A Ring of Bright Water

Glenelg to  Arnisdale

He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water
Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea,
He has married me with a ring of light, the glitter
Broadcast on the swift river.

As a child I only remember ‘going to the pictures’ ie to see a film, with my parents twice in total. One of these very rare visits was to see the film Ring of Bright Water, Ring of Bright Water is an adaptation of Scottish author Gavin Maxwell’s autobiographical book of the same name. I was ten years old when I saw the film and I loved the story of man and otter living an idyllic life in a remote cottage on the beautiful west coast of Scotland. I also remember crying buckets when the otter was killed.

Later that year I read the book and got the true version – without the glossy sentimental stuff added for the film. I love the opening paragraph

“I sit in a pitch-pine panelled 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. On the stone slab beneath the chimney-piece are inscribed the words ‘Non fatuum huc persecutus ignem’ – it is no will-o’-the-wisp that I have followed here.”

I found the book really interesting – although the early chapters were quite hard work for my ten-year self. This is where he describe his life in the reed marshes of Southern Iraq with explorer Wilfred Thesiger. This was where Maxwell first befriended an abandoned baby otter. this first otter died and Maxwell was heartbroken. Soon he acquired another otter called Mijbil, ‘Mij’ for short. When Maxwell returned to the UK, he brought Mij to live with him in the remote cottage he had bought at Sandaig. He wanted to retain some privacy for himself and his otters and when he wrote about his time here he called the place ‘Camusfearna’ (Gaelic for ‘bay of alders’), At the time the cottage had no electricity or telephone, and was a serious hike down the steep hillside from the single-track road and the nearest neighbours.

A couple of years after first seeing the film and reading the book I found one of my school friends had read the book and more and was a great Maxwell fan. I read it again and now, at about fourteen years, I loved every bit of it. I read the two follow up books, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother which told of the misfortunes that befell Maxwell, including the death of his beloved otters, Mij and Edal and the loss of his house in a fire.

I also read the two biographies by other Scottish naturalists who had worked with Gavin: The White Island by John Lister-Kaye and Maxwell’s Ghost – An Epilogue to Gavin Maxwell’s Camusfearna by Richard Frere.

I learnt the ‘Camusfearna’ of the book was actually at Sandaig, near Glenelg and like many fans, I wanted to go to visit the place. I first managed to get to Sandaig when I could drive and got my own car. I still remember the scary drive over Mam Ratagan pass, as a young novice driver, tackling those steep hairpin bends up from Kintail, and a wonderful long sweep down to Glenelg.

I’ve been back to Sandaig many times since then and every time it feels like a magical place to me. A couple of days of free time, a forecast of lovely weather on the west coast, (and big hill days off the agenda at the moment for health reasons) meant a great opportunity to return.

The drive over to Glenelg was wonderful as ever with the autumnal colours adding to the scenery. The view from near Stromeferry looking across Loch Carron was beautiful

Loch Carron

I stopped at the viewpoint on Mam Ratagan for the famous view of the Five Sisters of Kintail. I wondered briefly if I should change my plans and camp in Glen Sheil to go walk the ridge again (something I’ve not done for a couple of decades!), but I know that I’d not manage the five Munros in my present state of unfitness and the short days.

Mam Ratagan looking to the Five Sisters of Kintail

On all my previous visits to Sandaig I’ve thought it a shame that the hillside above the cottage is cloaked with fir and spruce plantation forest and so different to the heather slopes described by Gavin. But that may not be the case for much longer. Eileanreach Estate, and forest management, Scottish Forestry are currently harvesting this wood. This is a large undertaking, as can be seem by the numerous piles of stacked tree trunks all along the forest roads and the noise and movement of large forest machinery. Naturally, this activity disturbs the usual peace of the approach to Lower Sandaig, but surprisingly, yesterday at least, the noise could not be heard on the beach.

Sandaig Islands in the morning light

Timber harvesting at Sandaig

Although the house is gone, and the hillside above the cottage and bay changed from the original heather-clad hill much of the bay is just as it was 50 years ago when Gavin lived here.

Sandaig

This photo shows what the place looked like during Gavin’s time living in the cottage.

