Hermit, loner, eccentric, freak. No matter how the world chose to define him, Tom Wooldridge was apparently that rare specimen – a man happy with his lot.
He had chosen a way of life the vast majority of us would baulk at: tattooed with leopard spots over 99.2 per cent of his body and living in isolation beyond most people’s endurance.
But it had been a life entirely of his own making, created in a most calculating way to suit his needs. He had only himself and, occasionally, the cameras to please.
After deliberately setting out to become the world’s most tattooed man – a Guinness Book of Records title later relinquished to an Australian – he supplemented his income with public appearances and played up to cameras, cavorting almost naked through the Scottish countryside, draped over a tree branch, snarling, or leaning over a bank, lapping water from a stream.
Yet, for the vast majority of the time he was a quietly spoken, reserved Englishman who lived frugally in the natural environment that he loved and who was accepted in the communities which he frequented when the realities of life intervened.
A former military man, variously described as a soldier, ex-Special Services and a member of the navy, he had enjoyed solitary activities such as parachuting, sailing and canoeing and had managed to get through all his 28 years in the armed services without acquiring a single tattoo.
After retiring from the military he moved to London, but hated it, and vowed to change his life. As he put it: “I decided quite cold-bloodedly that I would get the biggest tattoo in the world and, once started, had to complete it.”
He chose leopard markings because they were easy to do. There was no affinity with cats or leopards, no spiritual significance, it was simply part of the strategy. He also had different false teeth he would use, depending on how ferocious he wanted to appear.
But, he said, it was all “a necessary evil to supplement my income support, or latterly my pension. It’s not something I enjoyed.”
Once transformed into Tom Leppard, at a cost believed to be around £5,500, he moved north to a remote part of the Isle of Skye. That was in 1987 and he spent the next 20 years or so living in the ruins of an old blackhouse, a traditional, basic dwelling, on the shore of Loch na Bèiste.
His home, with an earth floor, no windows and metal sheet roofing, did not even allow him to stand fully upright. He reportedly beachcombed for three years to furnish it and slept on a bed made of bricks and polystyrene. He lived on tinned food that he bought during regular trips by kayak across to Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland.
Interviewed for a short film on YouTube he said: “I wanted to live like this...I don’t want to leave here. To me this is heaven.” He demonstrated bathing in the icy stream but, fit though he was, he could only bear the cold for a few seconds.
Leppard, who is also thought to have made a home in a cave on the mainland, explained his lifestyle choice saying: “To me it’s normal. All I’m really doing is permanently camping, the thing I used to do at the weekends or on leave.
“I have never been lonely if I’m by myself. If I’m in a big city surrounded by people, that’s when I feel lonely.”
Interviewed by Henry Hemming, for his book, In Search of the English Eccentric, Leppard, who was described as having had a brutal convent education, put his life style down to selfishness. He had a wonderful view of Scotland’s scenery and he wanted to keep it, without sharing it with anyone.
Despite his desire for solitude he was well-liked and accepted by those he encountered on Skye – coming across nothing more than the odd jibe about making sure he “got something for his spots”.
However he had to adapt his way of life when the elements and age began to get the better of him. He feared he was just “one big wave away from disaster” during his kayak trips and, according to Neill Stephen of Skye-based Dualchas Architects, who interviewed him in 2008, when a friend offered him the chance to leave the shore of Loch na Bèiste he took the chance to move to a home in the village of Broadford.
He went from primitive dwelling to new sheltered house – with all his possessions transported in a couple of bin bags. They included a collection of books, mainly historical fiction about the Indian colonial wars, which he had read several times. He had no interest in television, radio or a phone and admitted: “I’m not really that interested in what else is going on outside.”
Family was something else that held no interest, he said: “I’ve not really got anything in common with my family. We have nothing to talk about so there’s no point in meeting them.”
Leppard, who also held the title of the most tattooed senior citizen, said he had no regrets about his tattoos or the life he chose. He lived latterly in a care home in Inverness where he died on Sunday, still known as the Leopard Man of Skye.