Dani Garavelli: Gavin Maxwell’s love of nature

A young Terry Nutkins, who Maxwell took under his wing.  Picture: contributed
A young Terry Nutkins, who Maxwell took under his wing. Picture: contributed
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He was a self-centred, eccentric dilettante and a dubious conservationist, yet few have inspired as deep a love of nature as Gavin Maxwell, writes Dani Garavelli

THE forest track which leads to Sandaig, a remote sandy bay on the Glenelg peninsula in the Highlands, is not on the regular tourist trail. Though land access rights mean it is open to all, visitors are not actively encouraged to make the journey down through the larch and Sitka spruce to the spot immortalised by naturalist and writer Gavin Maxwell as Camusfearna.

But those who do are unlikely to be disappointed. There, on the shores of the Sound of Sleat, is the grassy haven where Maxwell romped with his otters: Teko, Mossy, Monday, Edal and, of course, Mijbil. The cottage that was once his home is no longer standing; it burned to the ground in 1968. In its place, near a rowan tree which once guarded the property, is a boulder with a slate plaque to mark where Maxwell’s ashes are buried. Close by, a second boulder remembers Edal, who lost her life in the fire. Fans of Maxwell’s books, and there are still plenty, have plucked shells from the shore and laid them carefully around the stones: a tribute to the remarkable bond which can be forged between man and beast.

It was in this idyll, almost completely encircled by a glistening burn, that Maxwell wrote his trilogy: Ring Of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother, lyrical accounts of his relationship with the wild-animals-turned-pets which enchanted a generation. The first of these was heavily fictionalised in the film of the same name, starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, which is said to have done for otters what Born Free did for lions. Yet, in reality, Maxwell’s life was far from carefree. Born into an aristocratic family and packed off to boarding school at an early age, he grew into a depressive and dysfunctional adult; a contradictory, Peter Pan-like figure, who loved fast cars and adventure, yet sought out the country’s most secluded areas; a virtual recluse who couldn’t really cope with being alone.

Though his books were popular, his life was otherwise characterised by flamboyant failure, with one overblown scheme after another falling victim to his financial and organisational incompetence. A repressed homosexual, his most enduring relationship was with the poet Kathleen Raine who, tortured by his inability to love her back, cursed him one night beneath the rowan – an act which came back to haunt her as a succession of disasters culminated in his death of cancer at the age of 55.

In the post-Savile era, an air of unease hangs over aspects of Maxwell’s life; while in Sandaig he hired two adolescent assistants – Terry Nutkins (who went on to become a well-known TV naturalist) and Jimmy Watt – to help look after the otters. Both under-age, they moved into his home and he became Nutkins’ legal guardian. It was a set-up discomfiting to modern sensibilities, though no allegations have ever been made against Maxwell and those who knew him best believe his desire to be around young boys was merely a product of his stunted emotional development. There is a degree of public ambivalence towards Maxwell’s “conservation” work too. Looked at from a 21st century perspective, his attitude towards animals is distinctly dubious. As a member of the landed gentry, he learned to hunt at an early age; one of his many failed ventures was a fishery for basking sharks; and, far from encouraging the otters to live wild, he anthropomorphised them, giving them their own rooms and feeding them eels shipped in from London.

Yet, the way Maxwell sought out and wrote about wild places inspired many future naturalists: particularly Nutkins, who went on to appear on nature programmes such as Animal Magic, and writer and conservationist Sir John Lister-Kaye, who moved to the Highlands to work with Maxwell shortly before his death and went on to establish the Aigas Field Centre, near Beauly.

Next month, Lister-Kaye will host the launch of a lavishly illustrated limited edition of Ring Of Bright Water – signed by him, Watt, Richard Branson and McKenna (200 copies at £1,500 each) to mark the centenary of Maxwell’s birth on 15 July and to raise money for the Eilean Ban Trust, set up to preserve his legacy. The trust, based in Kyleakin on Skye, runs nature trails, a museum and an award-winning wildlife hide on the six-acre island sandwiched between Skye and the mainland where Maxwell spent the 18 months between the fire and his death in 1969.

Run by volunteers, it has been beset by problems. First the island was the site of construction work, as the foundation for one of the Skye bridge supports were laid, then Transport Scotland decided to put it up for sale, with McKenna, founder of the Born Free Foundation, eventually stepping in to stop it falling into private hands. Though the trust now leases the island from the Forestry Commission, uncertainty over its future has left it struggling for funding. Now trustee Jonathan Supper hopes the centenary will prompt a re-examination of Maxwell’s life and reawaken interest in a figure who, though not a conservationist in any conventional sense of the word, played a crucial role in raising awareness of Britain’s wild places and the need to protect them.

You don’t need to be Freud to deduce that the roots of Maxwell’s psychological problems are to be found in his childhood. Just months after he was born, his father Aymer was killed in the First World War and his mother, Lady Mary, the daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, kept him so sheltered on the family estate of Monreith in Dumfries and Galloway that by the time he started boarding school he had only met a handful of other children. At the age of 16 he became ill, which ended his education and prevented him from serving overseas in the Second World War. Instead he became an instructor with the Special Operations Executive, overseeing exercises in the rugged terrain of the Highlands. One medical officer branded him a “creative psychopath”, but his biographer, Douglas Botting, believes he had bipolar disorder. Certainly, his personality seems to have been a chaotic blend of melancholy and excess, which led him to drink too much and embark on madcap schemes with little research or preparation.