The book title comes from the poem The Marriage Of Psyche by Kathleen Raine. Raine was in love with Gavin, but their relationship never developed beyond friendship for Gavin. Kathleen despaired of Gavin’s homosexuality and is said to have laid her hands on the Rowan tree beside the cottage and cursed him: “Let Gavin suffer in this place as I am suffering now.” Not long after that Gavin and his otters were to suffer a number of accidents, Firstly, Mij was killed while Gavin was away and Kathleen was looking after him; another otter, Edal bit the end of two fingers from Gavin’s assistant, Terry Nutkins; Gavin was injured in a car accident; then the house was destroyed by a fire in which Edal died. Gavin died from lung cancer in 1969 in his mid-fifties.

Memorial to Gavin Maxwell at Sandaig

There is memorial stone marking the site of the house and this is where Gavin’s ashes are buried. Yesterday there was a wee posy of flowers on the memorial stone and, in my mind, these looked a wee bit tacky and out of place. Previously all I’ve ever seen on the stone was arrangements of pebbles, shells or small pieces of driftwood. These I feel are more in keeping with the place and with Gavin, who furnished the cottage from whatever flotsam or other debris that was washed up on the local beaches.

Memorial to Gavin Maxwell at Sandaig

Close by is a memorial stone to Edal, the otter of Ring of Bright Water, who died in the house fire.

Memorial to Edal

The ring of water described in the poem is made up of the the freshwater burn where the otters played and caught elvers and the salt-water sea. Together they almost encircled the cottage.

A Ring of Bright Water

I had initially planned to camp down on the beach opposite the islands, but decided not to when I saw the timber harvesting. After spending a few hours walking around the beach and exploring the islands, I realised it may have been an option after all, but by them I had chosen an alternative wild camping spot.

Instead I continued along the road passing through Arnisdale (the starting point for climbing Beinn Sgritheall) and on to Carron at the end of the road. From Carron, I followed the footpath around the coast for a few miles and found a lovely wee spot on the shore of Loch Hourn. I found a tiny, wee patch of grass-covered, stony upper beach area with a small trickle of fresh water flowing nearby. This wee pitch was hidden under trees and although there was an almost full moon, I did not benefit from this extra light early in the evening as I was in the shadow of the trees.

After eating, I sat for a while on a rock about 10 metres above the sea loch level and think I saw an otter. I heard a loud splash, followed by a distinct “atchoo” . I could just about make out a dark shape in the water and as I listened and strained to see in the dark, I heard more sneezing and splashing. I can not be certain this was an otter, but think it may have been.

A night-time visit to the ‘ladies room’ in the middle of the night was magical. The moon was glowing like a huge orange ball, low over the water of the loch and dipped down out of sight as I watched. The sky was lit up with millions of stars and I wished I could pick out more constellations than the Plough and Orion.

The next morning I had wonderful views from my tent.

Looking out from my tent

Morning view from my tent

More photos in my Flickr account here

I leave you with the rest of the poem by Kathleen Raine.

The Marriage of Psyche
by Kathleen Raine

He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water
Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea,
He has married me with a ring of light, the glitter
Broadcast on the swift river.
He has married me with the sun’s circle
Too dazzling to see, traced in summer sky.
He has crowned me with the wreath of white cloud
That gathers on the snowy summit of the mountain,
Ringed me round with the world-circling wind,
Bound me to the whirlwind’s centre.
He has married me with the orbit of the moon
And with the boundless circle of the stars
With the orbits that measure years, months, days, and nights,
Set the tides flowing,
Command the winds to travel or be at rest.

At the ring’s centre
Spirit or angel troubling the still pool,
Causality not in nature,
Finger’s touch that summons at a point, a moment
Stars and planets, life and light
Or gathers cloud about an apex of cold,
Transcendent touch of love summons my world to being.

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18 comments on “A Ring of Bright Water

  1. Wow!
    Amazing photos and a fascinating story.
    The light and colours in the first photo are glorious, the five sisters picture and a couple of the ones in the slideshow are every bit as good too.
    I’ve been to Glenelg a couple of times, but to look at the Brock, before I’d read ‘Ring of Bright Water’. To be honest it’s the descriptions of the wildlife around the bay which I found most evocative – there’s one amazing description in one of the books of the bay being full of fish (mackeral?) which are hemmed in by dolphins, which are in turn being hunted by killer whales. Incredible stuff.
    Hope your soon feeling up to tackling Kintail ridges north or south.

