Last Easter, my family and I took a holiday house in the West Highlands. The windows of the cottage looked onto a salt marsh, and beyond that, to the fast-moving waters of the Kyles of Lochalsh. Across the waters rose the hills of southern Skye, still dusted with snow. Nearby stood the unloved stone ruin of a barracks built to house government troops engaged on the Highland-suppressing project that followed Culloden. In those times, to southerners, the Highlands were a distant and fearsome place. Nowadays, many of the houses are holiday homes, because people rejoice in the sea and hills, the silence and the wildlife.
Our cottage had been recently done up with a wood-burning stove and comfortable furniture; a deep window ledge held a small number of books: The Highland Clearances by John Prebble, pamphlets on local flora, a field guide to birds, Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water. After we’d unpacked, we went for a stroll over the salt marsh. The tide was out, leaving creeks and channels. A bridge spanned the river that ran, swollen with snow melt, down to the sea. It seemed idyllic enough, but in the pools were the bodies of many frogs. Some had died in the act of laying slithery strings of spawn; some were mere skins, like discarded gloves. It was a grotesque sight.
I’d never read Ring of Bright Water, just knew it was some sort of old-school nature writing about otters. There had been a film. I’d assumed the ‘ring of bright water’ was what you saw on the surface after an otter dived. That evening, I picked the book from the shelf. It was a first edition, and the cover showed a wooden rowing-boat pulled up on a shingle shore, a teenage boy paddling away from it, some hills behind, obviously Scottish. No otters, just a bit of landscape. The author photo showed a gaunt Gavin Maxwell standing on a hillside with a sheep slung round his shoulders. He was wearing a tatty jersey thrust into loose trousers and gazed into the distance. The brief bio announced he was ‘the youngest son of Lieut-Col. Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy, fifth daughter of the 7th Duke of Northumberland’. Bit posh for my taste, I thought, but I opened it nonetheless, and read the first lines: ‘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.’ I kept reading: how could I not? All that dancing consonance! That deft alliteration! Then came a sentence to choke on, for political, not aesthetic reasons: ‘I was staying with an Oxford contemporary who had bought an estate in the West Highlands … in an idle moment … he said to me … “If you’re not too proud to live in a cottage, we’ve got an empty one, miles from anywhere.”’
We were at Glenelg; Maxwell’s house had been at Sandaig, a few miles further down the Sound of Sleat. In the book he’d disguised it as Camusfeàrna – the Bay of the Alders – by which name it became famous. The book describes a steep path which follows a river down to a shoreside meadow and a straggle of islets. A lone house stands in the meadow. The book opens in spring, and Maxwell describes what he could see: ‘predominantly pale blues, russet browns and purples, each with the clarity of fine enamel; pale blue of sea and sky, the russet of dead bracken and fern, deep purple brown of unbudded birch, and the paler violets of the Skye hills and the peaks of Rum’.
Already, the book was sending me to the window, to the cottage door, to see these West Highland colours for myself, see them better. But then there comes a passage in which, with the same delicacy of natural description, he describes an act of annihilation: ‘We shot the vixen as she bolted, and the dogs killed and brought out the five cubs.’ When the dog fox returned, ‘the rifle killed him stone dead at 50 yards.’ What had the fox brought? ‘It was a nest of pink newborn mice – all he had found to bring home in a long day’s hunting.’
Rifles and ammunition were never far from hand. ‘We were raised to hunt,’ he says. Indeed, before Camusfeàrna, Maxwell had already had a short-lived and ruinous career running a basking-shark fishery. Raised to hunt, but observant enough to notice that the fox had undigested sandhoppers in its droppings. Two pages after the fox-slaughter, Maxwell professes ‘a love of living creatures’. He has, he says, the ability to make ‘a conscious effort to put myself in the animal’s position’.
The foxes dispatched, there is a paean to the waterfall just above Camusfeàrna:
When I am away from the place and think of it, it is of the waterfall that I think first. Its voice is in one’s ears day and night; one falls asleep to it, dreams with it and wakens to it; the note changes with the season, from the dull menacing roar of winter nights to the low crooning of the summer, and if I hold a shell to my ear it is not the sea’s murmur that comes to me but the sound of the Camusfeàrna waterfall.
And then, a few pages later, Maxwell describes something astonishing. He writes that the neighbour’s children have come down the hill to the shore, and innumerable tiny fish have arrived in the bay: