Gavin Maxwell, Scottish author and naturalist, 1914 - 1969
Gavin Maxwell is probably best known for his work with otters, notably through his book Ring of Bright Water, but this doughty fellow also travelled widely, wrote on a wide variety of subjects and inspired a generation to become concerned about the environment, wildlife and our own personal peace.
He was born on 14th July, 1914 in Elrig near Monreith in Scotland, and educated at Stowe School and at Oxford. Having served with the Scots Guards during WWII, he bought the island of Soay in 1945, and built a shark fishery and processing plant, with a view to providing employment for the islanders. He travelled extensively in Northern Africa and the Middle East, and it was here in Iraq, whilst living amongst the Marsh Arabs that he obtained his first otter, Mijbil.
(Mij was later to be identified as a species now known as Maxwell's otter, known only through Mij and some skins preserved by the Marsh Arabs of Iraq. It is likely that changes to the environment, namely the draing of the marshes, that the species is extinct.)
On his return to Scotland, he moved with Mij to Sandaig, southeast of the Isle of Skye, and moved into the cottage known to his readers as Camusfearna. It was his life here with a number of otters, which forms the basis for his most famous work, and the two sequels, The Rocks Remain and Raven, Seek Thy Brother. He was hard-pressed to maintain the cottage and it wildlife, and had a number of helpers, most notably the young Terry Nutkins, later to become a naturalist and broadcaster.
His work paints a wonderful picture of the coastal highlands and the lives of its people, and throughout, he maintains the reader's focus on his central theme, the sheer joy of life despite financial hardship, personal setbacks and illness. He shares his vision with great honesty and ease, and captured the imaginations of millions, both through the three novels and the subsequent film, Ring of Bright Water.
He and his magnum opus have been compared with Joy Adamson and her 'Born Free', and rightly so. He moves his readers to imagine themselves in a different time and space, to share his loves and concerns, and did much to draw people's attention to the plight of the Higland coastline and its unique environment.
When I first read the trilogy, I was deeply moved by the story, his wonderful descriptions of Highland life, people and clime. I felt I had lived through his high points and hardships, and was alternately thrilled and dashed down throughout the developing tale. His books contain both a practical wisdom and spiritual depth which is, for me unmatched. The film, which I have also seen many times, still moves me to tears, and has engendered in me a deep shared love of the otter. Through his writing, I feel that I know him better than any other author, and I cherish his memory.
An energetic and charismatic man, he continued to live and work around Skye as much as possible until his death in Inverness on 6th September 1969. His ashes were scattered at the bay at Sandaig, which remains an oft-visited memorial to this fine and modest man.
Ring of Bright Water - Introduction and Foreword