Obituary: Andy Robin, wrestler, woodsman and owner of Hercules the Bear

Andy Robin, wrestler. Born: 31 August, 1935 in Stirling. Died: 4 December, 2019 in Auchterarder, aged 84.

They were one of life’s unlikeliest couples, like Mulder and Scully, or Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, or maybe Tom and Jerry. Yet, although they were different species, Andy Robin and Hercules the Bear were kindred spirits, running, tumbling, playing in the glen, wrestling together literally in the heather.

Andy Robin was a famous wrestler before he and his wife Maggie adopted Hercules as a cub. But, as the owner of the grizzly bear who starred as ‘The Big Softie’ in Kleenex adverts and attracted worldwide attention after going missing for 24 days in the Hebrides, Robin became famous beyond the wrestling fraternity. This was a bear who met Margaret Thatcher, appeared in a James Bond movie and was named Scotland’s ­Showbusiness Personality of the Year.

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Hercules seemed to epitomise the spirit of his big, physical, human companion, who left school to work in the woods, felling trees with axe and saw. Andy Robin loved the outdoors, he loved the smell of resin on his hands, hands so large they seemed like paws.

He enjoyed the solitude of the woods and yet he was also ­gregarious, a charmer, showman and practical joker who would order a heap of fertiliser for a friend for a laugh.

Andy Robin started as a woodsman in his mid-teens and even when he was wrestling on ­television, in bouts that would attract audiences of up to 10 million on ITV, Robin ­continued working as a forester. He would work in the woods in Perthshire or Stirlingshire in the morning, drive down to Nottingham for a bout in the evening, drive back to Scotland afterwards and be back in the woods next morning. He had a series of horses, carts and tractors, then a ­lorry with “Robin’s the name and ­timber’s the game” written on the side.

For many, Andy Robin was the name and wrestling was the game. In North America he toured with Andre the Giant, who starred in The Princess Bride. For many more, Andy Robin was a name they immediately linked with Hercules. They were virtually inseparable from the day Robin and his wife got him from the ­Highland Wildlife Park in ­Kingussie in 1975.

The son of a miner and a hotel cook, Andrew Robin was born in Stirling in 1935. Full of energy, he never really settled in school and felt more at home in the open. When he was 12 he adopted a stray ­spaniel called ­Sammy, the first in a series of close ­animal companions. A few years ­later he cared for two jackdaw chicks he found in a nest in a tree he had chopped down. He released them into the wild, but they would revisit him and perch one on each shoulder.

He tried his hand at ­boxing, but did not like the idea of his features being redrawn by some opponent’s fist, so he switched to wrestling. He competed on the Highland Games circuit, won a world title and was invited to wrestle in North America. He set off in a second-hand kilt with a breadknife in his sock instead of a sgian dubh. He spent two years wrestling in North America, where his ­opponents included Terrible Ted, who was a black bear.

Back in the UK he became one of the stars of wrestling on ITV. He met Maggie ­Nimmo, a champion showjumper, at the Perth Show in 1972. They were soon living together and would eventually marry in Los Angeles in 1983. Robin had had two previous marriages, which ended in divorce, and four children. His union with Maggie would last the rest of his days. Instead of children they had a bear.

“Andy and I agreed we would do everything we could to share our lives with a wrestling bear,” Maggie Robin wrote in her book Hercules the Bear: A Gentle Giant in the Family (1981). “This was to be no ordinary wrestling bear however, chained and trained only to entertain, degraded into a dangerous clown… Andy had a vision of an ­animal that would spar with him on equal terms, a friend and companion.”

Robin maintained Hercules had better provision than many humans, with his own compound, complete with swimming pool, alongside the Robins’ ranch house in the Perthshire hills. Robin and Hercules wrestled together for their own entertainment and for the entertainment of others. And Hercules became a star, making celebrity appearances and adverts for Kleenex, including one in the summer of 1980 on Benbecula, during which Herc went for a swim and just kept going.

Hercules was missing for 24 days before a crofter spotted him swimming off North Uist and he was recaptured/rescued. Hercules, who weighed half a ton, had lost about 20 stones, but seemingly no farmers lost any livestock. Robin said that Hercules would not have associated the animals in the field with the food he was served roasted on a platter.

For a while in the early 1980s Andy, Maggie and Hercules lived in California. In 1992 I visited them at their ranch in Perthshire for The Scotsman’s Weekend section. Robin had cut down on wrestling, but still kept himself fit chopping wood. “Ah’m still in the timber,” he said. “Ah love it.”

Maggie said: “When Herc died (in 2001), something of Andy went with him. He was never quite the same again.”

The Robins moved to Auchterarder, where Maggie ran a fashionwear shop called Bear Necessities. ­Latterly, Robin had a Jack Russell called Robbie. In ­Robin’s final hours in the local ­cottage hospital, Robbie climbed onto the bed. Silently he laid his head on his master’s giant, paw-like hand as Robin slipped away, the big man’s bond with ­animals evident to the end.

Brian Pendreigh