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What the hermit of Loch Treig can teach you about living your best life

Reborn after a vicious assault left him with brain damage, Ken Smith resolved to live life on his own terms. That's how he became the hermit of Loch Treig.

Illustration of a man next to a lake

Illustration: Poppy Lam

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.”

Smith certainly would do that. He relearned how to walk, talk and write, before returning to work and saving every penny he could. He would explore the wilderness of Canada and Alaska during the late 1970s and early ’80s, avoiding death by bear and honing bushcraft skills that would power him on through his later life. Once back in the UK, Smith roamed homeless for two years. He travelled from Land’s End to John O’Groats before eventually settling in the bothies of the Scottish Highlands. 

Turfed out of one by a ghost, and on the verge of total destitution in the second, it was a chance encounter with the local laird that would change his fortunes once again. Smith was granted permission to build his own log cabin on the lonely banks of Loch Treig in 1986, and thus began almost 40 years of total immersion within one of the wildest spots on the British Isles. 

His subsequent adventures in Scotland; from surviving the most savage storms, to his pet animals, giant fish catches and observations of many staggeringly beautiful scenes, are writ large throughout his book and story. But it’s his core philosophy that we should all listen to the small voices sat within us that he hopes his readers will carry forward into their own lives. 

As his legend has grown, Smith has received ever more letters from people moved by his story. Those letters, he says, “all have a variation on how the writer wishes they could live like me but feel they can’t. That they are scared to make the leap. That there is a battle between what is expected of them by the world that lives outside of their head, and what they really think and feel instinctively inside their soul. They suffocate the little voice inside their heads. The one that speaks the truth.” 

Everyone, he says, should be able to experience the immense benefit of living sensitively and simply within nature, even if only for a night. But as much as he acknowledges that his own life’s path is not for everyone, he is determined to impress that you should never feel any guilt for occasionally putting yourself first. 

Even from a man who has lived the very fullest of lives, it is, he laments, all too short. “If you have a dream worth pursuing,” he implored on my final visit to his cabin, “go and do it now.”

The Way of the Hermit book cover

The Way of the Hermit by Ken Smith with Will Millard is out now (Pan Macmillan, £16.99. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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