them - dressed unusually smartly in a crisp blue shirt, blue and grey tie and beige trousers - had finally, at the age of 51, decided to conform to the conventions of the twentieth century.

They were mistaken. Mr Sinclair was supposed to live with William Leitch, 64, his oldest friend, whom he met during a previous stretch in Barlinnie. But that arrangement did not last long. On 14 June the two men were watching television when Mr Sinclair said he wanted to be alone in his room.

Later, when Mr Leitch investigated, he found the bedroom window open and his friend gone. Mr Sinclair knew that if he had used the front door, the dog would have barked. He left a note reading: "F*** them, they'll no' get me this time".

He returned to the life he loved and, as a result, missed that August appointment at Stirling Sheriff Court. "I know how to keep warm," he had said, "make bivouacs, all of that. I used to catch rabbits and other animals and birds and cook them to eat. People would be amazed at the different kinds of eggs you can eat - pigeons' and seagulls'. I would make a wee fire and get an old tin can or something. I would boil the water to sterilise it and cook in it."

This is a man who devised a unique way of catching pheasants without a gun. He would take currants out a bun, soak them in a bottle of Buckfast fortified wine, leave them around and wait an hour until he came back to a few brace of drunken pheasants.

The reasons why Robert Sinclair has so determinedly rejected conventional life apparently lie in his childhood, which was chaotic and violent. Born in 1947 in Denny, Stirlingshire, he lived with an alcoholic father who regularly beat his mother and then attacked the son as he came to her defence. Mr Sinclair left home young and began life as an itinerant petty thief. Spells in Borstal led eventually to Peterhead prison, Aberdeenshire, usually reserved for gangsters, murderers and other hardened criminals.

It was after his release that he trained as a horticulturist and became caught up in the now familiar way of life, foraging and stealing from farmhouses, which has put him in and out of jail ever since.

Of his thefts he said: "I always felt remorse, but it didn't stop me doing it, because I had to survive. In the winter there was nothing else I could do. It was tough in the snow and the cold, yet I never got ill or caught a cold. I just got used to it."

Mr Sinclair is no hardened criminal, but there is concern now that the authorities, incensed by the attention he has received and the glorification of his activities, will get tough. As his friend, Mr Leitch, has said: "At the end of the day, we're not dealing with a romantic figure but a misfit, a person with genuine problems and difficulties who has attracted coverage that has only added to his difficulties."

Mr Sinclair will not find it easy to change his ways. Prison does not work - he has been there many times before. At least two suicide attempts in jail suggest that, as well as failing to reform him, these episodes present great danger to his own life. Before the arrest this week Mr Leitch predicted: "If they lift Rab, they'll wake up one morning and find a body in their nice, clean cells."