Caged wild man of Scotland yearns for the hills

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The Independent Online

Wanted: a small cottage in the middle of nowhere for a man grown old after 23 years living rough in the Scottish countryside and who faces jail if he carries on with his lifestyle.

Wanted: a small cottage in the middle of nowhere for a man grown old after 23 years living rough in the Scottish countryside and who faces jail if he carries on with his lifestyle.

Rab Sinclair, Britain's most famous hermit, has spent the past three weeks in a council house, living on dole of £51 a fortnight. "You look out of the window and see a wall, then row after row of houses," he said yesterday, speaking for the first time about his new life after being released from Barlinnie prison, Strathclyde. "You open the door and get the smell of diesel. I need somewhere with open spaces."

Livingston, 12 miles from Edinburgh, named after another great Scottish adventurer, is no place for those seeking rural solitude. Life is very different from the years when Mr Sinclair dug a trench, filling it with moss and heather for his bed, and "guddled" fish by tickling the underbelly with one hand, grabbing them with the other. He ate grubs from the ground, made snares using copper wire running through the eyelets of an old shoe, drugged pheasants with berries soaked in spirit, killed game with a sling made from old tyres, and dressed himself in clothes salvaged from rubbish dumps.

Mr Sinclair, 52, is staying in Livingston while serving a sentence of one year's probation imposed last month for a string of break-ins across Scotland in which he stole minor items, such as tins of food, though never money, to support his spartan existence.

"I can't go back to all that now," he said. "My chest is too bad from sleeping outside. The summer was fine, but in the winter when there are no berries or old turnips, I might stay huddled up for five or six days without eating because it was too cold to go out. I didn't know what day it was except by looking for a paper and guessing how old it was."

He explained for the first time why over two decades ago he fled normality for the wilds. "My father was violent to my mother and myself when he had taken drink," he explained. "I had a younger brother and younger sister and I was the one who had to stop him.

"By the time I was 14, I could contain the situation. But it got to the stage where I was scared to go out in the evening for fear of what I would find when I got home. I was like that for years. I could have been married. I had girlfriends but I wanted to protect my mother, particularly after my brother and sister left. Then one day in 1976, I just upped and left. I couldn't take it any more. I went for a wander."

For the next 23 years he drifted around the countryside, apart from short spells in prison for petty theft. "I suppose I went missing in a way, because even though I stayed in the country I never saw anyone I knew. I went months without talking to anyone.

"I lost my family. My sister had two children who must be grown up now. I don't know if my brother has had children. I regret missing all that. It kept me going over the years wondering what my brother and sister, my mother and my friends would be doing if I was with them now. But when you have been away so long it's hard to go back. I was scared to ask for help in case I was rejected. No one ever came to find me, so I just carried on. It was all I knew."

He said he reached his lowest point in January, when he was remanded in jail and attempted suicide. "I had been wearing my joggers and I kept the string in my pocket, so when I was remanded I said I needed the toilet and I was away. I actually passed out and a young copper found me."

The life Mr Sinclair described is familiar to the National Missing Persons' Helpline, which warns families that, once a loved one has gone missing for a lengthy period, they usually have to be found because it is psychologically too hard to come back.

Mr Sinclair was lucky. Last January, Willie Leitch, an old cellmate from Barlinnie, recognised his friend's name on the radio and searched him out. Mr Sinclair is now living with Mr Leitch and his wife in Livingston and helps out at the community centre Mr Leitch founded. "I like being here with Willie and Edith," he said. "But I can't stay here for ever. I'd love a wee cottage where there were a few neighbours a couple of miles away. I'd come out of my back door and there would just be hills."