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Realm of bright water - Kevin Pilley

Blog | By Kevin Pilley | Oct 16, 2023

Gavin Maxwell’s last home: lighthouse-keepers’ cottages on Eilean Bàn

Sixty-one years after Gavin Maxwell published his Scottish classic, Kevin Pilley visits Eilean Bàn, the island home of the writer and his otters

‘A black sheep led me to the wee island under the Skye Bridge,’ says Katia Auvity, who looks after Gavin Maxwell’s bewitching island house.

Katia should have celebrated her 60th birthday this year by spending her summer working as a volunteer warden and tour guide on Eilean Bàn.

That’s the six-acre last home of author, painter, aristocrat, naturalist, crackshot, racing driver, Scots Guard, social renegade and black sheep Gavin Maxwell. His classic memoir Ring of Bright Water was published 60 years ago.

Katia is from Clairac, near Bordeaux. Skye is her second home. In France, she works at a cat-rescue centre. Formerly, she was a veterinary lab assistant.

‘Maxwell is unknown in France,’ she says. ‘I first saw the film about him in 2007 and was immediately fascinated. I read everything I could. My love for animals made me naturally receptive to his work. On my first visit, opening the gate into Eilean Bàn was like entering a different world. I applied for a job.’

This should have been her third summer on Eilean Bàn. But, thanks to coronavirus, she’s had to wait till this October to return and for tours to start up again.

‘It’s an amazing place,’ she says. ‘Not many people have a lighthouse in their office!’

Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969) spoilt his house guests – his adored otters. He fed them live eels for breakfast and allowed them to share his bed and nibble his earlobes. Once, so that one pet otter would be allowed to share his overnight sleeper compartment from London, he described it as an Illyrian poodle.

Maxwell was always surrounded by animals: a springer spaniel called Jonnie, a cocker called Judy, Giddy the pony, a heron, a blind vole, an owl called Andrew, Jackie the jackdaw, five Greylag geese, three deerhound (two called Dirk), a lemur, a wildcat kitten, a water rail, a herring gull, a hedgehog, Gus the Pyrenean mountain dog, a rescued Manx shearwater, a bush baby called Hitchcock, a Slovakian gull, Mary the cockerel and a goat called Alftruda.

And several otters – Chahala, Mijbil, Mossy, Monday, Tibby, Edal and Teko. His ‘thraldom to otters’ made them all famous.

Gavin’s father was killed in 1914, three months before Gavin was born, in one of the first offensives of the First World War. So Gavin was brought up by his mother and maiden aunts. One of them ran the world’s largest rabbit fur farm and another, Aunt Moo, was a zoologist who fostered his ‘preoccupation with lesser animals’. She specialised in water-flea parasites.

Maxwell’s birthplace, Elrig (deer run), on the mainland, is the beginning of Scotland’s Maxwell Trail. In this clachan (or hamlet) in Dumfries and Galloway near Port William, the family house, now in private ownership, was built in 1912 by his father – Sir Herbert Maxwell, Bt, heir to a 17,000-acre Scottish estate – and his mother, the fifth daughter of the Duke of Northumberland.

With his brother and sister, they ‘wintered drearily in England’ (Alnwick Castle and Surrey) when the estate was let for shoots. One of the children’s governesses also looked after Ian Fleming.

‘Wearing kilts of black and white shepherd’s plaid’, in Maxwell’s memory, the children grew up among ‘an infinity of rock pools’, grass cliffs (‘heughs’), ‘marram-grown dunes’ and ‘the wild shouts of lapwings’.

He wrote at Seil Sound on the west coast of Scotland, with its ‘wheeling gulls’ and ‘pale satin sea’. In his Highland seaboard cottage near Skye, at Sandaig (called in the books Camusfearna, Gaelic for Bay of Alders), he used fish boxes as furniture. He lived there for eight years without plumbed water.

After Stowe and Oxford, during the war Maxwell served with the SOE and trained to be a secret agent. He was due to be dropped into France before injuring himself in parachute training.

Then, in 1945, he bought the Hebridean island of Soay, to open a shark fishery. This resulted in his first book, Harpoon at a Venture.

His writing career lasted until he died in 1969. Last September was the 50th anniversary of his death. The memorial ceremony was witnessed by Katia. ‘Maxwell touches minds and hearts,’ she says. ‘It was a kind of pilgrimage for many. I have met people who knew and worked for him. Former otter keeper David Wright’s daughter was in tears when I showed her the watch given to her father.

‘I love spending time in the hide on the north end of the island, watching the different sunsets and skies over the Cuillins. Eilean Bàn is magical under a dying sun. It is full of soul.’

Katia likes to spend time alone in the house’s Long Room, among Maxwell’s paintings and personal belongings, such as his binoculars. ‘There was a phone box facing the house. He loved watching people phoning him to ask to visit him. He described them and told them to stop picking their nose.’

Virginia McKenna, who starred with her husband Bill Travers in the 1969 film of Ring of Bright Water, restored the room. Her Born Free Foundation saved Maxwell’s home after the Skye Bridge, which connects Eilean Bàn with Skye and the mainland, was built in 1995. She turned the house into a museum.

‘Forget the bridge. Ignore it,’ Katia tells visitors. She shows them Maxwell’s desk, his passport, his pistol, a desert rose (he wrote about Morocco in Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956, published in 1966) and the handwritten first page of the manuscript of Ring of Bright Water. The book’s title comes from a poem by his platonic lover, Kathleen Raine. He wrote two sequels, The Rocks Remain (1963) and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1969).

A large boulder with a slate plaque marks where Maxwell’s ashes lie. It’s on the site of the study in his ‘weather-worn cottage’, ‘a stone’s throw from the sea’, which burnt down in 1968. The waterfall (‘the enduring symbol of Camusfearna’) and rowan tree (reputedly cursed) are still there – as is the memorial to his beloved Edal (1958-68). The otter – at one time the most famous animal in the world – died in the fire. Cows now use Edal’s memorial stone as a rubbing post.

Maxwell and pet otter in Sandaig, which he named Camusfearna, in the 1950s

After the fire, Maxwell converted two lighthouse-keeper’s cottages to live in. He planned a zoo and an eider-duck colony. Maxwell donated geese to Sir Peter Scott’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre.

Looking out to Loch Duich, Castle Moil and the Five Sisters of Kintail, Katia talks otters. She tells you Mjibil came from Basra, Edal from Nigeria, Tibby from Eigg and Teko from Sierre Leone. Teko is Old English for ‘otter’.

She adds that Castle Moil is the ancestral home of the Mackinnon clan, named after a Norwegian princess nicknamed Saucy Mary, who took tolls from ships using the sound and bared her breasts as a thank-you.

Do visit Teko’s memorial stone and the 70-foot 1857 Stevenson Lighthouse, once lit by sperm-whale oil and decommissioned in 1993. Then brave ‘the hustling wind’ or, from the heather-thatched hide, watch for rorquals, porpoises with their ‘bonhomous faces’.

You can spot seals basking there. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll see Maxwell’s beloved wild otters among ‘the tide-swung sea tangle’.