IN this age of connectivity and near-constant surveillance the idea of a solitary priest living a monkish life removed from the eyes of society seems like something out of a story book. But in a hut down a path in a forest in Fife – off-grid and, on an un-seasonally cool day of heavy rain, uninvitingly off-road – you’ll find Willy Slavin. Formerly of the parish of Barlinnie (plus a few more besides) he’s now retired to this humble sylvan retreat to read, think, look out the window and, today, welcome a guest eager to hear about his long and eventful life.

Slavin, who turns 80 in January, has been living in the hut since retiring from the priesthood in 2014. A sinecure of sorts it’s sited on land owned by Ninian Crichton Stuart, cousin to the current Marquess of Bute. A hundred or so metres away through the trees you can just make out the shape of a hut that Crichton Stuart himself owns. It’s the closest thing Slavin has to a neighbour.

Slavin’s hut is small and bare. There’s a wood-burning stove in one corner, a single bed pushed against the other long wall and a deep shelf running in front of the only window functions as a desk. He cooks on a rudimentary one ring camping stove and his food comes from a shop in the nearby village. There’s no electricity and no toilet, so he either uses the forest or what he refers to as “the facilities” in a nearby café. The hut doesn’t have an address either, at least not one the Royal Mail would recognise, so for all correspondence of a snail mail nature Slavin uses his sister’s address in Glasgow. For the digital sort he has his iPad (OK, so he’s not entirely off grid).

“I love it,” he says as I stand taking it in, from the rocking chair on the platform outside to the small pile of books on the desk, among them Is This All There Is?, a reflection on death, resurrection and eternal life by the Catholic theologian Gerhard Lohfink. But what about the cold? The place is cool enough on a summer day like this so aren’t the winters unbearable? “No, no,” says Slavin, shaking his head. “Because of the stove. And we haven’t had a bad winter in the last couple of years anyway”.

Over the front door is a cross. Inside are more religious icons and a photograph of Slavin on the summit of the Inaccessible Pinnacle in the Cuillins. He started Munro-bagging aged 43 and the In Pinn, as it’s known by enthusiasts, was the one that completed the set. He seems plenty pleased with himself in the picture, but there’s something else there too – a sense of exuberance, zest and maybe a touch of mischief.

Those same qualities come over both in his person – during our two hours together he’ll describe himself variously as “a non-conformist” and “a bit of a delinquent” – and in his writing. It’s the second which has brought me here.

When Slavin retired and began to divest himself of his worldly goods, he destroyed his half century’s worth of diaries and papers but not before he had mined them for a memoir. He wrote it for his own satisfaction initially, but he showed it to friends and former colleagues and somehow a copy found its way to Edinburgh-based publishers Birlinn who have published it as Life Is Not A Long Quiet River.

The title is a nod to a 1988 French film Slavin loves which takes a satirical sideswipe at the Catholic church and at bourgeois morality. Elsewhere there are mentions of and references to everyone from Socrates and TS Eliot to Bob Dylan and Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born philosopher, anti-colonialist and political revolutionary.

Mostly, though, the memoir tells the story of Slavin’s life, beginning with his birth to politically-active working class parents in 1940 and his upbringing in the south Glasgow suburb of Penilee, where most people worked in the local Rolls Royce engine-making factory. It covers his first football match (lifted over the turnstiles at Ibrox, would you believe, to watch Rangers play) and his decision to train to be a priest despite not having “the faintest idea” of what it would entail. And it tells of his years at the Scots College in Rome during the epoch-making Second Vatican Council, his later work in parishes around Glasgow and his training in psychology, and it details his life-changing decision to move to Bangladesh in the mid-1970s and the troubling, eye-opening decade he spent working in Barlinnie Prison after his return.

He falls in love (twice), eats tortoise with an Italian hermit (once), sees Sophia Loren drinking coffee in a Roman café, encounters Mother Teresa in far less salubrious circumstances, spends two years living in a Glasgow squat, flirts with liberation theology (a powerful Christian-Marxist mash-up driving political change in the world’s poorest countries) and even heads up the Scottish Drugs Forum, an organisation offering guidance on drug issues. And throughout he wrestles with the priestly requirements that give his book its over-arching structure: poverty, obedience and celibacy.

