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:
When I reached the water myself it was like wading in silver treacle; our bare legs pushed against the packed mass of little fish as against a solid and reluctantly yielding obstacle. To scoop and to scatter them, to shout and to laugh, were as irresistible as though we were treasure hunters of old who had stumbled on a fabled emperor’s jewel vaults and threw diamonds about us like chaff. We were fish-drunk, fish-crazy, fish-happy in that shining orange bubble of air and water …
We were so absorbed in making the thronged millions of tiny fish into leaping fireworks for our delight that it was not for some minutes that I began to wonder what had driven this titanic shoal of herring fry … into the bay … Then I saw that a hundred yards out the surface was ruffled by flurries of mackerel whose darting shoals made a sputter of spray on the smooth swell of the incoming tide. The mackerel had driven the fry headlong before them into the narrow bay and held them there, but now the pursuers too were unable to go back. They were in turn harried from seaward by a school of porpoises who cruised the outermost limit of their shoals, driving them farther and farther towards the shore. Hunter and hunted pushed the herring soil ever inward to the sand, and at length every wavelet broke on the beach with a tumble of silver sprats. I wondered that the porpoises had not long since glutted and gone; then I saw that, like the fry and the mackerel that had pursued them into the bay, the porpoises’ return to the open waters of the sound was cut off. Beyond them, black against the blanched sunset water, rose the towering sabre fin of a bull killer whale.
A once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, and right here! From the window I saw widgeon and oystercatcher and eider duck, but now I was half hoping the fin of a killer whale might be visible, parading through the kyles. Of course there was none, but over the next days I saw seals and from time to time the small neat movement of porpoises. Of porpoises, Maxwell says: ‘Ship the oars and remain motionless … then the porpoises will blow right alongside the boat with a little gasp that seems of shocked surprise.’ Should killer whales dare linger near Camusfeàrna, however, Maxwell the naturalist says that he ‘would compass their deaths by any means that I could for they banish the other sea life from my surroundings’. Enough splashing around with the small fry – suddenly he’s of the land-owning class again, arranging the world for his pleasure, picking and choosing among its creatures.
You could quite forget that there are otters in the book, because none is mentioned until we’ve had 74 pages of Camusfeàrna’s river and hues, moods and storms. There are wildcats up the chimney and wild geese overhead and dolphins leaping in the sound (even, Maxwell says, blue whales – but I hardly think so). You go along with it, because what could be more perfect? But then Maxwell’s dog dies, leaving a vacancy.
I had assumed, in my ignorance, that the book’s otters were lured from the nearly burns and inlets, but no:
Early in the New Year of 1956, I travelled with Wilfred Thesiger to spend two months or so among the little known Marsh Arabs, or Ma’dan, of Southern Iraq. By then it had crossed my mind … that I should like to keep an otter instead of a dog … [Wilfred replied] that I had better get one in the Tigris marshes before I came home, for they were as common as mosquitoes, and were often tamed by the Arabs.
Here was another surprise. These Marsh Arabs, presumably, would be those persecuted by Saddam Hussein. And the marshes – hadn’t they been drained? Maxwell did acquire an otter there, and I laughed at its antics aboard the plane and the month it spent destroying Maxwell’s London flat, before it – Mijbil – travelled north, in the washbasin of a first-class sleeper, to the family pile in Galloway, and from there to Camusfeàrna.
‘Mij slept in my bed … Having woken, he would come up to the pillow and nuzzle my face and neck with small attenuated squeaks of pleasure and affection.’ With the otter installed, a Highland summer lay ahead, but because the Highlands were only a ‘retreat’ and not a commitment, he shot back soon enough to London, in a ‘ferocious vehicle’ – doing, he recalls, 145 mph somewhere north of Grantham, before the car went up in smoke.
It’s hard to say how long Maxwell actually spent at Camusfeàrna. He’d had the place for eight years before Mijbil arrived but was forever coming and going: London, North Africa, Iraq. By the sound of it, he wrote his books there, in an upstairs room, or lying beside the waterfall. It was soon obvious his life was ever more worth retreating from. Steadily, as I read, the sense grew that there was something ill-secured deep in the book’s hold. It wasn’t just the guns but the increasing number of accidents.
