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Leopard Man of Skye

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Leopardman of Skye, source unknown
Tom Leppard
The Leopard Man of Skye

The Leopard Man of Skye is the nickname which Tom Leppard came to be known by after he moved to the island of Skye in 1987. He took up residence next to a stream, in a small hut which he made from beachcombed material. He was happy to live there alone until 2008, when he came to the decision that at 73 years of age, and having spent the past twenty years living a hard, outdoor life, it was time to take things easier.

Living on his own, he had to canoe to Kyle of Lochalsh every week or two to stock up on foodstuffs, and drop into the local bar, where the locals had grown used to him, and his appearance - the Leopard Man is tattooed from head to toe with leopard spots. He was considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the world's most tattooed man, until this was taken to extremes by another person in 2006. His tattoos are understood to have cost some £5,500.

Retiral 2008

On October 29, 2008, BBC Scotland News carried an item on the retiral of The Leopard Man. Reporting that he had begun to struggle somewhat with the weekly trip by boat, and had forsaken his hermit-like existence in his hut in favour of life in a house.[1]

In his old hut, he had no electricity, used to cook on a small gas stove, and slept on a bed made from blocks of polystyrene and foam rubber. His new home, still on Skye, in Broadford, is much more conventional, and in an interview he said ""It's certainly very strange being surrounded by four walls and a roof but I'll get used to it, I'm getting bits of furniture together all the time and I'm getting used to sleeping in a bed at night - it's certainly more comfortable than I'm used to and electricity is very convenient."

He described the decision to leave as being made quite quickly, after a friend offered to give him a lift in their boat - he just collected what he wanted in black bags, and left. Although he had no regrets about the past twenty years, during which he had even become something of a tourist attraction, he did worry about making the canoe crossing on his own as the waters could be treacherous, and it would only have taken one bad wave to swamped him and his canoe.

An interview exploring both his past and current lifestyle is reported in Henry Hemming's book "In Search of the English Eccentric", published June 2008.[2]

Tom Leppard is by no means an ornamental hermit. I interviewed him, along with Sue Woodcock, for my book on English eccentrics.

After a brutal convent education, and retired from the armed forces, Tom Leppard moved to London, which he loathed. It made him realise that every time in his life he'd been unhappy people had been involved. So Leppard vowed to become a hermit and moved to a remote part of the Isle of Skye. Before leaving London he had 99.2 per cent of his flesh tattooed with leopard spots, projecting his acute sense of apartness on to his skin.

That was more than 20 years ago. Tom is 73 now and Ė when we finally meet, after I track him down in his remote lair with the help of a local fisherman Ė he is wearing a woolly hat, a fleece with a flap that covers his groin, and very little else. His home, Paradise, as he calls it, is very neat. Most of his daily chores are aimed at keeping it that way. At the heart of his encampment is a cave made from the remains of a sheep pen and bits of timber from nearby beaches. He survives on tins of food he buys with the pension he picks up when he kayaks over to the mainland.

Before we can chat, he has to find his dentures. "Haven't spoken to anyone in a while, see," he explains. Leppard says he was lonely in London but never gets lonely now. But why choose such an extreme path? Leppard puts it simply: "I'm selfish. I've got all this," he nods at the view that sweeps past a flank of Scottish scarp. "And I want to keep it. I don't want to share it with anybody."

As well as reminding us that it's possible to live without material possessions, by their example Woodcock and Leppard remind us not to confuse the words "alone" and "lonely". Companionship is not always a prerequisite to fulfilment. As our population gets older and we grow increasingly fond of living on our own, this is more relevant now than ever before.

