THE BALLANTRAE CAVEMAN AT CHRISTMAS
The smell of burning rubber was acrid in the dark confines of the cave. Henry Ewing Torbett lay snoring loudly on a straw-filled sack. One of his wellington boots had nudged into the edge of the glowing embers of a log fire that sparked and spluttered in the middle of the cave. Thick smoke swirled upwards towards the rocky outcrops that formed a vaulted ceiling. I yelled “Snib,” to waken him up. His nickname in the local village of Ballantrae was Snib Scott, because he collected cigarette butts so that he could save the unused tobacco and roll his own cigarettes. Snib grunted and rolled over to face us. “Your welly boot’s on fire” I said. “Och, these are my sleepin’ boots,” he muttered, dragging the melting welly from the embers and struggling to sit up. “Where have you been?” he enquired. “My tatties have been boilin’ for ages.”
My father brushed past me and laid a large carrier bag on the stone-strewn floor of the cave next to Snib. “Here’s your Christmas Dinner,” he said. “There’s turkey and all the trimmings, Brussels sprouts, gravy, wee sausages and stuffing. There’s a big helping of Christmas pudding and cream for you as well and I’ve left a packet of Gallagher’s Blues in the bag as a Christmas Present.”
”Thank you, thank you,” Snib said, lurching to his feet. He bent over and fumbled amongst his small heap of belongings, then straightened up and handed my father a brand new packet of 10 Capstain cigarettes. “This is for you,” he said. Despite the dying embers of the fire, the cave was bitterly cold. Snib’s home was a huge hole in the granite cliff face, next to the main Girvan to Stranraer trunk road, about two miles North of Ballantrae in South Ayrshire. The main road was all that separated the cave from the sea, which crashed and thundered onto the rocks nearby. The entrance to the cave had been partially blocked by a stone wall, built over a century earlier, when the cave had been used as a smiddy. But the wall only reached to around halfway up the cave mouth, leaving a massive gap through which rain and gales lashed in from the Firth of Clyde.
The cave, at the foot of the Bennane cliffs, had been Snib’s home for years. Born in 1912 in Dundee, it seemed that Henry Ewing Torbett or ‘Snib’ had been a bank-teller by profession, but rumour had it that he had been invalided out of the army in the Second World War and had been devastated when he returned to Dundee to find his fiancée had married another man. He had taken to the roads and found his way to Ballantrae in South Ayrshire, where he took up residence in the Bennane cave.
Snib Scott was fiercely independent. Apart from his annual Christmas dinner, he would accept no charity from anyone. He never claimed benefits. His determination to refuse charity from anyone was why he insisted on giving my father a packet of cigarettes in exchange for his Christmas dinner. The local baker and other shopkeepers in Ballantrae would leave yesterday’s bread, cakes or out-of-date vegetables in bags on top of their bins, where Snib could collect them. If anyone tried to hand something directly to Snib he would walk on. He always carried a large hessian sack slung over his back into which he would place the leftovers from the village shops, as well as road-kill like rabbits, or seagulls, which he would later roast on his fire.
It was nearing Christmas in 1982 when Snib was hit by a car. Now aged seventy, living in the exposed cave and walking up to eight miles daily, Snib had jumped over the stone dyke that separated the wee paddock in front of his cave from the A77 trunk road. He lost his footing on the steep grass embankment and stumbled in front of a passing car. The collision threw Snib over the bonnet of the vehicle, smashing his leg. An ambulance took the injured cave-dweller to Ayr County Hospital, where a team of nurses had to cut off his layers of clothing. After removing his flat cap, they discovered Snib had used an old bedroom slipper as a head-warmer. It had been on his head for so long, his hair had grown through it and it had to be cut off. They managed to bathe, shave and dress Snib and with his heavily-plastered leg, he found himself in a clean bed in one of the larger wards.
Snib’s stay in Ayr County Hospital was not without incident. One night he limped around his ward gathering up all of the newspapers before taking them to the Day Room where he piled them up in the middle of the floor and set fire to them, creating a bonfire like the one he was accustomed to in his cave at Ballantrae. Luckily fire alarms alerted the night staff who quickly extinguished the flames and marched Snib back to his bed after a strict telling off!
On Christmas Day 1982, Snib was served with two large platefuls of turkey and all the trimmings, which he tucked into hungrily. But when the duty nurse came round with the Christmas pudding, Snib’s bed was empty. He had gone. A search was mounted, but there was no sign of the old caveman anywhere. Days later, he was seen limping into Ballantrae, bits of dirty bandage flapping off his stookie, with his hessian sack slung over his shoulders as usual. Snib, aged seventy and with a broken leg, had walked the 35 miles from Ayr County Hospital back to his beloved cave.
Sadly and inevitably, despite the best efforts of the local doctor, Snib developed infected sores on his injured leg and finally, in the early part of 1983 he was taken back to hospital in Ayr. Although Snib’s sores were treatable, it was discovered that he had developed lung cancer and his condition rapidly deteriorated. Snib died within weeks. The villagers in Ballantrae erected a stone cairn outside his cave which stands to this day and bears the legend – “Henry Ewing Torbet (Snib) of Bennane Cave 1912-1983. Respected and Independent.”
Struan Stevenson was a Conservative Councillor in South Ayrshire from 1970 to 1992 and a Member of the European Parliament for Scotland from 1999 to 2014. He lives in Ballantrae.