How much time Kathleen Raine spent at Sandaig is also unknown, because she threw her diaries into a river, and when he came to write his book, Maxwell excised her, though ‘ring of bright water’ was her line – the most famous one she ever wrote. Her poem, without a title or her name, appears as the book’s frontispiece: ‘He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water.’ The reference is to the river which spills down the hill and curves around the back of the house to the sea, and so defines and embraces Camusfeàrna, and makes it, as they both thought, magic.
They met in London in 1949. Raine says Maxwell soon told her he was homosexual, but she felt nonetheless that they were ‘perfectly and providentially fitted to one another’. He was her ‘man of light’. Years later, in her Autobiographies, Raine expressed all the pain and bewilderment missing from her poetry. She was pompous and haughty and – god help her – from Ilford. Homosexual or not, Maxwell would never have married her. Friends told her so. But ‘being himself an aristocrat, what others have called my “arrogance” did not irk him.’
He loaned her Camusfeàrna and ‘many times thereafter I was to live in that house … I planted herbs at Gavin’s door and tended the rose that grew against his wall; made him seats from the kipper boxes cast up on the shore; left for him to find treasures thrown up by the sea, wave-worn wood, scallop shells, cowries, mussel-pearls.’ Raine thought of herself as a Poet with a capital P, a state she believed her gender could only wreck, and expelled from her work anything not ‘poetic’. ‘I disregarded as non-existent … the imperfect, the distorted, the vulgar.’ Meanwhile, Maxwell got his sex elsewhere. They slept in the same bed once, ‘on the understanding, of course, that there should be no sexual contact between us’. Of course. ‘Every night of my life, since then, I have spent alone.’
One day he turned up at Camusfeàrna with a male guest and expected her to leave forthwith. It was a humiliation too far. Cast out from the idyll, she ‘cursed’ him and his Camusfeàrna. I didn’t know all this on our holiday and there is not a word of it in Ring of Bright Water, only the gilded islets, the waterfall and dear Mij the otter, playing in the surf, getting lost and found, sleeping like a babe in Maxwell’s bed. Of the otter, Maxwell said: ‘Mij meant more to me than most human beings of my acquaintance.’ Raine said: ‘Mijbil was attached to us equally and alike.’
Despite the row and the curse, the next year Maxwell again relied on Raine to travel the long road north to Camusfeàrna and look after the otter, because Maxwell needed relief from his ‘incessant demands’. He had warned her not to let the otter run northwards, towards Glenelg. But she did, ‘out of resentment of his relationships with aristocratic women more “permissive” than I in the matter of his homosexual relations’. The night before Maxwell was due to arrive, the otter was killed in Glenelg by a roadman. Maxwell raged, grieved and fled Camusfeàrna, and didn’t come back for a year. He tells of the otter’s death in Ring of Bright Water, but Raine is absent. She wrote: ‘It came to be as if I had never … set foot in Sandaig.’
Time passes, then comes yet another astonishment. ‘I had grown accustomed to the continual proximity of an animal, and when one day in Harrods I found a ring-tailed lemur, lately the property of Cyril Connolly, not even the price of 75 pounds could discourage me from my folly.’ Folly it certainly was. The third time the animal attacked him, it opened an artery in his thigh: ‘I got the tourniquet on and a cigarette lit.’ After that came a bush-baby, and after that a ‘baker’s dozen of small, brilliant tropical birds’, but they all died in a fire. Nothing for it, there had to be another otter. So Maxwell acquired Edal. ‘When wet she would pull down a towel, or several towels, upon which to dry herself; when bored she would possess herself of any object that caught her wayward fancy, and, deeply absorbed, set about its systematic disintegration.’
Ring of Bright Water is beautiful, magic, crazy, sad, hair-raising and funny, but it’s hardly about otters. Underneath the idyll, it’s about men and women and the lithe-limbed boys Maxwell hired, it’s about sexuality and class. It’s about mania – later I read in Douglas Botting’s biography that Maxwell was probably bipolar. Homosexual, aristocratic, bipolar: all those flamboyant schemes and expensive accidents, all the unmentioned affairs. Mostly, though, it’s about a place, or the possibility of a place, and nostalgia. After Camusfeàrna became known to the world, one reader wrote to Maxwell: ‘Say that it’s gone, if you like, but not that you lied. I couldn’t take that, because it was the only evidence I had that paradise existed somewhere.’
