The Leopard Man – Scotland, Europe

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In Kyle of Lochalsh tales of a Leopard Man aren’t silly stories told to scare children, but rather a quirky reality of life in this tiny town. Kyle sits small and insignificant, a little grey blob on the west coast of Scotland, across the water from Skye. From the pier you can sometimes catch a glimpse of the Leopard Man, a tiny dot on the tree covered bank of the island, or a lone figure in a battered old canoe. Once a week he will don a pair of ratty shorts and paddle across the water to the village post office in Kyle of Lochalsh to pickup food, his mail and his pension.

This Leopard Man is of course not an evil beast half-man, half-tiger who exists in the nightmares of children; he is the man who holds the record for being the most tattooed person in the world. He is a fact of life in Kyle, someone you don't want to hit with your fishing boat, the slightly odd man your children stare at. When I met him by chance, he proved to be a kind and friendly gentleman with a wicked sense of humour.

I was scuba-diving; my club had chartered a local skipper, Neil, to run us to the dive site. On the way we were swinging by the Leopard Man’s house to drop off a journalist. The house is roughly built around a structure made of beach rock. It has a roof of blue tarpaulin held down by old tyres. The building sits in a shady spot under the trees at the edge of the sandy beach in possibly the remotest corner on the Isle of Sky.

We reached the strange spot the only way you can, from the sea. There is no jetty, so Neil ran the boat as close to the shore as possible; I helped the girl clamber over the front of the boat, jump into the shallows so I could pass her bag. This was when I first saw him, my initial meeting with the Man himself. There I was hanging off the front of a boat dressed in a full body dry suit. He was wearing a loin cloth that oddly seemed to fully clothe him, probably because he was completely covered in tattoos. He looked like a cross between a leopard and a man!

Obviously, he is not the most conventional pensioner out there; I wasn’t expecting to have a normal conversation. Regardless, I gave him a pleasant smile, said hello to which he replied. “Oh I’m all embarrassed. You caught me without my teeth.”

It took a lot of will power not to collapse into a fit of the giggles. A good thing too because I didn't offend him, and the control stopped me from falling off the boat. Just as the boat pulled away, he gave me a wink and a half wave before breaking out into a big grin; I realised that had been the point of the comment in the first place. I grinned back.

So that was my meeting with the infamous Leopard Man – not so scary. He's just a bit of a nutty old bloke with a strange sense of humour.

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14 September 2010