It is autumn and I am making a pilgrimage by sea to a literary gravestone. On my left rise the primeval, groined, and gullied mountains of Skye; on my right is the wild coast of Knoydart, one of the least populated regions of western Scotland. The colors of the land in this season are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Bracken and birch paint the hills gold, ochre, and saddle-brown; the heather is purple as a winter dusk. Light falls differently in this part of the world, where the air is free of particulate matter. It sweeps fast over the knotted ridges of the mountains in dramatic, cloud-shadowed patterns: Sunlight arrows through the heavens like a silver shaft, picking out a single inlet and scattering its water with diamonds.
I am here in search of one particular cove that lies by a chain of tiny islands to the east of the Sound of Sleat, this stretch of sea, which is now flat as a mirror but can roil like an angry dragon. We drop anchor and launch a small dinghy, which we paddle to shore. The water is so clear that I can see tiny crabs on the sea floor, along with many different kinds of pebble—black mica, white and rose-banded quartz—rain-blue mussels, and whelks as big as my hand. We step ashore into absolute quiet, except for the syncopated shush of the waves.
This is Sandaig Bay, perhaps, after Walden Pond, the most famous retreat of any writer who sought to shun the busy haunts of men and seek solace alone in nature. This is where Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969) lived in a cottage and wrote Ring of Bright Water (1959), a book about finding freedom by living with a pet otter: an otter whose mischievous, irrepressible joy in its environment captivated millions of readers.
As we scramble up the beach, the full panorama of the view Maxwell enjoyed becomes apparent. The south-facing bay is like a theater stage, with the whole Sound of Sleat for its audience and the mountains of Knoydart and Skye as its wings. All his life, Maxwell was drawn to drama: fast cars, rough terrain, and narrow squeaks. His writing has a precise physical alertness that excites attention, as in the very first line of Ring of Bright Water:
I sit in a pitch-pine paneled kitchen-living-room, with an otter asleep upon its back among the cushions on the sofa, forepaws in the air, and with the expression of tightly shut concentration that very small babies wear in sleep.
Alas, Maxwell’s cottage no longer exists: It burned down in 1968, killing Edal, one of the otters he loved. But the “ring of bright water,” which consists of sea on one side and a freshwater stream that leaps downhill through a series of waterfalls on the other, remains. And there are two small memorial stones, one to Maxwell and one commemorating Edal, both of which are covered in shells and pebbles wayfarers have gathered from the shore.
Maxwell still attracts visitors. Yet, beyond his association with otters, he is not well known. His 10 other books of political writing, travelogue, and memoir are neglected. This past year, the centenary of his birth, offered an opportunity to remember a fascinating character whose life was galvanized by contradiction.
Maxwell was born into both privilege and loss. He was an aristocrat, a grandson of the duke of Northumberland, and could trace his lineage back to William the Conqueror. (He was also distantly related to Lord Byron.) He grew up on a rambling baronial estate at Monreith in the Scottish lowlands and was able to fulfill the dream of many children: to roam at liberty among hundreds of acres of land filled with birds, animals, and plants that he could collect as specimens—live or dead.
However, his officer father was killed in 1914 in one of the early battles of World War I. Gavin’s birth occurred three months before this tragedy, and the shadow of his father’s uniform hanging in the hall likely contributed to Maxwell’s need to excel at conventionally masculine pursuits: He was a crack shot and a rugged outdoorsman. Meanwhile, his mother’s cosseting and determination that her children should be raised in the moral segregation of her strict Catholic Apostolic faith fostered a strain of solitude and sensitivity that made him instinctively withdraw from the demands of urban life.