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Gavin Maxwell FRSL, FIAL, FZS (Sc.), FRGS [1] (15 July 1914 – 7 September 1969) was a Scottish naturalist and author, best known for his work with otters. He wrote the book Ring of Bright Water (1960) about how he brought an otter back from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. Ring of Bright Water sold more than a million copies and was made into a movie starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in 1969. The title 'Ring of Bright Water' was taken from a poem by Kathleen Raine (1908–2003) who said in her autobiography that Maxwell had been the love of her life.



Former HQ of The Island of Soay Shark Fisheries Ltd, started - and finished - by Gavin Maxwell

Maxwell was the youngest son of Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy, fifth daughter of the seventh Duke of Northumberland. His paternal grandfather, Sir Herbert Maxwell, was an archaeologist, politician and natural historian[1].

He was raised in the tiny village of Elrig, near Port William, in Wigtownshire, near the south west corner of Scotland, and Maxwell's relatives still reside in the Port William area; the family's ancient estate and grounds are in nearby Monreith. Maxwell is an extremely common name in the area.

His education took place at a succession of preparatory schools, including St Cyprian's where he found encouragement for his interest in natural history, Stowe, and Hertford College, Oxford, where he took a degree in Estate Management by reason of family pressures. In The Rocks Remain he relates how he had no interest in taking such a degree and spent the time in sporting and leisure activities instead of studying; he passed his intermediate exams by an elaborate process of cheating, but passed his finals honestly, having "crammed" the entire three-year course in six weeks.[1]

In World War II Maxwell served as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive. After the war, he purchased the Isle of Soay off Skye. He tried to establish a basking shark fishery there between 1945-48. He was unsuccessful, due to bad planning and lack of finance, according to his book Harpoon at a Venture (1952, since republished under various titles).

In 1956 Maxwell toured the reed marshes of Southern Iraq with explorer Wilfred Thesiger. Maxwell's account of their trip appears in A Reed Shaken By The Wind, later published under the title People of the Reeds. It was hailed by the New York Times as "near perfect".

Maxwell next moved to Sandaig[2] (which he called Camusfeàrna in his books), a small community opposite Eilean Iarmain on a remote part of the Scottish mainland. There his "otter books" are set. After Ring of Bright Water (1960), he wrote The Rocks Remain (1963), in which the otters Edal, Teko, Mossy, and Monday show great differences in personality. The Rocks Remain is a sequel to Ring of Bright Water, as it demonstrates the difficulty Maxwell was having, possibly as a result of his mental state, in remaining focused on one project and the impact that had on his otters, Sandaig, and his own life.

In 1966 he traveled to Morocco with a companion, tracing the dramatic lives of the last rulers of Morocco under the French, published as Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956. During the Years of Lead, the Moroccan regime considered his book subversive and it could not be imported legally.

In The House of Elrig (1965), Maxwell describes his family history and his passion for the calf-country, Galloway, where he was born. It was during this period that he met Peter Scott, the ornithologist, and the young Terry Nutkins who went on to become a children's television presenter. Privately homosexual,[3] Maxwell married Lavinia Renton (née Lascelles) on 1 February 1962; however, the marriage lasted little more than a year and they were divorced in 1964.[4] Several young men derived much benefit from relationships with Maxwell.[5]

After his Sandaig home was destroyed by fire in 1968, Maxwell moved to the lighthouse cottage of Eilean Bàn (White Island), an island he owned off the coast of the Isle of Skye.

In 1969, Maxwell invited John Lister-Kaye to move to Eilean Bàn to help him work on a book about British wild mammals and to assist in building a zoo on the island. Lister-Kaye accepted the invitation and moved to the island, but both projects had to be abandoned when Maxwell died from cancer later that same year.[6]

Eilean Bàn now supports a pier of the 1990s-built Skye Bridge, and, despite modern traffic a hundred feet or so above, the island is a commemorative otter sanctuary. Also on the island is a museum dedicated to Maxwell. A stone otter was also erected in the grounds of Port William Golf Course as a memorial to Maxwell.

Maxwell suffered from bipolar disorder throughout his life, according to Douglas Botting.[7] Maxwell's literary agent was Peter Janson-Smith,[8] who was also agent for his contemporary, the author Ian Fleming.

Unusual adventures with exotic animals, and frequent stories of disasters, provide the main appeal of Maxwell's books. Although he could have pursued a diplomatic career like many of his class, or a conventional lairdship, he rejected both for a simpler lifestyle.