THAT last one seems like a good place to start. “Making a case for celibacy is just as difficult as the case for obedience and poverty,” he says when I mention the C-word. “I think the difference nowadays is that people are going into it [the priesthood] later so they might have had sexual experience and then they’re opting for celibacy, whereas for us it was something we had no knowledge of.”

He has no regrets, though, he is “subject to questioning on it”. “I’m not having a dogmatic opinion about it. I lived my life this way. It was the life that was offered to me. I happened to live this life of being single.”

Sex is one thing, love is another. If you don’t count actress Debbie Reynolds, whose performance in 1955 comedy The Tender Trap had a stirring effect on him when he was 15, Slavin has had two love affairs. The first was in Glasgow in the 1960s, shortly after he returned to the city from Rome. She was older than him, a nun and the head teacher at a private Catholic primary school in the West End. On one jaunt together they visited Iona, leaving at 4am and not returning until midnight. It felt daring and exciting.

The second was in Jessore in Bangladesh. Again she was a nun and a teacher. Slavin met members of her family and accompanied her on boat trips to the villages where she worked. She even visited Scotland. But she died young in Bangladesh, eschewing the special medical care that might have saved her. Slavin later made a return visit to the country to visit her grave.

They’re touching stories. More than that they gave Slavin first-hand experience of the highs to be had at the messier end of human emotions. Did it make him regret not having fallen in love more often?

“No, no,” he laughs. “I did it twice and that was enough. It was very painful. But I think it was alleviated by the fact that I was very politically involved and very socially involved, so I was caught up in a lot of other things at the same time. I didn’t take time out to be with a loved one, as it were.”

Slavin spent five years in Bangladesh. He went in on an almost empty plane from India in 1975, shortly after most of the government had been murdered in a series of coups. “I was crapping myself,” he says with a grin. The poverty he saw was jaw-dropping but he found the country itself to be “a garden, an absolutely beautiful place”. He learned Bengali and was only able to phone home once. He also met Mother Teresa. “She loved talking to you, unlike some other famous people I’ve met who just pass by. She got you – bang! – and you were the only other person in the room as far as she was concerned.”

Criticised by many, loved by many more Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003. Did she seem saintly to Slavin? He looks a little uncomfortable at the question. “Not particularly,” he replies. “But she was an extraordinary individual”.

Slavin returned to Scotland from Bangladesh in 1980. In 1982 he took up a position at the Barlinnie Prison, working mostly with prisoners on remand. He was there for 10 years, a period which included the 1987 riot.

“I knew nothing at all about Barlinnie. I grew up in the south side [of Glasgow], it was in the north side. I didn’t think about prison at all, didn’t think about prisoners, never knew anyone who went to prison. It was a complete revelation. I went in and I was absolutely horrified. There was complete contempt for the prisoners from the officers or the screws or whatever they called them.”

Justification for that contempt came from the officers’ view that the prisoners had transgressed in some way, a feeling rooted in a kind of sermonising morality. But as imprisonment for drug offences began on a large scale in the 1980s, that attitude began to be questioned and slowly conditions in Scottish prisons began to improve. Slavin was one of those fighting on behalf of the inmates.

“I was a bit of a delinquent myself, you know, I was always kind of resistant [to authority]. And what I saw in the prison magnified that because there was a whole crowd of people who had not conformed and to make them conform they were treated like dirt, which didn’t work. But then when they were treated a little better, the opportunity came when they could improve themselves.”

SCOTLAND never seemed able to hold Slavin for long, though. His experience of the seminary in Rome and later his half decade in Bangladesh have made him an inveterate traveller, and one with a habit of finding himself in interesting places at interesting times.

