Gavin Maxwell and the Ring of Bright Water
Like many fans of Gavin Maxwell, my first encounter with Ring of Bright Water was the film version, which came out in 1969. It told the heart-warming story of Graham Merrill (Bill Travers) who buys an otter in a pet shop and subsequently takes the cute creature with him to live on the west coast of Scotland. Here, he meets the village doctor (Virginia McKenna - Travers' real-life wife) and lives an idyllic life in a remote cottage until the otter's tragic death.
I loved the movie (and still do), but it wasn't until many years later that I came across the book Ring of Bright Water and discovered the natural beauty of Maxwell's writing.
Filmed around Easdale, Seil, Argyll and Bute in Scotland, the movie bears little resemblance to the life of Gavin Maxwell, the real otter enthusiast, who lived in a former lighthouse keeper's cottage (known as Camusfearna in the book) with a view across the Sound of Sleat and the Cuillin hills on the Isle of Skye.
Born in Monreith, Maxwell enjoyed a varied and interesting career: educated at Stowe School and Oxford University, he learned how to shoot and trap game at an early age and his gun skills made him an obvious choice for work with SOE (Special Operations Executive) during the Second World War. In 1945 he founded a shark fishery on Soay and this was to become the subject of his first novel - Harpoon at a Venture. It tells the story of the ill-fated business enterprise when everything and everything goes wrong, from freak storms and broken guns to drunken crew members and rotting shark flesh.
No sooner was one difficulty overcome than another appeared...
His second book God Protect Me from My Friends was inspired by a trip to Sicily (while searching for the lost fortunes of a distant relative) and based on the life of politician and local ne-er-do-well Salvatore Guiliano, who had recently been assassinated. The book didn't do Maxwell any favours, though, as its publication brought about a trial for libel by an unhappy member of the Sicilian aristocracy.
Nevertheless, Maxwell's interest in the country was piqued. He went on to pen The Ten Pains of Death, with detailed accounts of the people he met and their stories of the Sicilian way of life, illustrating how poverty-stricken families were so often caught between the hierarchy of the Church and the stark intimidation of the Mafia.
The old men are dressed...in trousers and long-sleeved shirts, with a handkerchief at the throat and a red head-cloth as a symbol of their wisdom...
A Reed Shaken by the Wind came next, and describes Maxwell's adventures with explorer Wilfred Thesiger as they journeyed to the unexplored marshlands of southern Iraq. It was here that the infamous Mijbil first makes an appearance:
I untied the sack and out of it stepped a small creature quite unlike any otter I had ever seen
'Ere, mister, what's that supposed to be?
Back in London with his new pet, Gavin Maxwell soon discovered that a studio flat was not an ideal place for an otter. Mijbil knocked things over, poked his nose into everything and made it very clear that he needed a lot of attention. Taking the young otter out for walks also proved difficult, as strangers did not always react positively to the inquisitive creature, and eventually, it became obvious that a new abode was the only solution - somewhere far away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Maxwell's first visit to the lighthouse keeper's cottage at Sandaig was in 1949, and now, with an otter in tow, it seemed like the perfect place to live: beautiful scenery, acres of beach to explore and the peace and quiet necessary to write his next novel. More than thirty miles from the nearest town (Kyle of Lochalsh), the tiny cottage was truly isolated. Accessible only via boggy moorland, it was not blessed with such luxuries as electricity or running water, but it was ideal for Mijbil and his new owner.
The Rowan Tree Curse
The poet Kathleen Raine was having a relationship with Gavin Maxwell at the time Mijbil first came to Sandaig. Maxwell's relationships with men, however, may well have contributed to the argument he and Kathleen had one night when he arrived back at the cottage with a friend in tow, to find her still there (she had stayed on a longer than expected following a stint of looking after Mij while Gavin was away). Having been ordered out of the house, Raine tried to find somewhere to stay for the night, but ended up back at the beach. In a fit of angst, she cast what she later described as a 'curse' at the foot of the rowan tree that stood between the burn and the bridge.
The series of calamities that followed may well have come to pass anyway, but Kathleen Raine seems to have blamed herself for what happened next. In April 1957, finding herself once again looking after Mijbil at the cottage, Kathleen ignored Gavin's advice to keep the otter in his harness, and Mijbil, no doubt looking for excitement, disappeared along the shore towards the busy community of Glenelg.
In the movie Ring of Bright Water, one of the slightly more accurate scenes depicts a roadworker named Angus. Assuming Mijbil to be a wild otter, he kills the poor creature with a shovel, as the local Doctor looks on, aghast. In reality, it was a little different, but the outcome was the same.
By the time Maxwell returned home, he'd already heard rumours of an otter being killed, so it must have been incredibly traumatic trying to find out exactly what happened (the roadworker and his family stuck to the story that the animal killed was a 'mangy' creature and not the healthy specimen known to live at Camusfearna). An eyewitness, on the other hand, told Maxwell the truth - that the otter's body had been seen on the back of a truck, its skull bashed in with a pick-head.
There were, of course, other otters at Camusfearna in the coming years, but it was Mijbil who was the star of Gavin Maxwell's best-loved novel, and while he continued to produce novels during his remaining years, (including The Rocks Remain, Lords of the Atlas and The House of Elrig), none are remembered with such fondness as his most famous work.
In 1968 'Camusfearna' was destroyed in a fire and Maxwell moved to a cottage on Eilean Bàn (White Island), where he planned another project about wild mammals. Sadly, he died of cancer in 1969 before he had the chance to start work on it.
I sit in a pitch-pine panelled kitchen-living room, with an otter asleep upon its back among the cushions on the sofa, forepaws in the air, and with the expression of tightly-shut concentration that very small babies wear in sleep