Maxwell's Otter

Maxwell's book Ring of Bright Water describes how, in 1956, he brought a Smooth-coated Otter back from Iraq and raised it in 'Camusfearna' (Sandaig), on the west coast of Scotland. He took the otter, called Mijbil, to the London Zoological Society, where it was decided that this was a previously unknown sub-species of Smooth-coated Otter, which was named after him: Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli, or 'Maxwell's Otter'. It is thought to have lived in the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial salt marsh of Iraq, but it has been suggested that it may have become extinct as a result of the large scale drainage that has taken place since the 1960s.

In the book, The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger wrote:

[I]n 1956, Gavin Maxwell, who wished to write a book about the Marshes, came with me to Iraq, and I took him round in my tarada for seven weeks. He had always wanted an otter as a pet, and at last I found him a baby European otter which unfortunately died after a week, towards the end of his visit. He was in Basra preparing to go home when I managed to obtain another, which I sent to him. This, very dark in colour and about six weeks old, proved to be a new species. Gavin took it to England, and the species was named after him.

The otter became woven into the fabric of Maxwell's life; Raine's relationship with Maxwell ended in 1956 when she lost Mijbil, indirectly causing the animal's death. Raine held herself responsible, not only for losing Mijbil but for a curse she had uttered shortly beforehand, frustrated by Maxwell's homosexuality: "Let Gavin suffer in this place as I am suffering now". Raine blamed herself thereafter for all Maxwell's misfortunes, beginning with Mijbil's death and ending with the cancer that took his life in 1969.[9]


  • Harpoon at a Venture Rupert Hart-Davis (1952)
    • Paperback reissue (1984): ISBN 0-14-006987-9
    • Paperback reissue (2005): ISBN 1-899863-28-1
  • God Protect Me from My Friends Longmans (1956)
    • Paperback reissue (1972): ISBN 0-330-02787-5
  • A Reed Shaken By The Wind - a Journey Through the Unexplored Marshlands of Iraq Longmans (1959)
    • Paperback reissue (Eland Books, 2003) ISBN 0-907871-93-3
  • The Ten Pains of Death (1959)
  • Ring of Bright Water (illustrated by Peter Scott) Longmans (1960)
    • Paperback reissue: ISBN 0-14-003923-6
  • The Otters' Tale Longmans (1962; a children's version of Ring of Bright Water)
  • The Rocks Remain Longmans (1963)
  • The House of Elrig Longmans (1965)
  • Lords of the Atlas: Morocco, the rise and fall of the House of Glaoua Longmans (1966)
  • Seals of the World (1967)
  • Raven Seek Thy Brother Longmans (1969)


  • The White Island by John Lister-Kaye (about the author's time working with Maxwell) Longman (1972) ISBN 0-582-10903-5.
  • Maxwell's Ghost - An Epilogue to Gavin Maxwell's Camusfearna by Richard Frere, Victor Gollancz, (1976) ISBN 0-575-02044-X
    • Paperback reissue 1999, ISBN 1-84158-003-1
  • Gavin Maxwell, A Life by Douglas Botting, HarperCollins (1993) ISBN 0-246-13046-6 (authorized biography)
    • Republished as The Saga of Ring of Bright Water - The Enigma of Gavin Maxwell Neil Wilson Publishing Ltd, (2000) ISBN 1-897784-85-6 [1]

References & notes

  1. ^ a b c The Rocks Remain
  2. ^ Sandaig is at 57°10′06″N 5°41′06″W / 57.16833°N 5.685°W / 57.16833; -5.685, to the southwest of Glenelg
  3. ^ Frere, Richard (1976). Maxwell's Ghost. Victor Gollancz. pp. 65–66. ISBN 057502044X.  
  4. ^ "". Retrieved 2007-08-20.  
  5. ^ Louis Stott, ‘Maxwell, Gavin (1914–1969)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004;
  6. ^ The White Island by John Lister-Kaye; Longman (1972) ISBN 0-582-10903-5.
  7. ^ Gavin Maxwell, A Life by Douglas Botting, HarperCollins (1993) ISBN 0-246-13046-6
  8. ^ Frere, Richard (1976). Maxwell's Ghost. Victor Gollancz. pp. 71. ISBN 057502044X.  
  9. ^ Kathleen Raine:Obituary, The Guardian, London, 8/7/2003

External links


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