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Issue 77 - The Rocks Remain

Scotland Magazine Issue 77
October 2014

 

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The Rocks Remain

Gavin D Smith celebrates the writer Gavin Maxwell's Century

Mention the name Gavin Maxwell in a word association game and it is pretty certain that the response will be ‘otters’. Maxwell, who was born a century ago this year, was the author of the best-selling book Ring of Bright Water, published in 1960, which chronicled his life in the remote West Highlands with a number of otters, most famously Mijbil.

In 1969, the book was turned into a movie, starring husband and wife actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. The film was heavily fictionalised, and the Gavin Maxwell figure, played by Travers himself, is a Londoner eager to escape the rat race, while Virginia McKenna plays a Highland doctor with whom he falls
in love.

In reality, Maxwell was a repressed homosexual, who had a long and torturous relationship with the poetess Kathleen Raine, though he was briefly married, and also dated Princess Margaret for a short period. Additionally, he was a heavy drinker, even a functional alcoholic, with a mercurial personality and a number of fanciful and failed business ventures behind him when he came to write his best-loved book.

But as it turned out, that book was a triumph of lyrical and descriptive prose, and made thousands of town and city dwellers yearn for the apparently idyllic life of the remote Highlands, as close to nature as it was possible to get.
Ring of Bright Water – which took its title from a line of poetry by Kathleen Raine - sold some two million copies and its sequels, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother also proved extremely popular.

Gavin Maxwell was born into an aristocratic family which owned The House of Elrig near Monreith,Galloway, in July 1914. He was the youngest of three sons, and his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell, was killed a few months later on active service.

Maxwell’s upbringing in an upper-class environment without a father figure was idiosyncratic, and he spent much time on the Galloway coast, where his love of nature blossomed. His early life in Galloway was chronicled in his marvelous book
The House of Elrig, published in 1965.

During the Second World War, Maxwell served as an instructor in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which used the Scottish Highlands for training purposes and a medical officer described him as ‘A creative psychopath.’ However, it is now thought that he suffered from bipolar disorder, which would certainly explain his sometimes chaotic and excessive approach to life.

After the war ended, Maxwell embarked upon a scheme to fish commercially for basking sharks on the island of Soay, near Skye, which he purchased, and although the enterprise failed, it provided him with material for his first book –
Harpoon at a Venture, published in 1952.

This was followed by
A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1959) which chronicled his experiences among the Marsh Arabs in Southern Iraq with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger. During this expedition, Maxwell was given an otter cub, named Mijbil, which he took home to the UK.

Maxwell and Mijbil set up home at Sandaig on the Glenelg peninsula, but being a man who valued his privacy, the author fictionalised Sandaig as Camusfearna in his ‘otter trilogy.’ Alas, the success of
Ring of Bright Water meant that rather too many visitors for Maxwell’s liking found their way to his door, and then tragedy struck. Kathleen Raine had been looking after the otters while Maxwell was away, and when Mijbil ran off during a walk with Raine, he was killed by a road-worker.

“Mij meant more to me than most human beings of my acquaintance,” wrote Maxwell later in life.

Then, in 1968, Maxwell’s cottage was burnt to the ground, and Edal, his second otter, died in the fire. It is claimed that Raine had cursed Gavin Maxwell after a row over their relationship, and she blamed herself for the series of tragic events that followed.

Maxwell had previously bought the island of Eilean Ban, between Kyleakin on Skye and Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, and moved to the former lighthouse keeper’s cottage there. He had plans to create a zoo on the island – featuring initially otters, owls, foxes, goats and even eider ducks. He also intended to continue writing, inviting the young naturalist John Lister-Kaye to join him as researcher for a book about popular British mammals and as curator of the zoo.

Unfortunately, these plans came to nothing, as Gavin Maxwell’s one-time 80-a-day cigarette habit caught up with him, and he died of lung cancer in September 1969, aged just 55.

His ashes were buried at Sandaig, and a plaque there commemorates his life.

Maxwell is also commemorated by the ongoing work of the Eilean Ban Trust, and the six-acre island itself is now home to one of the large supports for the Skye Bridge, which dwarfs the lighthouse built in 1857.

Eilean Ban, rented by the trust from its owners The Forestry Commission, offers much for lovers of wildlife and the works of Maxwell. Guided visits to the island are on offer, and there is a recreation of Maxwell’s living room, complete with original artefacts. It is even possible to stay in the renovated lighthouse keeper’s cottage.

At Kyleakin on Skye there is a Bright Water Visitor Centre, which interprets Eilean Ban, with information on the flora and fauna and history of the island, plus Gavin Maxwell’s role in its heritage. This is also the place to book tours of and accommodation on Eilean Ban (www.eileanban.org).

Despite his success as a writer, posterity seems to have dealt rather harshly with Gavin Maxwell. Although he helped millions of people develop a fascination with the natural world, his credentials as a conservationist have been questioned, partly because rather than allowing Mijbil and his other otters to live ‘natural’ lives, each was allocated a room in Maxwell’s cottage and was fed eels transported from London! The basking shark fishing venture probably counted against him, as well, though Maxwell clearly saw himself as a passionate and committed conservator.

Aspects of his personal life have also caused raised eyebrows, most notably the fact that two under-age young men, namely Terry Nutkins (who became a well-known TV naturalist) and Jimmy Watt, moved to Sandaig to help Maxwell care for the otters. Indeed, Maxwell became Nutkins’ legal guardian. There has never been the slightest suggestion of impropriety on Maxwell’s part, but the current climate is not sympathetic to such arrangements.

Perhaps for these reasons, Scotland in this ‘Year of Homecoming’ seems to be notably muted in its commemorations of the birth of Gavin Maxwell. However, an illustrated, limited edition (just 200 copies) of
Ring of Bright Water has been published, signed by Richard Branson, Virginia McKenna, Jimmy Watt and John Lister-Kaye, whose work has been greatly inspired by Maxwell. Indeed, Lister-Kaye has run the Aigas Field Centre near Beauly, for the best part of 40 years.

In a
Daily Telegraph feature published in July, Lister-Kaye wrote that “Gavin Maxwell’s legacy is immense. I know of no naturalist or conservationist of my generation who was not profoundly influenced by Ring of Bright Water, and through heightened public awareness he greatly aided the return of the otter to our rivers and wetlands.”

Each copy of the limited edition of
Ring of Bright Water retails for £1,500 and proceeds are being donated to the Eilean Ban Trust, to aid its efforts to preserve the island environment and celebrate the life and work of Gavin Maxwell.