Some of my earliest outdoor memories comes from walks with my granda’. I can remember getting our picture taken on the Dreel Bridge from local photographer Bill Flett of the Dundee Courier. I was maybe 4. It has helped that this picture has been at the top of the stairs in my mum’s house ever since, but at least I think I remember the day. It was warm, as it always seems to be in your childhood memories. I have shorts on in the photo.
Sometimes we’d walk two miles of the coastal path between Cellardyke and Crail to Caiplie Coves. These are natural sandstone caves that have been eroded by the sea, and man, for centuries. They’ve been used as a barn and a doocot, and as a shelter for Christian pilgrims, presumably on their way to or from St Andrews or possibly even the May Island. My granda’ told me that before the war there was a man, a hermit he was called, who had lived in the caves. He had a door at the opening and showed me where it had once been. I was baffled, intrigued and a little bit frightened. For years after I didn’t step into that part of the cave, and although I didn’t understand what the word ‘hermit’ meant, I found it quite scary.
Every time I walked past those caves I thought of someone living there, lonely, not speaking to anyone, no family, maybe chasing kids off that were climbing on his hoose. What drove a person to live in there? Granted, it’s better than nothing, but still it would be a fairly extreme place for anyone to stay, particularly in the winter.
As I got older and into teenage years, we still spent a lot of time there. We carved Iron Maiden, Slayer and Anthrax with penknives into the rocks. A nice counterpoint to the ancient Christian crosses we thought, how clever we were at 13! We swung on the rope swing that separated two of the chambers. We climbed the face, not an easy task with the soft crumbly sandstone, and dared each other to go down further into the deepest parts of the tunnel. You could go quite far into the hillside in those days. Shiteing it disnae come close!
But still, the thought of this man living there kept reoccurring in my mind. My old friend Bill, whose family have lived at Caiplie for generations, had a picture of the man in the cave in their house. Older still, though not by much, we started going to The Haven, the pub next to Cellardyke harbour. Lo and behold, whose photo is on the stairs, but this same hermit? I used to see this photo and think the same feelings that were in me when I was a bairn. Curiosity, fear, interest, who was he, how did he manage it and most importantly, why was he there?
Was he really a German spy and that’s why he disappeared just as war broke out? I had heard this story. But no, the truth is a little more unfortunate, tragic and poverty stricken. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and research done for a radio programme we now know at least a bit of the backstory of one Jimmy Gilligan, the hermit of Caiplie Coves.
Jimmy was a soldier, born in Aberdeen* into quite impoverished circumstances in 1859. By the age of twelve both his parents were dead and he was living in an orphanage. Enrolling in the Gordon Highlanders as soon as he was old enough, he served in Afghanistan from 1878 to 1880 and fought at the infamous Battle of Majuba Hill of 1881 during the first Boer War. This was a terrible battle and a right whipping for the British army, one of the most humiliating in history according to Wikipedia, with 92 killed, 134 wounded and 59 captured. Jimmy himself sustained some really serious injuries, in particular to his legs and head, which he was never to really recover from. He spent the next 25 years or so in and out of various hospitals and institutions, happening upon Caiplie on 1909 and moving in.
Too old for duty by the time WW1 kicked off, he volunteered anyway, but had been discharged in 1882 for assaulting a corporal. He no doubt suffered from PTSD and significant head trauma, as well as the injuries to his leg which made the walk to town or the local farm he sometimes sheltered at, especially in the dark winter months, very difficult. Due to the outbreak of war in 1914 he was no longer able to carry his lantern, or indeed have it on in his cave, contributing massively to the hardship of his existence at the time. The years were difficult and by the time WW2 comes around, and the same restrictions come back into force, Jimmy disappears from the Fife coast.
It seems unlikely he would be a German spy. I think he was just a war veteran, surviving as best he can in time with no compensational help for war wounded. And he seemed to be popular among the East Neuk residents. Jimmy turns up in a Leith hospital soon after, where he dies in early 1940. He died homeless, his last address given as 1, The Pleasance, Edinburgh. The Salvation Army Hostel has the same address to this day.
It’s a sad lonely, story. And looking at the picture of Jimmy you can tell the years have been far from easy; he looks a lot older than he actually was at the time. Was he someone’s grandad? My granda’ must have remembered him and known more about him, maybe even spoke to him. He would’ve been 13 years old in 1939, too young to fight Nazism but old enough to be shipped off to India at the tail end of the war. It’s one of those seemingly insignificant conversations that you wish you could still have with someone who is no longer here. Caiplie Coves, for all the memories I have of the place that are unconnected with him, for some reason really reminds me of my granda’, more so than any other place save his house and hut, Anster bowling green and Pittodrie. Maybe we only actually went there once and all my memories are from the same day, but I don’t think so. No doubt the tale of Jimmy Gilligan is intertwined in those memories too.