Somehow or other he finds his way to the USSR in 1969. Then he’s in Cairo shortly after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 has swelled the city with thousands of displaced civilians. In 1989, weeks after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he’s in Beijing talking to a nonagenarian priest who lived through the Chinese Civil War and was imprisoned for decades. He has been to Cuba. He has visited prisons in Africa where the inmates are made to carry the guards’ rifles because to carry your own rifle is thought demeaning.

And one day at a conference in the US he gets a little more than he bargains for when he takes pity on a South American priest sitting on his own and decides to introduce himself. “Willy Slavin,” he says, extending his hand. “Gustavo Guttierez,” the man replies – Gustavo Guttierez, the Lima-born father of liberation theology, a noted philosopher and thinker and the garlanded recipient of accolades such as France’s Legion of Honour. “He just wanted a break, five minutes of peace, and this bloody Scotsman comes up and talks to him!”. Slavin hoots at the recollection, pleased that even I have heard of Gustavo Guttierez.

But even a room this small and calm and humble can have an elephant in it. Since the mid-1990s the Catholic Church has been mired in allegations, many subsequently proven, of systemic and wide-ranging sexual abuse by priests. There have been court cases, compensation pay-outs on a massive scale and apologies from Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, who summoned the world’s bishops to Rome in February for a conference on the issue. The church in Scotland has not been free of allegations.

In Life Is Not A Long Quiet River Slavin details the one time he was the recipient of an unwanted advance. An older pupil at Blairs College, the Aberdeen Catholic school Slavin attended, touched his leg on a bus. He doesn’t skirt the broader issue in the book, either. But as a working priest, was he aware that sexual abuse was happening?

“No,” he says. But he adds: “It’s always very difficult to view the past with the vision of the present. I don’t think people turned a blind eye, I think people saw exactly what was happening and didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. My comic response to the sex abuse [scandal] is a four letter word – Eton. E-T-O-N. There it was just taken for granted. That’s what happened. I mean, until the 1980s, when people were writing their memoirs they never mentioned sex, though obviously it happened. Now they’re looking back and some are looking back and saying: ‘Well I was abused but what the heck, that’s what happened’. Others are looking back and saying: ‘I need to get some recompense or somebody needs to be punished for this’.”

Whether there can be a comic response to sex abuse claims is a moot point but the issue of recompense is an important one. Is it needed? “Yes, because more [cases] will come out of the woodwork,” says Slavin. “I would be in favour of the church liquidating its assets.”

LOOKING back over his 50 years of ministry, Willy Slavin has seen a lot, talked a lot, heard and learned a lot and witnessed some profound societal changes along the way. “Child poverty in my day was no teeth,” he says at one point, by means of illustration. “Child poverty nowadays is no trainers”. What, then, has not changed? Global poverty on a mass scale, he thinks. It’s still the world’s most pressing problem. Human nature hasn’t changed either. “People are just as greedy as ever, in my humble opinion. Greedy for whatever they can get their hands on. Greedy for the latest phone … Material progress is constant and ongoing but whether it makes human nature any better I very much doubt. My opinion: one head, two legs, two arms, up to the same nonsense.”

Another constant in life is death, of course. Since completing his memoir Slavin has been diagnosed with bladder cancer so although he has successfully completed a course of chemotherapy at the Beatson Cancer Centre in Glasgow (another reason he needs a postcode: outpatient appointments) death is now less abstract and more personal a subject than perhaps it used to be. Accordingly he has begun to think seriously about it. So what does he believe will happen when he dies?

“I have no idea,” he says and laughs lightly.

I press him. “But you still believe in God,” I suggest. “You still believe in Heaven …”

He pauses for one, two, three beats. “These are very difficult concepts. To be frank, talk about God is very complex. I do believe there is a further dimension to life than what we have at the moment. But it would be a long day’s walk to talk about what it is.”

Though you wouldn’t know it from the weather today it’s summer so Willy Slavin has plenty of long days ahead of him still. There’s time enough to walk and talk, or to sit and think and stare through the window. If there is a way out of the woods, he may yet find it.

Life Is Not A Long Quiet River: A Memoir is out now (Birlinn, £12.99)