March 28, 2022
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.
He has married me with the sun’s circle
Too dazzling to see, traced in summer sky….
The name Gavin Maxwell is synonymous with the world’s best selling book ‘Ring of Bright Water’ published in 1960, about the otter Mijbil brought back from the Marshes of Iraq and in particular, a beautiful part of Scotland overlooking the romantic and rugged Isle of Skye.
Gavin named this area the ‘Bay of Alders’ (Camusfeàrna) and for twenty years he considered this to be his spiritual home. Mijbil had been orphaned and rescued by the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who Maxwell had been travelling with through Iraq in 1956.
This book, written with so much compassion about his otter, and his beloved ‘Avalon’ Camusfeàrna, was just one of the many intriguing facets of the man.
Gavin Maxwell had been born into aristocracy in 1914, in the beautiful countryside of Wigtownshire. His mother was the daughter of the then seventh Duke of Northumberland, Henry Percy. His father, Colonel Aymer Maxwell was killed soon after landing in Antwerp by German artillery in December 1914.
Amongst the few influences in his young life whilst growing up in the family home at Elrig House, Monreith, apart from his devoted mother, was his paternal grandfather.
Sir Herbert Maxwell, seventh Baronet of Monreith, distinguished politician, painter, man of letters and naturalist; here was everything the young Maxwell wanted to aspire to, a role model par-excellence.
Also amongst his many colourful and idiosyncratic family members who were to have a lasting influence on Gavin, was his Uncle Willie.
Lord William Percy, eighth Duke of Northumberland; traveller/explorer, ornithologist, soldier and a crack shot with a rifle, and apart from also having a razor sharp intellect, recognised in his young nephew many of his own characteristics whilst taking him under his wing, hence giving Gavin a much-needed father figure to emulate.
After leaving Oxford with a Third Class Degree in Estate Management in 1937, which he only just finished, suitably appeasing his mother, he made the motions of trying to find suitable employment but nothing ever seemed to fit the bill.
In the summer of 1938 with rumours of war in Europe, Gavin decided to take-off by himself to study the rare Steller’s eider (Polysticta stelleri) on the Artic Tundra of East-Finnmark.
Maxwell’s return trip to the Arctic Circle was cut short in the summer of 1939 with war in Europe looming; he headed home and immediately volunteered for the Scots Guards, his family’s regiment.
By November 1941 after two years training as an instructor in the south of England, he was promoted to the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as Lieutenant Instructor, stationed at Arisaig House on the West Highland seaboard of Scotland.
A few high-ranking officers had identified Maxwell as an ideal candidate for the role of instructor, due to his unique skills and expertise with small arms and fieldcraft. He was now back in the country he loved, surrounded by a rugged landscape of mountains and sea lochs that was to become a crucial part of his life; for the rest of his life.
Over the next two years Lieutenant Gavin Maxwell together with other Special Forces instructors, trained foreign agents at locations around Arisaig, Morar and Loch Nevis in the art of ‘Ungentlemanly warfare’. These agents were to be eventually parachuted into enemy held Europe to liaise with resistance fighters to ‘Set Europe Ablaze’ in the words of Winston Churchill.
After D-Day the invasion of Normandy, June 6th 1944, the Special Training Schools set-up around the Arisaig area were no longer running at full capacity allowing the staff well earned leave of duty.
Gavin Maxwell, recently promoted to Captain, decided to stay behind and explore the surrounding coastline and islands. One of his CO’s owned a large sailing boat and invited Gavin for a few days sailing to the ‘Small Isles’, the Inner Hebrides of Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna.
The days were hot with eggshell blue skies and a cobalt blue glittering sea in that Hebridean summer of 1944. One of the islands they visited was a lesser-known island in the Inner Hebrides; the Island of Soay, which sits low, and flat, overshadowed by the bulk of the Cuillin Mountains of Skye.
Here was an island, a retreat, which tuned into Gavin’s imagination and craving for isolation and a simple way of life after the rigours of the past few years. Soon after this visit, he went into protracted negotiations with the island’s owner Flora MacLeod, and by the summer of 1945, the island was his for the princely sum of £900.
Having left the British Army with the rank of Major, for the next three years, Gavin exhausted all the money he had, including money loaned to him by his mother, as well as investment loans made to him by close friends and relations, in a venture that would eventually bankrupt him and reduce him to severe depression.
Every summer in the Hebrides from May to September, the second biggest shark in the World makes its way slowly north during its migratory passage through the Minch. This megalith giant of the sea is the Basking Shark, which can grow up to twelve metres in length with a weight of six metric tonnes. The basking shark is a plankton-eater swimming slowly on the surface of the sea with a huge gaping mouth, filtering two million litres of water every hour through its gills.
Here was the potential of a shark fishing industry for Gavin Maxwell using the Island of Soay as a base, harpooning the sharks as they migrated north, towing them into Soay harbour in order to market the shark liver-oil, which in austere post-war Britain, was a highly-prized commodity fetching a lucrative £135 per ton.
Unfortunately, the unpredictability of the weather and the catch, along with the logistical problems of transport and machinery on an Island, took its toll on the venture, investors and not least Maxwell himself. By July 1948 all was lost, Gavin resigned as Managing Director of the company he set-up, the ‘Island of Soay Shark Fisheries Ltd’, shortly the factory would be demolished and the Island sold-off, his investor friends received almost nothing, all Gavin had left was his Bentley car and a heavily dented ego.
Over the next few weeks whilst renting a flat at Glenapp Castle Ayrshire, Gavin tried to support himself financially by painting portraits of his aristocratic friends around the country. In early October, he took off in his powerful Bentley Derby car for a few days holiday visiting old friends up north. Whilst visiting his old Oxford contemporary Tony Wills at Eilanreach Estate, near the beautiful village of Glenelg, Gavin spoke of his desire to come back and live in the west highlands again after the failure of his venture on Soay. By coincidence, the estate had an old uninhabited lighthouse keeper’s cottage miles from nowhere, with no electricity, no water or sanitation, which Tony Wills suggested Gavin could have for £1 a year, if kept in good repair.
That same day Maxwell walked down a rough hillside track and turned the key to the lighthouse keepers cottage on a deserted beach; ringed by a burn with a string of white shell-sand island beaches strung out into the Sound of Sleat over looking the Isle of Skye; the Inner Hebridean Islands of Eigg and Rum glinting in the sun on the far southern horizon.
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The name of this place was Sandaig, and it was to be Gavin’s true Island Valley of Avalon for most of the rest of his life.
No one who has read ‘Ring of Bright Water’ can ignore the intense connection he had with his surroundings, an almost child-like perception in all living things.
In his own words, ‘Man has suffered in his separation from the soil and the other living creatures in the World’.