Like my mind, Caiplie Coves are much more eroded these days than they were near 40 years ago when I first went with granda’. They seem to change every time I’m there, which isn’t often these days, the last time was some 6 years or so ago. You can’t see where I carved Iron Maiden anymore, it was on the top, but you can see where the hinges for Jimmy’s door were hung. It’s still a special place for me and maybe in a few years, when my daughters are old enough, we’ll go there and tell them that I came here when I was your age, and that a hermit used to live here. Only this time I know his name.
* For anyone who knew my granda’, it just had to be there didn’t it!
Glossary of terms
Granda’: Grandfather to Sir Walter Scott. In this case, yer ma’s da.
Doocoot: A doo’s hoose. A pigeon’s residence.
Hoose: Abode. Dwelling. Residence.
Bairn: A wee lad. A child.
Shieting it: Filling one’s breeks. Really scared.
Disnae: Pronounced Disney. Does not.
Hut: A shed.
Anster: Anstruther. Fish and chips.
Pittodrie: Former dung hill for police horses. Hallowed Ground.
The following text is from the Sunday Post September 5th 1915.
Fife Coast Cave Dweller anxious to serve his Country
Jimmy Gilligan is an Aberdeen man. When he was young the life of a soldier appealed to him, and he threw in his lot with the old 92nd, the Gordon Highlanders.
He served for three years in Afghanistan under Lord Roberts. He also fought in the first Majuba, when he was wounded in the head – the mark of which he bears to this day – and also in the legs. Soldiering in these days was not what it is today. There were no special inducements such as allowances for dependants, and no compensation for the wounds sustained in fighting for King and Country.
He had an adventurous career before he chanced on the neighbourhood of the Fife Royal burgh. Broken in health, suffering from an internal malady and injuries to his legs, he had been out of one hospital and into another, when some six years ago he was discharged from one in Edinburgh. It was at his home that his footsteps brought him to Fife. He had no plans but as he trudged along the seafront the waves as they dashed themselves against the rocks took hold upon him. It was the beginning of winter and the sea was in its most entrancing mood. The wanderer was footsore and weary; he wished to rest.
And it seems as if nature had answered the unspoken prayer of the homeless man and provided him with a shelter for his head. The sight of the Caiplie Caves brought joy to the heart of Jimmy Gilligan. Here he could find rest for a time at least, but never for a moment did he imagine that the deep, dark cave in the heart of the huge rock would provide him with a home for six years and as he fervently believes, for many more years to come.
The weather, however, provided a deceiving factor. The storms of winter soon broke upon the land and, not being in the best of health, the wanderer was forced to make the best of the rude shelter which had so fortunately been found.
But while providing a cover for his head, the cave was by no means an ideal habitation. Damp and dark and open to the cold wintry blast from the North Sea, with the angry waters at high tide dashing practically to the mouth of the cave, there was little comfort to be found.
But Gilligan set himself to make his newfound home as comfortable as circumstances would permit. It was a slow process. Suitable materials for his wants was difficult to obtain. Not over-burdened with worldly wealth, he could not purchase what he desired. Here again Nature, provided him with much material wherewith to protect himself from the elements.
By degrees, he added to the comforts of his new quarters. By an ingenious device, he fitted up a stove in the interior of his cave and he quickly overcame the smoke difficulty by gathering sufficient piping to make an ideal chimney, which he carried through an aperture above the doorway. Flooring from the wood he gathered on foreshore kept him off the damp ground, and as the winter months passed and he had procured a bed, a table and several chairs, it occurred to him that he might do worse than take up permanent residence.
The Cave Dweller of Crail is a great favourite with visitors and he enjoys their visits to the full and is delighted to show his home to all callers. A farmer close by is very good to the hermit and Jimmy is often to be found there. He used to spend his winter evenings among the men employed on the farm, returning to his cave in the darkness. He always carried a lantern with him on these occasions as the road is a very dangerous one, but these happy evenings are now a thing of the past. A light at night on the Fifeshire coast is an offence, and Jimmy is forced to remain indoors after dark. This means a long, long, lonely night for the old man but he finds much pleasure in his books.