Of course, we had to go to Camusfeàrna. It was the second last day of our holiday. My son and I cycled the single-track road out of Glenelg, and up through pine plantations. Gaps offered sudden, surprising sea views down the Sound of Sleat, with the island of Eigg in the distance. After a few miles, beside a lochan, a bulldozed forestry track led to a right turn downhill. There were warning signs at the roadhead: FORESTRY OPERATIONS. NO ADMITTANCE. But the woods were silent. In lay-bys and clearings stood huge machines and caravans. Plantation forestry was just coming in Maxwell’s day. He bemoans it, but by then Camusfeàrna the idyll was over anyhow.
We followed the bulldozed track till it reached a concrete bridge spanning a river. I thought: this must be the river, the one which elvers swarmed up and wildcats drank from. From there, an arrow spray-painted on a log directed visitors down a narrow footpath towards Sandaig Bay. We left the bikes and descended between pines, following the river in its gorge. Soon, the river spilled down its famous rocky little waterfall, then became the ‘ring of bright water’ itself: a wide curve lined by alder trees, running to the sea. There was no bridge; we crossed by means of two ropes tied to trees on either bank. Then we were on the meadow where the pine-panelled house had stood. We wandered to the bay where the otters had played. A red plastic bucket had been washed up on the shore, and a plastic fishbox. It was low tide, so we made our way almost dry-shod out onto the chain of heather-capped little islands that step into the sound, linked by strands of shell-sand. A few ringed plovers busied themselves at the strandlines. The waters were silvery and calm and a lobster-boat worked between creels.
Maxwell’s last book, Raven Seek Thy Brother is a darker, more frank affair. It opens on the hillside above Camusfeàrna, now forested, with Maxwell ‘surveying what I had done to Camusfeàrna … what I had done to the animals and what I had done to myself’. He presents two photographs. In the first, the house in 1958, blissfully alone in its meadow. In the other, taken eight years later, Camusfeàrna is an empire of outbuildings and stockades, zoo enclosures, electricity poles, a bulldozed track, an upturned vehicle in the foreground. He no longer cooked on a primus stove and fetched water in a pail. Camusfeàrna had became chaotic, and running it cost a mint. There were new otters, Edal and Teko, but they were confined because they bit the teenage boys Maxwell hired as otter-keepers. He decided the place should be closed up and the otters sent to zoos. His mind was turning to new schemes. He could buy an island, several islands, create an eider duck colony …
But then the house burned down. The fire is a mere sentence at the end of Raven Seek Thy Brother; he had finished the book before it happened, in all its awful inevitability. Maxwell was there at the time with a friend; both men escaped, but the otter Edal was killed, and it fell to the guest to bury the animal’s charred body. When Raine, estranged now, heard the news, she almost believed her curse had caused it. That belief brought her where she wanted to be: emotionally close to Maxwell. He’d learned about the curse by then and almost believed in it himself. How else to explain all the disasters? But the fire was caused by an electrical fault. Bad wiring, sloppy maintenance, absenteeism.
Whoever razed the ruins made a thorough job, although the meadow my son and I explored was lumpy, presumably because of the rubble now buried under the windblown sand and bracken. What still remains is a single electricity pole. No houses, but marking the place is a boulder with a brass plaque. Under the boulder lie Maxwell’s ashes. He died, unravelled, broke and of cancer just a year after the fire. A few shells and stones have been placed on his memorial. Twenty yards away, under a fir tree, is another cairn, also bearing a bronze plaque.
The otter of Ring of Bright Water. 1958-68 ‘Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to Nature.’ Gavin Maxwell
Heaped around these words were dozens of tributes: scallop shells, dog-whelks, limpets and grey or copper-coloured pebbles from the shore.
That was my Ring of Bright Water holiday. When we got home I read Kathleen Raine’s Autobiographies, and Douglas Botting’s 1993 biography, The Saga of Ring of Bright Water, and Raven Seek Thy Brother. I felt as Maxwell’s friends must have: sorry and aghast in equal measure. But it all happened 50 years ago. Now a man can sleep with another man without fear of prison, a woman can be a poet. There’s better medicine and a lot less deference. We’ve had the wretched war in Iraq, and you can’t buy lemurs in Harrods. You can still buy vast lumps of Scotland as private playgrounds though. I thought about all this, and wondered about the kind of people who lay a shell on the grave of an otter. What had won them? Maxwell’s writing. Soon though, another question began to puzzle me, about the animals in books: where have they all gone?
