Tom Leppard, the Tattooed Hermit

Last week, via Twitter I found this little set of images by a good friend and colleague, the London-based photographer Richard Baker. I was struck by the text and images which I thought formed a tender little portrait of both a day out as a working photographer, and also of Tom Leppard, the tattooed hermit of Skye. Within my own years as a Glasgow-based photographer working in papers and magazines I was aware of Tom Leppard, but never ever photographed him, so I was interested last week on stumbling into Richard’s pictures and text below. Kindly Richard has allowed us to share them with you, many thanks! – Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.

Tom Leppard, by Richard Baker.

In the winter of 2007, as part of a book project on the concept of Home, I was asked to travel to Scotland to visit a tattooed hermit, called Tom Leppard (then 72), who had for 22 years, been living in seclusion in a self-adapted retreat, at a secret location on the Isle of Skye.

The tattooed hermit, Tom Leppard (1935-2016) at his secret island hideaway on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2007. ©Richard Baker.

Converting the north-facing dry-stone walls of a sheep shelter into a sunken, habitable space, he had created a roof using a blue tarpaulin weighted down by heavy rocks to stop the strong winds – a technique used throughout the Western Isles and outer Hebredes. Entering the shelter was like experiencing Shackleton’s cabin on ‘Endurance’ – every nook and cranny, crammed with the items of a survivalist and with blue tarpaulin light that gave the eerie impression of a twilight world.

Protected inside against harsh winters, he used his knowledge of survival skills learned from his career in the Royal Navy and army, to help him stay fit and largely healthy. By then however, his memory was failing and muscular ailments troubled him. Few, except trusted friends who concerned themselves with his welfare, knew his exact whereabouts and they came to check on him periodically when poor weather prevented him from crossing a 2km-wide Loch in an old canoe to pick up mail and to buy essentials. His days were spent washing, cleaning and carrying out maintenance jobs that kept his home meticulously clean.

The tattooed hermit, Tom Leppard (1935-2016) at his secret island hideaway on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2007. ©Richard Baker.
The tattooed hermit, Tom Leppard (1935-2016) at his secret island hideaway on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2007. ©Richard Baker.

I’d arranged with a local man to ferry me over early to meet Tom and I spent a cold day with him. The only thing that was asked of me was to not reveal where Tom lived, and to take a couple of bottles rum, a reminder of his Navy days. I remember we talked about his life there and how he coped with loneliness and isolation through dark winters. He showed me his collection of books, all carefully wrapped in plastic covers and how he carefully stored his dry food, to stop them going mouldy from damp. We warmed ourselves with a tot of rum and I photographed him going about his daily chores: fetching water, washing his clothes in freezing water, and feeding his beloved birds.

Tattooed hermit Tom Leppard replenishes bird seed for nearby beloved wildlife in trees near secret hideaway shelter on Skye, Scotland in 2007. ©Richard Baker.
The tattooed hermit, Tom Leppard (1935-2016) at his secret island hideaway on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2007. ©Richard Baker.

“I decided I wanted to be the biggest of something, the only one of something .. it had to be a tattoo,” said Tom. And after a few more tattoos, he at one time became recognised in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most tattooed man in the world. The idea was that I would photograph him showing off his body markings but I soon realised when I reached the island, that it was much too cold to ask him to disrobe.

The tattooed hermit, Tom Leppard (1935-2016) at his secret island hideaway on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2007. ©Richard Baker.

At some point in the afternoon, the boat to collect me again turned up and the last I saw of Tom was a small, waving figure on the beach – a happy, smiling man on the periphery of society totally comfortable, seemingly at peace, with his own off-grid social distance.

Tom Leppard (b1935) was a remarkably resilient septuagenarian who eventually agreed to move off his island hideaway to enter local sheltered accommodation on the mainland. He passed away in 2016.

Richard Baker is on Instagram, and Twitter.


We hope you have enjoyed the above article and images. Since forming in 2012 all the work featured on this site, and the work undertaken to enable it, has been free of charge. Now, times are changing. To continue we feel we need to ask for your support, to help us manage our time and energies, and to continue sharing photography we care about. Please visit our Patreon page and consider being a supporter. Thank you – Jeremy, Sophie, Colin. 

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Document Scotland launches its Patreon initiative

DOCUMENT SCOTLAND SEEKS SUPPORT TO CONTINUE MAKING AND SHOWCASING THE BEST OF SCOTTISH DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY

Document Scotland is launching an initiative to continue the work they do to support photography in Scotland. They are inviting individuals and organisations to become their patrons, and in doing so, putting the work of the collective on a sustainable financial footing.

Since their formation in 2012, Document Scotland’s photographers Sophie Gerrard, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert and Colin McPherson have worked on collaborative and individual projects which have led to a series of high-profile exhibitions at home and abroad, the production of a number of publications and the staging of live public events in towns, cities and communities across Scotland.

Through our website, Document Scotland has been able to showcase new and historical work by Scottish photographers or stories about their nation. The website is now regarded as an important public resource for anyone interested in Scottish photography.

In order to continue this work, Document Scotland is launching our own Patreon site, where supporters will have access to added content which will be produced in addition to the website which will continue to be freely available and publicly visible. It can be viewed here: www.Patreon.com/DocumentScotland

Commenting on the initiative, Sophie Gerrard said: “Document Scotland’s commitment to photography in this country is at the heart of everything we do. We have collaborated with individual photographers, organisations and institutions over the last eight years to promote and disseminate outstanding work. We want this to continue, but recognise that we are living in a new financial landscape and that to be able to work this way, we need the support of people to become our patrons.

“By launching our Patreon initiative, we hope to take people on the next leg of our journey. Patrons’ support will mean we can work on our own projects and help other photographers. We are committed to remunerating contributors who work with us and as our support network grows, so will the opportunities for photographers to collaborate and work with us.”

Formed in 2012, Document Scotland is a collective of three Scottish documentary photographers brought together by a common vision to witness and photograph the important and diverse stories within Scotland at one of the most important times in our nation’s history. 

Document Scotland’s major exhibitions include their seven-month show entitled The Ties That Bind at the Scottish National Portrait in 2015-16, Beyond the Border, their first major exhibition outside Scotland, staged at Impressions Gallery in Bradford in 2014, Common Ground at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow in 2014, at the Festival Interceltique, the world’s largest Celtic cultural event in 2017 and latterly through A Contested Land, which premiered at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol in 2019 and toured across Scotland and England throughout last year.

We look forward to hearing from you and taking you on the next stage of our journey!

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