Video documentary

The following version of the Leopard Man video features an American voiceover track:



American Leopard Man video

The following version of the video lacks its English voiceover track, but does have Tom's comments, so the transcript is included with this commentary as it provides further background to the story:

Video (4 min 50 sec) featuring Tom Leppard's life on Skye, from 2002

Alternative version, dated: 15-Nov-05

American interview, but no video, dated: 18-Dec-06

Video transcript:

Voiceover
The leopard is a loner. It lives in retreat and is very shy. It is rare to spot a leopard in the wild, you do have to know where to look. And this man, Tom Leppard, has developed the same characteristics. Not only has he made himself look like his favourite wild cat, he has also retreated and avoids contact with the outside world. Tom from the Isle of Skye in Scotland has become what is believed to be the UKís first leopard man.
Tom Leppard, Leopard man
"That was the way I wanted to look because I wanted to be like this I had to have a means of support and I decided quite cold-bloodedly that I would get the biggest tattoo in the world. Once started I had to complete it."
Voiceover
That was 16 years ago. But Tom wasnít content with just looking like a leopard, he also wanted to live the life of a truly wild cat. He moved to the tiny bay on the island in 1987. There he lives in an old ruin and makes do with a mere £300 a month. Without electricity or running water there is just one way to get clean in this habitat.
Tom Leppard
''Itís very very cold. I donít look forward to it at all but itís the only way I can get really clean. I donít use soap in it, so I sort of shiver the dirt away and itís over quickly. Itís quickly in, a few seconds, then quickly out."
Voiceover
After the daily bath, Tom has to warm up. He generally rejects wearing clothes Ė they annoy him and he feels best when naked. For 14 years now, the 66 year old has been eating but canned food that he prepares on his little gas stove. He manages to make his nine square meters surprisingly homely.
Tom Leppard
"I donít want to go anywhere else. I built this place, I went beach combing for the contents of it for three years, assembled it all and itís just what I want. I donít want to leave here. For me this is heaven."
Voiceover
After lunch, Tom Leppard usually goes for a quick run. Pre-Leopard existence he was in the army for 30 years, so Mr. Leppard is still very fit. And he never gets bored Ė there is always something to work on in his environment. He needs to keep his dam in shape. Often repair work can take up to five hours a day. Even though this is a harrowing task, Tom loves it.
Tom Leppard
"I like it, itís very nearly a hobby. Sometimes I come out to have a beer, bring the beer down here, put it down and just start building rocks or shifting rocks."
Voiceover
Every two weeks, Tom has to paddle his canoe to the main land to do his essential shopping. He does not really look forward to meeting other people, but he does enjoy the occasional pint of beer. Today he wants to see how fellow pub goers react to his get up. First he needs to get changed. Usually he only bares his birthday in the privacy of his own home. But after all, the regulars donít even think twice. Tom is after all already a legend and people know that he is prowling around.
Neil MacRae, pub customer
"I was a bit surprised because we donít normally see him completely unclothed but he fits in, everybody knows him well, nobody is offended, nobody is particularly surprised because they know what to expect."
Voiceover
No one seems really bothered by Tomís special look.
Hamish Grant, pub customer
"Tomís a very handsome guy, weíve known him for a good while and heís a pillar of the community."
Voiceover
But Tom does not feel part of the village community. And after two glasses of beer, heíd much rather set off to do his shopping. Because all he wants to do is get home as soon as possible. At home, Tom has everything he needs right in front of his door step. The little stream is not just his bath, but also his drinking water. Tom the leopard does not see anything unusual about his way of life.
Tom Leppard
"For me itís normal. All Iím really doing is permanently camping, a thing I used to do at weekends and on my leave whereas now I can do it all the time. Iíve never been lonely if I am by myself. If Iím in a big city surrounded by people thatís when I feel lonely."
Voiceover
In the evenings Tom prefers reading to running around and sleeping on trees. Even though he might have read his small collection of books over 20 times, he reads them again and again. The main thing is that he is on his own, in the wild, self-sufficient Ė then he is 100% happy and content.

References

1 Skye leopard man changes his spot, BBC News, October 26, 2008.

2 British hermits: the growing lure of the solitary life - This Britain, UK - The Independent Retrieved September 8, 2010.

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