Ring of Bright Water wasn’t without precursors. For decades there had been books in which a man or a woman adopted an animal, lived with it, named it, wrote about it. Most were non-fiction, or claimed to be. Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter was fiction, but written from the animal’s point of view, and was at least an attempt to see the world through animal eyes. It was published in 1927. In the 1930s came the strange case of Grey Owl, a Canadian Native who befriended beavers. He wrote Pilgrims of the Wild. You can see him on YouTube, long-haired and in buckskins, with a beaver lodge actually inside his cabin. After his death he was unmasked as an Englishman – Archie Belaney from Hastings. In the early 1950s there was T.H. White’s The Goshawk, an intense battle of wills – or a frightening marriage – between falconer and bird. Then, shortly before Ring of Bright Water, there was a curiosity called Seal Morning by Rowena Farre. We are asked to believe that Rowena lived with her aunt on a remote croft and adopted a seal, Lora, which lived in the bath and learned to play the xylophone so well it entertained the Aberdeen Folk Society. (Maxwell neutralises this book with one swift sentence.) Ring of Bright Water itself appeared in 1960, as did Born Free: both became huge films, starring the same actors, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. But by the year Camusfeàrna burned down, the non-human subjects were gone. The last was perhaps Kes, in Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave. Although that was fiction, and concerned a boy growing up in a very different milieu from that of Maxwell, it described a similar relationship between a human and a non-human. Since then, though, what?
Many of these books seem to have been written by misconstrued or lonely adolescents, cast-outs, misanthropes, or men who could not expose their sexuality. They were not always likeable. Grey Owl was a fraud and a bigamist; Williamson a Fascist; T.H. White, well, see what they say on Wikipedia. Maybe we are all well balanced, healed and liberated now, not like 50 years ago. But I wonder if there’s been a change in the way we think of nature itself, enough to make Ring of Bright Water and its like seem quaint, if not impossible.
In 1962, two years after Ring of Bright Water, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. It made clear how an act here – spraying with DDT to control insects – had a dire effect there: weakening the shells of birds’ eggs. It was at once a plea, a scientific observation, and a call back from the brink. The nature it describes is a web of interdependencies, which may be damaged through our acts. This was a shock; for the first time Nature was destructible. All at once, keeping animals in the bath could not be all right. To remove a creature from its habitat and take it to another country could no longer be the act of a naturalist. It wasn’t as bad as slaughtering basking sharks but it was anti-ecological nonetheless. We must not behave like the earth’s aristocrats, the new eco-sensibility said. We must be meek, observant, contrite and have no favourite species.
Within a few years of Silent Spring, J.A. Baker produced The Peregrine. It was an eco-lament. His peregrine was not a named and tamed example: the book was about all peregrines, all raptors, all the beautiful birds destroyed, as it then seemed, by the wanton use of DDT. The year after it was published Kes was killed and chucked in a dustbin, and Camusfeàrna burned down. Something ended with Ring of Bright Water, and not just for Maxwell. With nature in crisis, there was no chance now of conjuring an earthly paradise and cavorting there with otters. Maxwell’s book was the best and the last of that innocence, and he knew it.
I was born in 1962. There’s been an environmental crisis for as long as I’ve lived. To step outside that constant culpability was one of the many delights of Ring of Bright Water. When we saw all the dead frogs beside the salt marsh, my first thought had been – had some idiot dumped battery acid in the river? If not human folly, how else to account for it? But Ring of Bright Water solved that little mystery: Maxwell says that otters ‘skin eels, and frogs too … with their deft little hands’. It was the work of local otters, natural and indigenous. So that was OK. That was ecological.
The corner in Glenelg where Mijbil the otter was killed has not changed. It skirts the old graveyard. Why would a roadman kill an otter? Because otters had yet to squirm their way into collective affection. Because otters raided chicken sheds. Peter Scott reckoned that Ring of Bright Water brought about the otter-hunting ban. On the Skye shore, not far from Camusfeàrna, there’s even an otter-hide, where whispering holidaymakers watch the shoreline through binoculars. We are unable, in our new eco-concern, to reach and touch the animals, to have them in our ‘continual proximity’ – or to have other people do that for us. To care about animals now, we must watch them from afar. And as for ‘nature writing’, after 1968 it went into a long silence, to emerge differently. Whatever nature writing is now, it’s not ‘an otter asleep upon its back among the cushions on the sofa, forepaws in the air’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.