In search of Scotland's hermits and the man who has lived in a tent for 12 years
Photographer Elliot Caunce went into the wilds to find Scotland’s hermits and found happiness and humanity on the trail of those who live a simple life far on the fringes of society.
Keen to document the ‘off-grid’ living and those who have rejected convetional living, his first assignment led him to Jake Williams who lives in an old farmstead deep in the Cairngorms without electricity, running water or a plumbing system.
Perhaps surprisingly, the photographer found Williams after answering an ad on Airbnb that promised “Scotland’s cheapest overnight stay” at a caravan in a tree for £20 a night.
The booking took him to Williams’ door.
Caunce said: “He lives around two miles down a forest track. He has his farmstead there, it is very run down, he won’t mind me saying that. There are a lot of broken windows and then the caravan up in the tree.
"He has made his own underfloor heating by putting radiators on the floor that are connected to a furnace. He is a bit of an inventor. He has no modern commodities and has made his own waste system from compost.”
Williams has been by himself at this isolated spot for 40 years. He first lived at the house with his wife and daughter with hopes friends would also come and live at the house. But when the marriage broke down, nobody came.
But against this lonely existence, Caunce found Williams, a great player of the mandolin, to be extremely charming and accommodating with perhaps a slightly surprising hope for his life.
"He absolutely loved being photographed. In fact he said he wanted to be famous,” the photographer added.
Caunce said: “He is some kind of oxymoron. He is portrayed as a hermit, but he is still very sociable.
"Jake is definitely a happy man, but he has said to me that things could have turned out differently. I think he would like to try and meet someone, a woman again.”
While talk of hermits might conjure up someone at odds with the world, Caunce found a great spirit and openness in those he met on his travels around Scotland.
This was particularly the case with Davy McDonald, a former shipwright from Fife who lives deep in Lochaber, somewhere not too far from Corrour train station.
Davy walked into the wild after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. What started as a life-affirming trip ended up just becoming...life itself.
Caunce said: “He was told he would probably need a heart transplant and he was put on medication.
“He made a decision to go into the wild. I got the impression that this was an end of life trip around Scotland. He spent two years moving about. He found a place near Loch Affric that he liked and then he moved to the place he is at now. That was seven years ago.”
Now 65, Davy sleeps in one tent, has another as a store and a third where he keeps his fly fishing kit. He surrounds his camp with a fence which helps in some measure to shield him from the mountain winds that swirl all around. He calls this fence his “stockade”.
Caunce was introduced to him while visiting another hermit, with Davy randomly calling in to check on his friend’s health while Caunce was there taking photographs. Two weeks after their first introduction, Caunce went to find Davy’s tent in deep winter conditions, walking for five hours through the Lochaber wilderness in a white out.
When he finally located the tent, Davy was not there.
Caunce found shelter for the night in an abandoned farmhouse with no heating and only a pile of damp wood from which to try and conjure a fire.
"It was bad but I made it throught the night,” he recalled.
The next morning, Davy was thankfully back at his camp and away to have a wash in the loch.
Caunce said: “Davy is a legend. What strikes you is that he is a very very ordinary guy . He is very well kept. He is always shaved and his hair is smart. He doesn’t look like what you would traditionally imagine a hermit to be.
"He lives on around £6,000 a year and his main expense is his tents, which are really top of the range mountain equipment. He needs that. He plants trees on the estate and has been offered pay for his work but he doesn’t want it. His view is that he’ll do it for free, turn up when he wants and then go home early if it is raining.
"Davy is an incredibly happy person. People do question him, why he lives like this, but the truth is he does it because he loves it. He is happiest when just roaming around.”
While the lifestyle brings a simplicity to life that alludes most of us navigating mainstream system, hardships do prevail for those who have rejected convention, not least when it comes to health and care.
Caunce met Davy at the home of Ken Smith, who is known among locals and hillwalkers as the Hermit of Treig.
The photographer tracked Ken down by piecing together a collection of vague clues on a hillwalkers website and found him at a cabin deep in Lochaber, where he has lived since 1984 .
There is no phone reception, mains electricity or water, and he uses a compostable waste system called “the bottomless pit”. His only communication with the outside world is a small radio that receives a local radio station
Ken’s lifestyle was picked up by the media after the former estate worker activiated his emergency beacon on suffering a stroke, the signal received by a control room in Texas with Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team then alerted.
He was airlifted to hospital, where he spent several weeks recovering.
Caunce said: “Ken is extremely cut off. He worked on the estate for most of his life and then he built a cabin, and then another one when that one was burnt down by vandals.
"He reads a lot. Last time I saw him, which was a couple of weeks ago, he was showing me the new Guinness Book of Records but he was saying how he didn’t understand what a lot of the records were about. ‘What is this Facebook?’ he said.”
"He is in a time capsule, he has no phone, no signal, and doesn’t want one.”
Now 74, Ken still goes on regular missions to get medication and other supplies, getting up at 4am to embark on the mission, hiking three hours to catch the train to Fort William where he fills up his 70 litre rucksack with enough supplies for three to four weeks before repeating the journey in reverse.
"You could say he is an ageing hermit and that comes with issues . You wonder if it is ok for him to keep staying in such remoteness but he does get some help now from people on the estate. And I know Ken wants to stay where he is for the rest of his days.”
Caunce said he had learned much from his new contacts in the hermit world, who he now considers friends and who he continues to visit.
"They don’t have all the things that we think we need. They don’t live complex lives, they live how they want to and they are happy.”
For more information about Elliot Caunce and to see more of his work, visit www.ecaunce.co.uk