After the war, for example, he bought the island of Soay off Skye and set up his basking shark fishery, a challenge which, with little knowledge of hunting techniques and no infrastructure, was doomed from the outset. He flirted, unsuccessfully, with journalism, painting, driving racing cars and exploring, but his gift for writing meant each new adventure could be recounted in a new book. Though his lackadaisical attitude towards money, his mood swings and his self-absorption annoyed many, those willing to tolerate his unorthodox behaviour found him charismatic company and he was never short of an invitation to high-class dinner parties.

It was during another madcap adventure – a journey to the marshlands of Iraq with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger – that his love affair with otters began. When one orphaned kit he had adopted died he was so distressed he immediately sought out another one, Mijbil. So attached did he become to Mijbil that when he left Iraq he brought him back to the UK in a box (at one point, he was allowed out and ran riot among the aeroplane passengers). After walking Mijbil through the streets of London on a leash, he took him up to Sandaig where the pair spent a halcyon summer cavorting together in the sun. Later, Mijbil was joined by Edal.

By now Maxwell was embroiled in a passionate yet platonic relationship with Raine, whose attention he seemed to both crave and resent. Her poetry – inspired by Maxwell – gave him the title of his most famous book, but also, he said, exposed him to public scrutiny. One day, cast out in a storm, Raine uttered her curse: “Let Gavin suffer in this place as I am suffering.” Not long after this, Maxwell left Raine in charge and Mijbil wandered off and was killed by a road-mender.

The years that followed were stacked with misery: Maxwell acquired more otters, but some of them turned against their keepers (Nutkins lost the end of two fingers down to the first joint to Edal). He wed Lavinia Renton, a marriage which lasted just over a year, and the success of Ring Of Bright Water meant his retreat was over-run with visitors. Then came the fire. Maxwell moved to Eilean Ban, but was diagnosed with cancer and died. Raine spent the rest of her life blaming herself for the tragedy. Long after his death, Maxwell’s books, which surfed a tide of nature writing from TH White’s The Goshawk to Gerald Durrell’s My Family And Other Animals, continued to attract those who lusted after excitement.

Writer Dan Boothby was 15 when he first picked up a copy of Raven Seek Thy Brother. “I lived in Norfolk which was flat and boring and I loved the pictures of mountains he painted in my mind,” he says. “At that age you just want adventure and that’s what those lads [Nutkins and Watt] were having. Weirdly, when I read it I didn’t think there was anything strange about a middle-aged man living in the middle of nowhere with two young lads – I just wanted to muck about on boats, and it seemed like an Outward Bound lifestyle I’d love to have.”

As he grew older, Boothby visited the area and, in 2005, he began a two-year stint as a warden on Eilean Ban, writing Stalking Maxwell’s Ghost about his experiences. Today, he believes Maxwell’s love of animals stemmed from his upper class upbringing. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true a lot of these people were so removed from society they tended to bond with their animals,” he says. “And yes, he started off shooting them – that’s what people of his ilk were taught to do. The thing about hunting, though, is that it gives you an opportunity to view the animals at close quarters. I think, eventually, he just got fed up with all the killing.”

While staying on Eilean Ban, Boothby began to feel close to the man and to gain some insight into his character. “I learned a lot about natural history and fragile societies and about not getting too close to your heroes because everyone is flawed,” he says.

Despite this, Boothby believes Maxwell is a breath of fresh air in a conservation movement now dominated “by academics and people from the city”. “Writers like him and Laurie Lee and Gerald Durrell, yes, they anthropomorphised, but I don’t know what’s so wrong with that. Naturalists these days write with leaden prose whereas he wrote with such charm.”

Around 1,500 people a year still visit Eilean Ban, searching – like Boothby – for a fleeting glimpse of Maxwell’s ghost. On Skye, the International Otter Survival Fund (IOSF) campaigns for the conservation of otters in parts of the world where its survival is threatened and runs a sanctuary on the island for injured animals. This, they say, is not a “sentimental luxury”. Being at the top of the food chain and living in land and water the otter is “an ambassador to a healthy environment”.

Since the celebrations to mark the centenary of Maxwell’s birth are low-key, and some conservationists seem uncomfortable talking about his legacy, it could be argued his eccentricity has damaged his long-term reputation. And yet much of the attraction of his books lies in his refusal to be bound by normal social convention. “The resonance which he was able to generate through his writing was the product of his complexity. Without that his books would have been much more two-dimensional,” insists Supper. “Maxwell’s experiences – his childhood and schooling, his work for the special forces and his personal ­travails – all acted together to create the desire he had to escape the hubbub.” ­According to Botting, Maxwell was “a tempestuous and troubled genius, a ­hilarious terrier of a man”. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1