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‘It haunts me with its darkness, as well as thrilling me with its beauties’
‘This book, then, is about my life in a lonely cottage on the north-west coast of Scotland, about animals that have shared it with me ... in a landscape of rock and sea.’ Thus did Gavin Maxwell introduce his best-selling memoir, one of the most popular wildlife books of all time. Travelling in Iraq in 1956 with Wilfred Thesiger, Maxwell was given an otter cub he named Mijbil and brought him back to his isolated cottage in the West Highlands of Scotland. Mijbil was followed by another otter, Edal, and further creatures including a flock of tame greylag geese and – briefly – a wildcat kitten.
The landscape of Camusfeàrna (the name Maxwell gave to his home in the hopes of maintaining privacy) is magically evoked: the stags roaring across the Sound, the rowan berries and the heather, the summer ‘with its wild roses and smooth blue seas lapping white island beaches’. Maxwell’s descriptions of his otters are as enchanting as the creatures themselves, from Mij’s balletic grace underwater and ‘clownish good humour’, to Edal’s habit of playing football with purloined objects. His love for them, and their affection for him, shine through. Yet they remained wild animals, and their coexistence with his household was often fraught, sometimes dangerous, and, in one case at least, ended in tragedy.
A new introduction by the award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane provides a brilliant and balanced reassessment of this much-loved book. He explores Maxwell’s contradictory attitudes towards his animals, and the beauty and volatility of this memoir, that make it ‘one of the most compelling works of 20th-century nature writing’. Our edition retains Peter Scott’s black and white drawings, but introduces a new selection of photographs, including long-lost colour images that reveal the beauties of Camusfeàrna for the first time, and previously unseen pictures of Mijbil and Edal. The binding shows Michael Ayrton’s drawings of Mijbil.
Gavin Maxwell was born in Scotland in 1914 to Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy, whose father was the seventh Duke of Northumberland. After serving in the Second World War as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive, he purchased the Isle of Soay in the Inner Hebrides, where he attempted to establish a shark fishery. In 1956 he travelled to the Tigris Basin in Southern Iraq with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger to explore the area’s vast unspoiled marshes; Maxwell’s account of their travels was published as A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1959). It was there that he adopted the otter Mijbil. The story of how Maxwell brought Mijbil back to raise in his isolated home in Sandaig (named Camusfeàrna in the book) on the west coast of Scotland, is told in Ring of Bright Water (1960); the book sold more than two million copies and in 1969 was made into a film. It was the first in Maxwell’s ‘otter trilogy’, for which he remains best known: its sequels were The Rocks Remain (1963) and Raven Seek Thy Brother (1968). The house at Sandaig was destroyed by fire in 1968, and Maxwell moved into a former lighthouse keeper’s cottage on the nearby island of Eilean Bàn. He died in 1969; his Eilean Bàn home remains a museum and the island a wildlife sanctuary.
Robert Macfarlane’s first book, Mountains of the Mind (2003), is an account of Western attitudes to mountains; it won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Among his other works are The Wild Places (2007), an exploration of the wildernesses of Britain and Ireland, and The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot (2012), which describes Macfarlane’s travels along ancient or forgotten trails. He is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and served as Chair of the Booker Prize Committee in 2013.
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Review by anon on 2nd Mar 2016
"I thought this was the loveliest book you published in 2015."
Review by PAULALOUD on 27th Jun 2015
"Absolutely enchanting. A beautiful and haunting account of one man's journey to a remote part of Scotland to pursue simplicity and to elude the maddening crowd of society. So begins Gavin Maxwell's se..." [read more]