Prior to that, the water was brought up from the burn in a bucket.
It is almost as if the difficulties of the life Gavin Maxwell chose in remote Camusfeàrna where he lived with no made up road, no electricity, one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop, were a metaphor for his own life struggles. Gavin wrote a trilogy of books about his life in this isolated place, in a rented cottage overlooking the Sound of Sleat on Scotland’s west coast between the years of 1948 and 1968.
Here he lived with his various otters, Mijbil, Edal, Mossy and Monday. The books Ring of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother became bestsellers and made Gavin Maxwell famous but now inevitably feel elegiac representing as they do things permanently lost. And like all fame, his did not come without a price.
More than this, many of the deep and true country ways of life were vanishing under an onslaught of new roads and telegraph poles even at the time Gavin was writing, but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has since taken place on so many levels and in so many parts of the country, Ring of Bright Water (which was made into a film with Virginia McKenna) is less of an elegy and more of an epitaph.
“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture round the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea and on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance.”
What I loved about these books – more even than their feel of a Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity – is the poetry of the writing. I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of what is called the new nature writing. But Maxwell’s writing feels different. He was pioneer of the ‘new nature writing’ before the term was born or thought of and the empathy that he truly had with his otters and with the natural landscape of Camusfeàrna – and how those elements reflected back at him his own sense of unbelonging – is made manifest on the page through his lyrical writing.
It is as if Maxwell writes from the inside out.
After reading the trilogy, I looked for a biography of the author as I felt generally ignorant of all matters concerning his life. For example, I didn’t even know that the title of the book Ring of Bright Water is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems:
“He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water
Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea…
a poet with whom Maxwell had a tempestuous affair and who is said to have laid a curse on a Rowan tree at Camusfearna, after he threw her out quite literally in the middle of the night. The book I found was Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting (Eland) apparently the only authorised biography, other attempts at biography according to Botting having come up against ‘the twin obstacles of family and estate’.
Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland and at one time date of Princess Margaret. His CV included wartime instructor in the SOE, Guards Officer, Adventurer, Traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond). Hero club that is if you discount throwing ladies out of isolated habitions in the middle of nowhere at midnight, which I personally do not discount.
It is clear both from Maxwell’s own writing and from Douglas Botting’s biography, that Maxwell was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.
These aspects of his life are more acutely realised in the work than any enduring human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful. At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for the many trips and adventures he undertook – there was always an old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.
Sadly though it seems Kathleen Raine’s curse may have taken effect. The final book in the trilogy charts Gavin’s series of financial and personal misfortunes which would lead to his death in 1969.
Perhaps the final irony of Maxwell’s life was that the overwhelming success of Ring of Bright Water and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved and to which these books are in memoriam.
Review of The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy, Gavin Maxwell (Viking, 2000)