Ring of Bright Water

Gavin Maxwell

A couple of years ago, I found an old copy of Ring Of Bright Water in a second-hand charity bookstore. Since then, I’ve re-read the book several times; and each reading has made me laugh as hard and cry as much as the first time around. I was warned this would happen; fully grown men told me that they too were moved by a storyline that (one would’ve thought) might only appeal to teenage girls — the author bonding with cuddly otters in the beautiful north-west coast of Scotland. Then again, that’s the magic of Gavin Maxwell’s writing. Right from the moment his eyes “flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture round the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea”, he’s smitten and so are we. His isolation, far from human habitation, in that bitterly cold cottage — where there’s “not one stick of furniture”, “no water and no lighting” — is complete, yet feels incomplete after his dog’s death, and he fancies having an otter for company. The rest of the book, then, is about finding his companion, one who would take to the “coast of cliffs and caves” and mooch around the “desolate grandeur of the landscape” on webbed feet. And so Maxwell acquires a couple of otters from the marshes in Iran (the first, an adorable baby otter, dies in a few days; the second lives for but a year) but the third, the survivor, he finds quite serendipitously, in Scotland itself.

It works because...

The book is set in some of the most eye-wateringly beautiful landscapes in Britain, smothered in honeysuckle, primroses and wild hyacinths; it’s peopled by all creatures, great and small — from menacing killer whales to tiny elvers painstakingly migrating up roaring waterfalls. And then there’s Maxwell and his otters. Mijbil and Edal, as the otters at Camusfearna are called, streak after eels like brown torpedoes, curl up timidly by the fire, dribble a football around the house, and nuzzle the nape of Maxwell’s neck with the “poignant touch of hard whiskers and soft face-fur”. But when Maxwell loves — and loses — Mijbil, his grief rises from the pages and wrings your heart, just as his joy touches you in others (His account of hand-rearing baby otters will make even the sourest person smile). If good writing gives you the goose-bumps, this book is for you; and it doesn’t matter if you’re no longer a teenager. But do remember: long before you snap-shut the spine, you might develop an otter-shaped hole in your heart…

And this one stays with you...

His first sighting of Camusfearna, his home in the highlands:

“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once…” “Splashed among the chain of islands were small beaches of sand so white as to dazzle the eye. Beyond the islands, was the shining enamelled sea, and beyond it again the rearing bulk of Skye, plum-coloured distances embroidered with threads and scrolls of snow…” “At the foot of the hill the burn flowed calmly between an avenue of single alders, though the sound of unseen waterfalls was loud in the rock ravine behind me. I crossed a solid wooden bridge with stone piers, and a moment later I turned the key in Camusfearna door for the first time.”