Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

“Aristocrat, social renegade, wartime secret agent, shark-hunter, adventurer, racing driver, traveller, naturalist, poet and painter….and one of the most popular authors of wildlife books in the twentieth century.” This was the description offered of Gavin Maxwell in the blurb to his biography. They really don’t make them like this anymore.

As tantalizing as that image is, Ring of Bright Water isn’t devoted to these varied and fantastical biographical details – instead it tells the story of Maxwell’s beloved Scottish home, Camusfeàrna, and the otters who lived with him there. It is a joyful, lyrical, desperately moving account of his interactions with the natural world – and most importantly of all, of the deep love he felt for his two otters, Mijbil and Edal. As with A House in Flanders  I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who needs some respite from the last few months: it has given me such unadulterated pleasure.

The first hundred pages, then, are devoted to Maxwell’s arrival at the Arcadian Camusfeàrna in the late 1940s – the house by the sea in the West Highlands – as well as his neighbours and the richness of surrounding wildlife. His descriptions of the wildcats, porpoises, and deer are exquisite – vivid and full of humour, sympathetic without ever becoming sentimental. Take this, for example, his recollection of being invaded by his neighbour’s frolicsome goats:

Their cynical, predatory yellow eyes, bright with an ancient, egotistical wisdom, were ever alert for an open door, and more than once I came back to the house from an afternoon’s fishing to find the kitchen in chaos, my last loaves disappearing between agile rubbery lips, and Mairi Bhan [the nanny goat] posturing impudently on the table.

It feels almost otherworldly in its simplicity and peace, but there’s nothing saccharine here. Maxwell’s voice is always rooted in reality, and whilst he talks about his new home with a poetic affection you feel something of his mercurial, restless soul struggling with the solitude.

Once the stage is set and you’ve lost your heart to the sea, the burn, and the cottage, Maxwell introduces the core of the book and the thing for which it is most famous – his successive relationships with two otters, Mijbil and Edal, rescued from almost certain death in their native Africa. This section is almost unbearably moving, joyful, and funny – I fell in love with both animals so completely and rocked from laughter to tears as he explains the ways they took over his life.

They are, first of all, completely fascinating: each with his (Mijbil) or her (Edal) own personality, tastes, and mysterious intelligence. The descriptions of them working out how to turn taps on; tucking toys under their arms as they swim; and gambolling about in the bathtub, are irresistible. Again, neither Mijbil nor Edal is anthropomorphized – they are entirely splendid enough as animals and don’t need to be enhanced by a kind of false humanity. In any case Maxwell heads this off at the pass, acknowledging that “a dry otter at play is an animal that might have been specifically designed to please a child.”  He loves them for their mad vitality, not because they resemble toys, or people – and is even almost apologetic about the obvious depth of his affection.

“…several times a day he needed, as much psychologically as physically, I think, a prolonged romp with a human playmate. Tunnelling under the carpet and affecting to believe himself thus rendered invisible, he would shoot out with a squeak of triumph if a foot passed within range; or he would dive inside the loose cover of the sofa and play tigers from behind it; or he would simply lay siege to one’s person as a puppy does, bouncing around one in a frenzy of excited chirps and squeaks and launching a series of tip-and-run raids.”

The thing that really got under my skin, though, was how much Mijbil and Edal trust Maxwell. They clearly adore him as much as he loves them, and involve him whole-heartedly in their curiosity and constant quest for fun. As he says at one point, you don’t own an otter, you co-exist with them – and for a time they filled his complicated world with a simple, straightforward companionship. There is a moment in the book where that trust leads to a gut-wrenching tragedy – turning the idyll, temporarily at least, into a nightmare. Quite rightly it is an otter which restores Camusfeàrna’s equilibrium, and which let’s you turn the final pages with renewed hope.

I understand the reservations some modern readers have about a man trying to possess something wild, but it doesn’t affect how much I loved this book. Maxwell was obviously an extraordinary and complicated character, and this is a exceptional story -not, I think, intended to be a blueprint for conservation. In the end it is a stunning affirmation of life and, as he says in the preface, something we ought to be more aware of: because whilst we can’t all have a species of otter named after us, or live in a remote Scottish Eden, we can find a certain comfort in being closer to nature.

For I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world; the evolution of his intellect has outrun his needs as an animal, and as yet he must still, for security, look long at some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it.

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(c) Gavin Maxwell Enterprises

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