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What a hermit taught me about wealth

BY Sean McBride

18th Aug 2022 Life

What a hermit taught me about wealth

During his childhood holidays along the rugged Scottish coastline, Sean McBride encountered a mysterious hermit named Snib who taught him what is truly valuable in life

We first encountered the hermit in the summer of 1974 during a holiday on the rugged southwest coast of Scotland. I was waiting for a bus from Bennane Hill Caravan Site with my mum and my brothers, Abel and Kevin. We were heading for a day out in Girvan. 

It was Kevin, then aged five, who spotted him first and broke the silence excitedly shouting out that he’d seen a “tramp” and pointing him out. I was thrilled to look up and see that there was indeed a tramp shuffling along the road opposite us dressed in rags. 

My poor mum was mortified, scolding Kevin, and saying it was a terrible thing to call someone. When he pointed out that he must be a tramp because his clothes were all brown, she countered that maybe brown was his favourite colour. We weren’t buying it. He was a tramp. 

My memories of Snib 

boy playing on a Scottish beach

Sean McBride and his brothers adventured along the beach, while giving Snib space

Over the years we’d come to know him as “The Hermit”. We’d see him countless times as we explored the shores around Bennane Hill seeking adventure while he combed the beaches picking up firewood. He liked his space, we liked our adventures, and we gave each, to the other. Our paths crossed often, and our lives were perfectly blended.  

The people in the local village of Ballantrae shared our respect for the hermit who they called Snib. We’d seen him in the village streets during our visits and people left food and tobacco out for him on shop windows and walls. I didn’t learn till many years later that this was because he was a proud man who never accepted charity directly. 

"Our paths crossed often, and our lives were perfectly blended"

During our holidays over the next nine years, we’d often see Snib anywhere along the 15 miles of shoreline between Girvan and Ballantrae. He was certainly quiet. In all that time, I don’t think he’d said a word to us though, latterly, he occasionally gave us a nod as we passed. 

The man who became a hermit 

There’s not much recorded about the guy who became Snib. He was born Henry Ewing Torbet in 1912, and seemed to live a normal life until his thirties. It is said that he worked as a banker in Dundee and was well paid, well respected and engaged to be married.

"The great mystery of this story is that Henry suddenly walked away from everything at the age of 33"

The great mystery of this story, and indeed the making of it, is that Henry suddenly walked away from everything at the age of 33 and no one seems to know why. He lived rough for brief spells in Perth, Arrochar and elsewhere in Ayrshire before arriving at the cave at Bennane Head.

Inside Snib’s cave 

Snib’s cave was massive, located about three miles along the shore from our caravan site. There was a huge dry stain wall with a hole in the shape of a door right across the entrance. In his cave, burning the driftwood he collected from the shore, Snib had the shelter he needed. There was an abundant local supply of rabbits, fish and potatoes for nourishment. For anything else he needed, Snib exchanged bottles he collected on the shore for goods at a local shop in Ballantrae. 

Cave on a beach

Snib found shelter in a cave on the beach

Regardless of his unique lifestyle, we showed the hermit respect because my mum taught us to respect everyone. From the moment we’d set eyes on his cave, my mum demanded that we treat it as Snib’s home. The draw of its dark, mysterious interior however was just too strong. I walked into his cave one afternoon while he was out. 

Passing through the door the space inside was cavernous, larger than any living room I had ever seen. A dome shaped interior with the roof of the cave extending at least 30ft above the floor for the most part. Standing in the stillness, I could hear the familiar hiss of the sea and the light breeze rustling through the grass outside. I could smell the sea air and the seaweed. Gulls cried out somewhere in the distance. 

"On his daily commute along the beach, Snib was surrounded by beauty and regarded with respect"

I could imagine what it might have been like there beside the fire at night. The flickering glow and fierce heat and the snap and crack of the wood being consumed by the flames. Perhaps even the smell of smoking mackerel as it lay beside potatoes in the open fire. 

A childhood and a life end 

My childhood ended in the winter of 1983. Our caravan had been sold and the adventures we’d had growing up there were consigned to history. Preoccupied with the onset of adulthood, exams, girls and alcohol, I immersed myself in the material world. Unknown to me at the time, poor Snib was dying in an Ayrshire hospital

He’d been found gravely ill in his cave suffering from hypothermia. He was taken to hospital but sadly died a few days later. The people of Ballantrae erected a memorial cairn outside his cave which is there to this day. The inscription reads, “Henry Ewing Torbet (Snib) of Bennane Cave 1912–1983 Respected and independent.” 

A cairn

A cairn is a man-made pile of stones, often used for memorial purposes

Snib never took on the worries of promotion, status or ownership of a fancy car. But on his daily commute along the beach in rags seeking only the simple things in life, he was surrounded by beauty and regarded with respect. Even now I sometimes wonder if Snib wasn’t one of the wealthiest people I’ve ever met.

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