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On the trail of Hamish McHamish

St Andrews has many famous associations; its university, its golf course and being the backdrop to the romance of Prince William and his future bride Kate Middleton.

Photographs: Stewart Attwood
Photographs: Stewart Attwood

But now, the town is basking in the glory of its latest favourite son: a ginger cat who has attracted an international following and boasts about 3000 Facebook friends.

On arriving in the ancient settlement on a bright autumn day, it quickly becomes clear this is a one-cat town. Sure, there may be other moggies, but the name on everyone's lips is that of Hamish McHamish.

Every shop of note, and indeed many a private home, bears evidence of his fleeting presence, be it a food bowl in the corner, a stray ginger hair floating in his wake or a warm imprint on a chair.

Hamish McHamish officially belongs to Marianne Baird, a retired BBC producer who picked him out of the litter almost 13 years ago because he appeared the most forward. "He leapt out of the basket and I thought: 'Oh yes. I think I'll have you.' He was absolutely delightful. He was a very beautiful little kitten."

But Hamish was a rolling stone. One home was not enough for him and gradually his adventures kept him away for longer amounts of time. "I had him 'done' very early on, so it wasn't that that made him roam, he was just a natural wanderer."

Today, Hamish rarely returns home and is offered shelter and sustenance by the good people of St Andrews. Once a year Baird takes him to the vet for his annual jab and medical check.

"He is very healthy apparently. It is quite surprising. The vet knows Hamish gets fed in various places so he was quite surprised because he was the correct weight, his coat was beautiful and his kidneys were fine. He passed with flying colours."

After years of being spurned, Baird eventually got a dog. She is philosophical about Hamish's lifestyle. "Somebody once told me you can't own a cat. Cats are independent animals. You can buy one. You can give it a home but you can't own it."

Such is the level of his fame in the town, that in November 2011 resident Susan McMullan felt compelled to write a book about him. In order to track down the cat's owner and seek his or her permission, she walked the length of the town knocking on doors before she found Baird.

"Marianne said she had always thought about writing a book but just never had the time. But she said it was a brilliant idea and I should do it. At every stage I've sent her drafts and asked if she was OK with it because I wanted her approval."

A year later and the book, which features a wealth of photographs featuring Hamish going about his daily business, is about to hit the shelves. I arrive in the town ahead of the launch to try to track down himself.

We start our search at Minick of St Andrew, the local butcher shop. Stuart Minick has owned the business on South Street, in the heart of Hamish's stomping ground, for the past three years and knows the cat well.

"I see him trying to get into the shop and I threaten to put him in the mincer. I can't stand cats," he says emphatically, "but I do have a soft spot for that one."

Indeed, the new book featuring Hamish on his adventures around town has photographic evidence of Minick showing obvious affection for the ginger cat, but Minick is defiant: "In that picture I am actually saying; 'Mincer, mincer.'"

But has he seen Hamish recently? "Not for a wee while. He knows his place. He never comes right in to the shop but will sit at the door or on the window sill until he slides off. It's like the Garfield sketch; he's gone and all that's left behind is big scratches."

We hear on the town grapevine that the Sue Ryder charity shop is a favourite haunt and so make our way there. But as soon as we mention the famous visitor, a pang of disappointment hangs in the air.

"He used to come and sleep all day in that chair," says manager Fiona Black, pointing to an empty dining chair in the middle of the shop. "Then we moved the chair. I don't know if that is what has upset him. A lot of people come in just to see if he is here. He's not been coming in for a while though. He must be getting salmon somewhere else."

Staff and customers alike feel bereft. "We've still got his cat food there in the cupboard, and his biscuits, but he just doesn't come," says Black." I think it might be too busy for him. He likes the peace and quiet."

Further along South Street, close to Madras college – where Hamish once famously strolled across the stage during morning assembly – is the office of cancer charity AICR. It's a place where Hamish is clearly at home, as evidenced by the photographs in the new book of him carrying out light administrative tasks such as answering the phone and typing.

Inside, Dorothy Titterton confirms that he is a regular here. She fondly recalls the first time he came a-calling: "A colleague upstairs phoned down and said that Hamish was outside and would I let him in. So I opened the door and was looking around for a person. Then I looked down and saw him so I lifted him up and brought him in. Everyone piled downstairs to see him. We all love Hamish."

But when did you last actually see him? "I saw him out on the street last Saturday and tried to take a photo of him, but he hasn't been in here this week," says Titterton. "I've heard he gets his hair done at Dynamic Hair, though – try there."

Above the roar of hair dryers, Paula Clark, partner at Dynamic Hair, confirms her acquaintance with the ginger one. "We try to do his hair," she says. "He sometimes gets his knots cut out. He's not that happy about it when you try to brush him, but if he's got any big tangles we try to sort them out. I have taken a towel to him when he's wet, but not a blow dry. I wouldn't do that to him."

Clark confirms Hamish will often call in for his breakfast. "He's some boy. He is all over the place. He'll sometimes follow me up Queens Gardens if he is there when I'm getting out of the car. In the winter you find him in more and he'll just curl up on one of the seats and go to sleep."

But what do the human clients make of it, as they swivel round to find a cat occupying the neighbouring salon chair? "Our customers love him and are always asking if he's been in. If nobody has seen him for a while, you tend to get people coming in asking after him."

Being part of the furniture has its down side, however. "We've had to come up at night sometimes to put the alarm off because Hamish has curled up somewhere and everyone has forgotten about him. He moves and the alarm goes off."

So, when did you last see the elusive cat? "He's started going out to a little cottage out the back where the students are. He was there yesterday afternoon for something to eat and he was in here earlier for his breakfast."

Aha, the trail is hotting up. Hamish was in here a matter of hours ago. He must be nearby. Sure enough, a glance into Pagan Osborne property agents nearby reveals a ginger form splayed on the floor. "Yes, he comes in here most days," says Linda Black. She strokes his fluffy head.

"He is a wonderful sales tool. We have visitors from all over the world looking for him. He's part of the furniture."

So, what effect does he have on business? "I think it is a real leveller. People who are obviously animal lovers will come in to see if there are properties for sale, but they return because of Hamish.

"Sometimes he goes missing for a while. Sometimes he goes to student parties and he stays on. On his Facebook page you can see pictures of him at parties. He has a good life. He is very healthy."

Black and her colleagues are always relieved when he chooses to darken their door once again. "It is very much a case of this is his town and we are allowed to be here," she observes. n

Hamish McHamish Of St Andrews, Cool Cat About Town by Susan McMullan is published by Black & White publishing, priced £8.99. The book is launched at Waterstones, St Andrews at 1pm today.

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