On this day in history : 5th September 1969 – The death of Scottish naturalist and writer Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water….the story of the otter he brought back from Iraq and raised in Scotland….

Gavin Maxwell c.1950 – Fair use

Maxwell was born into Scottish aristocracy – at The House of Elrig, near Port William, South Western Scotland…. He was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy…. His maternal grandfather was the 7th Duke of Northumberland and his paternal grandfather was Sir Herbert Maxwell, 7th Baronet and a natural historian, archaeologist and politician….

The ‘House of Elrig’ – Photo credit : Les Dunford CC BY-SA 2.0

Maxwell had a public school education and from an early age had an interest in natural history…. Giving in to pressure from his family he attended Hertford College, Oxford, where he obtained a degree in estate management….

During World War 2 Maxwell was an instructor with the secret organisation ‘Special Operations Executive’ – he was invalided out in 1944 having reached the rank of Major…. After the War be bought the Isle of Soay, off of Skye and began to pursue his real passion in life, natural history….

In 1956 Maxwell travelled to Iraq, where he was to explore the reed marshes of Southern Iraq with explorer Wilfred Thesiger…. Maxwell had always had a desire to have an otter as a pet and whilst in Iraq he managed to obtain one…. However, sadly it was to die shortly after; Maxwell was devastated…. It was as he was preparing to return to England that Thesiger managed to find another one for him – a smooth coated otter, very dark in colour and about 6 weeks old…. Maxwell named him Mijbil and returned home to Scotland with him….

Maxwell and Mij settled into a new home, ‘Sandaig’, in the Glenreig Community, a remote part of mainland Scotland…. The property had originally been a small holding for the lighthouse keeper of the Sandraig Lighthouse…. It was here at Sandraig that Maxwell raised Mij – although in his books he calls his home ‘Camusfearna’ – ‘the bay of alders’….

Mij seemed different to other otters and when Maxwell presented him to the London Zoological Society they confirmed that he was a previously unknown sub-species…. And so he was named Lutrogale perspicillatra maxwell – ‘Maxwell’s otter’…. Although Maxwell was to keep several other otters Mij became the focus of his life…. The title for his book ‘Ring of Bright Water’, which was first published in 1960, came from a poem by Kathleen Raine…. In 1969 a film of the same name, based loosely on Maxwell’s book, was released starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers….

Cover of first edition – Fair use

The relationship between Maxwell and Raine was complicated…. She was infatuated with him – and was to describe him as ‘the love of her life’…. Only she was to be left frustrated by his homosexuality…. They had a close friendship – but this was to deteriorate through her indirectly causing the death of Mij…. I wont spoil the story if you have not read the book – but it was a sad state of affairs…. The best-seller is both heart warming and a tear jerker…. It is described as a literacy masterpiece but at the same time it has a dark side…. Nowadays we have a different view about keeping wild animals and raising them as pets….

In February 1962 Maxwell married Lavinia Renton but not surprisingly this marriage ended within less than a year – they divorced in 1964…. The house at Sandraig was destroyed by fire in 1968 and Maxwell moved into the lighthouse keepers’ cottages situated on an island between Skye and the mainland…. He was to die of lung cancer the following year….

Statue of Maxwell’s otter at Montreith by Penny Wheatley – Photo credit : Roger Nunn CC BY-SA 2.0

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