Gavin Maxwell

Gavin Maxwell, primarily famous for Ring of Bright Water, is one of my favorite writers. I remember, on the way to my first day at secondary school  hearing on the radio that he had died in Skye hospital. I had read his otter trilogy by then and was captivated by the landscapes he described and his love and knowledge of the natural world - but also intrigued by the steady darkening of his story which started in the sunlit optimism of the Ring of Bright Water and culminated in sadness and despair with Raven seek thy Brother - with his otters dead and house burned down. This last of the trilogy starts with a terrible scene. He describes a 'witch' leaving his beloved Camusfearna in the middle of a storm and climbing the hill behind to clasp a rowan tree and bring down a curse on him and his home. No highlander will bring the berries of a rowan across a threshold as they are a clansman's blood - so no curse is more terrible. It was years later that I read another account of that same scene from the pen of the poet Kathleen Raine. She describes no curse - but a scene of unbearable sadness where they parted in the knowledge that his homosexuality was an insuperable barrier to their love. But later I read that there was truth to Maxwell's tale. She blamed herself for the death of Mijbil, his first otter and his subsequent death from cancer because she had, indeed, cursed him in her unhappiness.


Maxwell and Mijbil

Maxwell was born a lowland Scot. He describes in The House of Elrig his childhood in Galloway and schooling at Stowe under the charismatic headmastership of J.F.Roxburgh, another gay man - but with no hint of pederasty - whose devoted pupils included Evelyn Waugh and David Niven. During the war he was an instructor with SOE and, with some of the men with whom he served, he started a whale shark harpooning business on the Isle of Soay (pronounced Soy) which is just south of Skye. He wrote about this in Harpoon at a Venture.


Maxwell servicing a harpoon

Some years  ago we spent three days sitting out a gale in Loch Scavaig which is underneath the Cullin mountains of Skye and in sight of Soay. The Cullins are bleak, black rocks that tower over the loch and periodically katabatic gusts, williwaws as they are known in the Southern Hemisphere, would lay the boat over on its side and stretch the anchor chain to near horizontal. It was sheltered from the sea - but prey to supercharged winds instead. All the time, the hump of Soay - seemingly bleak and treeless - was silhouetted against the occasional bright piece of the sky that punctuated the galloping clouds of the gale. 


Loch Scavaig 

Last summer we visited Soay in sunshine with a fresh breeze kicking up a chop on our way there from the mainland. The harbour is entered from the North under the Cullins which, even in the sunshine, have a forbidding granite grandeur. Far from being bleak, the harbour of Soay is an oasis of color - grass, rowan trees and heather.


Soay Harbour 

It is a place of ghosts though, with its ruined house and rusting rendering machinery used to butcher the whale sharks that they harpooned in the Minch - the wild piece of sea that separates the Outer Hebrides from the inner isles and the mainland. 


Rendering machinery, Soay 

The harpooning of these docile creatures seems an anomaly for a naturalist of Maxwell's genius, but that is perhaps putting our own sensibilities onto a very different era when all protein was rationed and the sea seemed endlessly bountiful. Like so many of his ventures this ended badly - but the beauty of Soay's harbour still remains.

After the collapse of his harpooning business he went with Wilfred Thesiger to visit the Marsh Arabs whose home in the marshes of the Tigris delta was drained in an attempted genocide by Saddam Hussein. In the 1950s it was an isolated society that had not changed much in a thousand years - with the exception of the introduction of guns. Maxwell paints, in A Reed Shaken By The Wind, a marvelous picture of Thesiger - a man much more in the mould of the great Victorian explorers than the literary travelers of today.



 He describes his near mythic status amongst the Marsh Arabs as a circumciser: he used a clean sharp blade and antiseptic rather than the blunt knives and powdered foreskins of the local holy men that left their unfortunate victims with infections for which there was no penicillin. 


Marsh Arab village

In these marshes Maxwell was given an otter that defied categorization: it was a species unknown to science and was classified as Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli: as Maxwell said it must be the greatest immortality for any naturalist to have a species named after you. The otter became Mijbil and the most famous otter in the world - other than Tarka.

He wrote other travel books about Morocco and Sicily - though these are as much histories as travelogues. In Sicily he lived with the tunny fisherman who used sailing boats with bowsprits over twice the length of the boat to drift up to the tunny fish as they basked on the surface and surprise them with a harpoon. He was horrified at the terrible poverty in Sicily of that time and described the hard lives of ordinary people with whom he was living. It was called the Ten Pains of Death and quotes in the first page the Prime Minister of Italy visiting Sicily for the first time and saying, shaken, that he 'had seen things that have frozen my ability to smile.' Just before he arrived the charismatic bandit Salvatore Giuliano had been killed. Maxwell saw him a romantic figure but wasn't blind to the way that the mafia used him to their own ends after the predations they had suffered under Mussolini. His God Protect Me From My Friends is a biography that gets well under the skin of that dark island that is so near, and yet so far, from the Italy with which it is united.



He seems to have been fascinated by medieval societies that still existed in the second half of the 20th century. Any visitor to Morocco should take with them The Lords of the Atlas. In it he describes the French protectorate dominated by Thami al Glaoui from 1912 until 1953. Glaoui was a tribal chieftain whose opponents were rotting in his Atlas fortress dungeons even as he attended the coronation of Elizabeth II as a personal guest of Churchill - who enjoyed the company of a man who lived half his life a sophisticated politician and the other as a cruel oriental potentate in his mountain eerie.


Thami al Glaoui

But it will be for his otters that Gavin Maxwell will be remembered. Them, and his elegiac descriptions of the west coast of Scotland on the wild edge of Europe. Unfortunately most people will have only breakfasted on the saccharine film of Ring of Bright water. What they will miss is a corpus of writing that, while it doesn't let you all the way into his wracked unhappiness, is all  beautifully written and consistently history, natural history and travelogue combined at its very best. 



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