Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ring of Bright Water - Gavin Maxwell

Little Toller Books have turned out to be a joyous discovery - and one more reason to be thankful for Gavin Maxwell. My original copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' started to fall apart last time I read it and is now kept for sentimental rather than practical reasons. For a while the only version in print was an abridged amalgamation of 'Ring of Bright Water' and its two sequels; 'The Rocks Remain', and 'Raven Seek Thy Brother', it's not a format that appeals to me so I was delighted to find Ring not only back in print, but in such a handsome form. The cover illustration is particularly apt - it's a detail from Winifred Nicholson's 'Bonnie Scotland' and I'm assuming it's a view from Maxwell's Camusfearna (she was a regular visitor and if I had an outrageous amount of money I would have loved to buy this) and I can't imagine anything capturing the spirit of the book better.

I've read 'Ring of Bright Water' any number of times and each time it's a slightly different book, undoubtedly because each time I'm a different person so there were surprises. Memory associates it exclusively with otters and the small patch of the highlands Maxwell came to call home but the otters don't appear until half way through, the whole first half of the book is an evocation of Camusfearna (really Sandaig, but Maxwell wanted to protect his privacy and the place he writes about has become so much a place of fable that his name for it seems more appropriate than a specific geographical location).

The way he tells it he was casually handed the keys to his spirtual home by a friend from university days whilst he (Maxwell) was attempting to earn a living as a portrait painter after the failure of the Soay project. It's love from the beginning and so begins a new phase of life, the chance find of a barrel top from the shark fishery leads to the writing of 'Harpoon at a Venture' and the death of his dog Jonnie leads to the search for a new animal companion. On a trip amongst the marsh Arabs of Iraq with Wilfred Thesiger he buys an otter cub, she doesn't live long but just before he leaves the country he acquires another - it's the beginning of an obsession which will last for the rest of his life. The otter section of the book is both funny and heartbreaking. Mijbil the otter who barely makes it back to the UK alive is with him for a year and a day before his untimely end.  

The grief that colours the whole book is at it's rawest re-living that year and its aftermath. Mijbil was an otter sub species previously unknown to science and so is named after his owner - as Maxwell says "he belonged to the only race of living creature that was ever likely to bear my name", he's aware that the love he lavished on that beast makes him slightly ridiculous but he's prepared to expose himself to it anyway. 

There are a hundred things I could say about this book, but as I've been told the quotes I chose from 'Harpoon at a Venture' were stomach churning I'll leave the last words to Maxwell to redress the balance and because they sum up how I feel about the book as a whole.

"It is October, and I have been for six unbroken months at Camusfearna. the stags are roaring on the slopes of Skye across the Sound, and yesterday the wild swans passed flying southwards low over a lead-grey sea. The ring of tide-wrack round the bay is piled high with fallen leaves borne down the burn, and before a chill sea wind they are blown racing and scurrying up the sands. the summer, with its wild roses and smooth blue seas lapping white island beaches, is over; the flower of the heather is dead and the scarlet rowan berries fallen. Beyond are the brief twilight days of winter, when the waterfall will thunder white over flat rocks whose surface was hot to bare feet under summer suns, and the cold, salt-wet wind will rattle the windows and moan in the chimney. This year I shall not be there to see and hear these things; home is for me as yet a fortress from which to essay raid and foray, an embattled position behind whose walls one may retire to lick new wounds and plan fresh journeys to further horizons. yet while there is time there is the certainty of return."


  1. "Yet while there is time there is the certainty of return". I hang on those words. Came to your blog via Sian on a Small Island. My mother read "Ring of Bright Water" to me when I was a child. I rediscovered and loved it as an adult, although the sequels disturbed and saddened me. It was my understanding that Maxwell committed suicide, but the link to the painting said he died of cancer? Maxwell's spirit resonates some deep part of me and makes my desire to revisit Scotland stronger. Thank you for this post! I shall dig out my copy of this lovely book and read it to my son, who is 8, and loves animals.

  2. Frith, I love Sian's blog, she makes even the bad weather appealing (as an excuse to bunker down with tea and a good book). My understanding is that Maxwell did indeed die of cancer, although I also read he had an 80 a day cigarette habit so it's almost suicide by smoking. Like you I find his voice resonates - but the later books are quite harrowing so I don't plan on re-reading them at the moment.

    There is a children's version of Ring of Bright Water called The Otter's Tale which might be worth finding for your son (I think it dwells less on the death of Mij, and death generally) though children are on the whole much less squeamish than I've become so perhaps that's unnecessary.

  3. A lovely quote - no unpleasant smells there! At least I've read ROBW although I don't own a copy & the Little Toller edition looks lovely... I also haven't read the sequels. More for the wishlist.

  4. The sequels are really quite harrowing; death, madness (for the otters), illness, car crashes, fires, failed relationships, and the ever present threat of financial disaster. He's an excellent writer but not the man to court stability or find happiness.

  5. A film of this is showing tonight on Turner Classic Movies - I've just watched a bit with the otter romping around on a bed. I'm guessing the film has a happy ending - it says something about falling love with the local doctor?

  6. The film is delightful and nothing much to do with the book. It does end happily despite the otter still dying. The book ends hopefully which is a different thing altogether. The films worth watching though, and the book's worth reading :)

    1. I just came across a copy at the library book sale! serendipity - or book karma.

    2. I hope you enjoy it - and looking forward to hearing your thoughts.