It was a late spring day in the Scottish Highlands and I was stumbling through the woods searching for the home of a quite remarkable human. Disorientation, exhaustion and midges aside; my chief concerns were:
1) How well would I be received by someone who had quite clearly, quite purposefully, made themselves very hard to find.
2) What on earth could possess a hermit to agree to write a book in the first place?
Ken Smith, the hermit of Loch Treig, has lived alone in his remote log cabin for the past four decades. By definition, Smith didn’t want or need the attention, and he had such an established lifestyle that he didn’t really need the money either; but I soon discovered that Smith’s motivation for writing a book was simple. He was a deeply thoughtful and empathetic man, who hoped that the telling of his extraordinary life might persuade others to follow their dreams too.
I visited Smith over six months, using first-person interviews and his meticulously kept diaries to slowly piece together his story. He was born in 1947 in rural Derbyshire. One of four, his childhood would be considered one of real poverty by today’s standards, but away from a school that often favoured the stick over the carrot, Smith would spend his time feeding an innate fascination with the natural world.
The woods of his home village gave way to the forests of Scotland when, at just 15, he left to work for the
Forestry Commission at Rannoch. Later, he would take the better pay offered by labouring within construction, before a vicious unprovoked assault provided him with his sliding doors moment.
“I’d had four operations on my brain. Nine hours under the knife, and almost two weeks in a coma,” Smith explained late one night, with homebrew in hand. “But I came round on my 27th birthday and I clearly remember the nurse saying: ‘Tomorrow, Mr Smith, is your birthday, but today, today is the day you were reborn.”
I recall how his 75-year-old eyes had flashed with youth as he spoke his next words. “And if I was going to be born again,” he said, leaning forward in his fireside chair, “you’d better believe I wasn’t going to live on anyone else’s terms but my own.”