    • I, too, visited the Glenelg brochs, but only rather short visits to find geocaches. I didn’t linger as I didn’t want to be going over the pass after dark; not with all the heavily-laden timber trucks that were on the road with the harvesting at Sandaig.

  2. Superb photos and an evocative post & story. Like Mark (in fact with him!) I’ve been to Glenelg several times but I never realised it was connected with the book. Thinking about it, it’s been 26 years since I did my one and only walk on the five sisters!

  3. I remember Terry Nutkins from Animal magic when I was a kid, I used to love animal magic! When I was in Shiel bridge about 12 years ago I was sure that it was Terry Nutkins in a queue in the shop, looked like him and had 2 fingers missing.

    Lovely pics Sheila.

    • Terry moved from London to go stay with Gavin when he was 12 (I don’t know what about his family background enabled him to go when so young), but it must have been a huge adventure to share that place. Imagine living there, tending ‘pet’ otters, learning to navigate the boats and generally living an outdoors life.

  4. You’ve managed a fabulous and informative adventure. What a fine clear sky and landscape for the pics that accompany your narrative. Thanks.

  5. Brilliant, although I must admit to never having read the book. Have walked around the area visiting the brochs myself and even walked up the Ratagain road when I walked from Inverness to Skye last year through Affric. A scary road indeed and was the hardest part of the whole journey.
    Wonderful images too.

  6. How very generous and kind of you to have shared so much of your precious experience with us. I first came across «A Ring of Bright Water» (the book) many years ago as an adolescent attending a boarding school in Kent. I was a refugee from communism living in exile; I found great solace in Gavin Maxwell’s words and experiences and envied the fulfilment he must have achieved in this period of his life – a time which for me was so difficult and sad. I do hope that, one day, I may follow in your footsteps and visit this special place which, one way or another, has been a part of myself since I first stumbled upon it. Many thanks. VST
    .

  7. I too saw Ring of Bright Water as a child, and I too cried. That scene remained in my mind. As an adult I purchased a DVD copy of the movie and remembered enough of that otter’s tragic death that I skipped it whilst watching the movie. I cannot even read about it the book.

    • I too loved Maxwell’s book; Ring of Bright Water. We read it as a set text in the second year of High School. Given that I am August born, I was quest to young to read the book in many ways. I was lucky, having a succession of English Teachers, who really encouraged my love of quality reading. Anyway, I just wanted to share my love of ROBW, and to say that I too wept for hours over those Otters. 😢😪 xx

  8. Thank you so much for this wonderful article and superb photography. I read Ring Of Bright Water for school when I was 15 and have never forgotten it. I was so fortunate to visit the place 2 months ago – visiting from Australia. I yearn to return…….

  9. Pingback: Count Downton 3* | julie rowan-zoch

  10. Hi there Sheila,

    I enjoyed this post. I watched the film when I was very young. I have not yet read the book, but it is on my shelf. I became interested in cycle touring last year when I cycled from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Back in the UK, I am looking for a ride to do later this year in the UK. I wondered whether a cycle to Sandaig (from where I am not sure) would work – I have always wanted to go.

    Do you have any advice on whether it would work as a long distance touring ride? Can you suggest anywhere to start? Is there accommodation out there? I have not done wild camping before…

    Any info would be appreciated.

    Regards,

    Jo

    • Hi Jo. A cycle tour to Glenelg is perfectly possible for the fit and those who enjoy challenging hills. To get there the road winds it’s way up the Ratagan Bealach (pass) climbing from about sea level at Sheil Bridge up to 340m at the top of the pass 4km further on. The view from the top of the pass, looking back to teh hills of Glen Sheil is one of the best in Scotland

      There is accommodation at the Glenelg Inn and local Bed and Breakfast places. There is also a small shop in the village. See the local tourist information page: http://www.glenelgscotland.com/glenelg.htm

      From Glenelg, if touring by bike, the logical thing to do would be then to take the small 4 car ferry to Skye. The ferry is run by the local community and operates from Easter to mid-October.

      This map here shows you an outline of the route as done by someone else: http://gb.mapometer.com/cycling/route_1130099.html

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