For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Ring Of Bright Water

He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water/Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea,/He has married me with a ring of light, the glitter/Broadcast on the swift river. KATHLEEN RAINE. From The Marriage Of Psyche.






This is Sandaig on the Glenelg peninsula - halfway up Scotland's indented West Highland coast. The writer and adventurer Gavin Maxwell lived here with his beloved otters during the late 1950s and 1960s. The old lighthousekeeper's cottage where he used to live no longer exists, for it burned down in 1968 (Maxwell's otter Edal died in the fire). The site of the cottage is the patch of long grass you can see centre-right in my 2nd pic. The 3rd pic shows a different view of it - the patch of long grass is now centre-left. (In Maxwell's day the slopes behind would not have been covered with larch and sitka spruce as they are now.)

Part of the time Maxwell lived here with the poet, critic and scholar Kathleen Raine. (The title of his famous book Ring Of Bright Water comes from one of Raine's poems, The Marriage Of Psyche. This 'ring' of water, made up of freshwater stream and saltwater sea, almost encircled their cottage - in my 2nd pic you can just make out the course of the stream, which runs behind the site of the cottage, beneath the grassy headland and into the sea.)

Raine was besotted with Maxwell - she's on record as saying he was the love of her life - but their relationship ended tragically. Despairing of his homosexuality, she laid down a curse: 'Let Gavin suffer in this place as I am suffering now.' Not long after that she accidentally 'lost' his otter Mijbil which he'd brought home all the way from Iraq. This led to Mijbil's death at the hands of a roadmender. And Raine also blamed herself and her curse for the cancer which killed Maxwell in 1969. He was only in his mid-fifties.

Forget the film starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna. Go back to Maxwell's book - it's a classic of natural history writing and romantic autobiography. Maxwell is an eternally intriguing and controversial character, a man full of contradictions: a loner yet possessor of numerous, diverse friendships; a despot whom many described as unfailingly generous and kind; a homosexual who was nevertheless drawn to women; a restless adventurer and traveller, who tried to create a permanent home for himself and his otters; a passionate conservationist ahead of his time, yet also a harpooner of basking sharks. (He once owned the island of Soay off the Isle of Skye, where he attempted but ultimately failed to set up a viable shark fishery business. Basking sharks are sadly prized for their their huge livers, which yield copious amounts of oil, and for their fins, which are used in shark's fin soup. Scotland's basking shark population has still not recovered.)

On the site of Maxwell's former cottage stands a boulder, scattered with shells and stones which pilgrims have placed there...


... and in the centre of the boulder there's a simple slate memorial...


13 comments:

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

What a wonderful, wonderful piece. It has been years since I read ROBW, but if I can find it among my boxes, I believe I will read it again.

The land around where the cottage stood—the setting of green and blue sea—is just magical. I would so like to walk the shore and see it here for myself—but your photos and fine writing provide the next best thing.

Lovely post.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I love Mathleen Raine's writing, just as I loved Ring of Bright Water Robert - I have never been to that part of Scotland, but your pics are magical.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Your pictures set off ancient memories in my cells - perhaps my ancestors recognizing the unique topography.

Thank you for your summary of two interesting lives. I shall look up the books.

gleaner said...

I loved the film Ring of Bright Water. This film and Born Free were so very special, wow, you've brought back memories of some of the first ever films I loved as a kid. Now I must do a little look-around for the book in some dusty second-hand bookshop :)

am said...

I remember my mother encouraging me to read ROBW when I was young. I remember becoming acquainted with a young man, a kindred spirit, during the first quarter of my first two years of college, a young man who loved that book as much as I did. Wonderful to see that you found the land. That book I'd like to read again but haven't thought about in a long time.

The air in that part of Scotland looks splendid and invigorating. Unusually clear. I feel I'm looking back in time to a wild and holy place.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, everyone, for all your lovely comments. I'm pleased you liked the piece and that it stirred some memories about Maxwell's delightful book. (He also wrote a book about that shark fishery enterprise called 'Harpoon At A Venture' if anyone's interested. It's beautifully written, though some of the details about harpooning sharks are quite rightly non-PC nowadays. However the book also includes lots of other stuff which shows he actually was conservation-minded way ahead of his time.)

Am - yes, the air in Scotland is wonderfully fresh and clear, and the weather pure magic, changing all the time, always interesting. And marvellous light. It is indeed a 'wild and holy place'.

Sarah said...

I was in this part of Scotland about a fortnight ago, and yes we did make the pilgrimage to beautiful Sandaig. We did not have a very sunny day, and it is lovely to see the full beauty of the place as shown in your photographs.

I have acquired the ROBW book for a re-read, but am waitng until I start to pine for Scotland before reading.

As a point of curiousity, in the course of your travels were you much impeded by the Forestry Commision operations?

The Solitary Walker said...

Sandaig is magical, isn't it, Sarah? It really is. A pity you had a dull day weather-wise.

On this trip I didn't do enough walking to comment on any recent Forestry Commission activities. Do you mean the current projects all over Scotland (such as by Loch Lomand, for instance) to eradicate those sombre Sitka Spruce deadwoods and replace them with native deciduous and Scots Pine woodland?

Had a peek at you own blog, btw, and I'm very impressed! Wonderful stuff.

Sarah said...

Having investigated your blog a little further I am inclined to regret my comments regarding the FC. I suspect that having a path blocked by an unexpectedly operational timber yard, and consequently having to negotiate a 'burn' where the bridge has been removed would be all in a day's work for you!

Thank you for your kind words regarding my blog; I am happy to return the compliment. As one who likes to read outdoors the combination of books and walks here is inspiring.

Half-heard in the Stillness said...

Hello, I was just seeking something about Gavin Maxwell and stumbled upon your blog. How great to be able to see where his house was, thank you SO much for posting these lovely photographs! It certainly is a beautiful place I wish I would visit myself. Sad though....magical, enchanting and haunting when you think of the outcome and poor Edal and how Mr Maxwell suffered in the end. I've read all his books more than once, all of them except the one you mention here,'Harpoon at a Venture' I gave this a miss simply because I know I would hate the descriptions of the harpooning.

Kind regards,
Jane

Delyse Harrower said...

I still have all Maxwell's books in the otter series, and have been to Camusfearna in the 70s. Having lived in Sicily, I also read "God Protect me From my Friends" about the Sicilian bandit, Salvatore Giuliano. I also read Lords of the High Atlas and Harpoon at a Venture, about his time on Soay hunting basking sharks. His writing is unusual, echoing the man himself. Delyse Harrower

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Delyse.

DTSSER Smith said...

According to the film, Maxwell obtained Mijbil from a pet shop. But I now understand that he took this otter as a baby from Iraq, after the first baby otter he obtained died in less than a week. This is a dark and cruel twist to what had seemed a story of kindness.