Gavin Maxwell

Gavin Maxwell FRSL, FIAL, FZS (Sc.), FRGS[2] (15 July 1914  7 September 1969) was a Scottish naturalist and author, best known for his non-fiction writing and 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. The otter was of a previously unknown sub-species which was subsequently named after Maxwell. Ring of Bright Water sold more than a million copies and was made into a film starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in 1969. The title Ring of Bright Water was taken from the poem "The Marriage of Psyche" by Kathleen Raine, who said in her autobiography that Maxwell had been the love of her life.

Gavin Maxwell
Born(1914-07-15)15 July 1914
House of Elrig, Wigtownshire, Scotland
Died7 September 1969(1969-09-07) (aged 55)
Inverness, Scotland[1]
Alma materHertford College, Oxford
GenreNatural history, Travel literature
Notable worksRing of Bright Water


Gavin 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.[2]

Maxwell was born at The House of Elrig near the small village of Elrig, near Port William, in Wigtownshire, south-western Scotland. Maxwell's relatives still live in the area and the family's ancient estate and grounds are in nearby Monreith.

Maxwell's education took place at a succession of preparatory and public schools, including the sporty Heddon Court School[3] at East Barnet, St Cyprian's School, where he found encouragement for his interest in natural history, and Stowe School. In The Rocks Remain, he relates how family pressure led him to take a degree in Estate Management at Hertford College, Oxford, where he spent his time pursuing sporting and leisure activities instead of studying. He cheated his way through the intermediate exams but passed the final examinations honestly, having crammed the entire three-year course in six weeks.[2]

During World War II, Maxwell served as an instructor with the Special Operations Executive. After the war, he purchased the Isle of Soay off Skye in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. According to his book Harpoon at a Venture (1952), bad planning and a lack of finance meant his attempt to establish a basking shark fishery there between 1945-48 proved unsuccessful and the island was sold on to his business partner, Tex Geddes. He became a close friend of Elias Canetti.

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".[4]

Maxwell next moved to Sandaig[5] (which he called Camusfeàrna in his books), a small community opposite Isleornsay on a remote part of the Scottish mainland. This is where 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, and 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 travelled to Morocco, tracing the dramatic lives of the last rulers of Morrakesh under the French. His account of the trip was published as Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956. During the Moroccan Years of Lead, the regime there considered his book subversive and banned its importation.

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 ornithologist Peter Scott and the young Terry Nutkins, who later became a children's television presenter. Privately homosexual,[6] Maxwell married Lavinia Renton (daughter of The Right Honourable Sir Alan Lascelles and granddaughter of Viscount Chelmsford, Wilfred Thesiger's uncle) on 1 February 1962. The marriage lasted little more than a year and they divorced in 1964.[7] Maxwell also lived in Paultons Square in London.

In 1968, Maxwell's Sandaig home was destroyed by fire and he moved to the lighthouse keepers' cottages on Eilean Bàn (White Island), an island between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland by Kyleakin. He invited John Lister-Kaye to join him on Eilean Bàn and help him build a zoo on the island and work on a book about British wild mammals. Lister-Kaye accepted the invitation, but both projects were abandoned when Maxwell died from cancer the following year.[8]

Eilean Bàn now supports a pier of the Skye Bridge, built during the 1990s. Despite modern traffic a hundred feet or so above it, the island is a commemorative otter sanctuary and houses a museum dedicated to Maxwell. Another memorial is a bronze otter erected at Monreith near to St Medan's Golf Club.

According to Douglas Botting, Maxwell suffered from bipolar disorder throughout his life.[9] Maxwell's literary agent was Peter Janson-Smith,[10] who was also agent for James Bond author Ian Fleming.

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" at Sandaig Bay 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 subspecies of smooth-coated otter. It was therefore named Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli (or, colloquially, "Maxwell's otter") after him. While it was thought to have become extinct in the alluvial salt marshes of Iraq as a result of the large-scale drainage of the area that started in the 1960s, newer surveys suggest large populations remain throughout its range.[11][12]

In his 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 an otter, 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. Kathleen Raine's relationship with Maxwell deteriorated after 1956 when she indirectly caused the death of Mijbil. 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.[13][14]

Maxwell's ashes were scattered on the site of his house Camusfeàrna.


  • Harpoon at a Venture Rupert Hart-Davis (1952)
    • Paperback reissue (1984): ISBN 0-14-006987-9
    • Paperback reissue (1998): ISBN 978-1899863464
    • Paperback reissue (2013): ISBN 978-1780271804
  • 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 (1983): ISBN 978-0140095104
    • Paperback reissue (Eland Books, 2003) ISBN 0-907871-93-3
  • The Ten Pains of Death (1959)
    • Paperback reissue (1986): ISBN 978-0862992897
  • 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 Ring of Bright Water Trilogy Penguin (2001; abridged)


  • Island of Dreams: Stalking Gavin Maxwell's Ghost by Dan Boothby, Cork Street Books (2014)
    • republished as Island of Dreams: A Personal History of a Remarkable Place, Picador (2015) ISBN 978-1509800759
  • 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
    • reissued (1999) ISBN 1-84158-003-1
    • reissued (2011) ISBN 978-1780270111
  • 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 (2000) ISBN 1-897784-85-6[15]


  1. Botting, Douglas (1993). Gavin Maxwell, A Life. HarperCollins. p. 576. ISBN 0-246-13046-6.
  2. The Rocks Remain, Gavin Maxwell, Longmans, 1963, ASIN: B0000CLY9N
  3. Brendon, Vyvyen (2009). Prep School Children: A Class Apart Over Two Centuries. A&C Black. p. 93. ISBN 978-1-84706-287-1.
  4. quoted in Stott, Louis (2004). "Maxwell, Gavin". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34959.
  5. At 57°10′06″N 5°41′06″W, to a house which had been a croft and home to the local lighthouse keeper of the Sandaig Light southwest of Glenelg.
  6. Frere, Richard (1976). Maxwell's Ghost. Victor Gollancz. pp. 65–66. ISBN 0-575-02044-X.
  7. "". Retrieved 6 October 2013.
  8. Lister-Kaye, John (1972). The White Island. Longman. ISBN 0-582-10903-5.
  9. Douglas Botting, Gavin Maxwell, A Life, HarperCollins 1993 (ISBN 0-246-13046-6).
  10. Frere, Richard (1976). Maxwell's Ghost. Victor Gollancz. p. 71. ISBN 0-575-02044-X.
  11. Omer, Sawsan A.; et al. (2012). "Evidence for persistence and a major range extension of the smooth-coated otter ( Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli; Mustelidae, Carnivora) in Iraq" (PDF). Folia Zool. 61 (2): 172–176.
  12. Al-Sheikhly, Omar F.; Nader, Iyad A. (2013). "The Status of Iraq Smooth - Coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli Hayman 195 6 and Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra Linnaeus 1758 in Iraq" (PDF). IUCN Otter Spec. Group Bull. 30 (1): 18–30.
  13. Janet Watts. ""Kathleen Raine: Obituary", ''The Guardian'', London, 8/7/2003". Guardian. Retrieved 18 June 2014.
  14. Dani Garavelli. ""Gavin Maxwell's Love of Nature", Edinburgh, 22/6/2014". Scotland on Sunday. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  15. "The Saga of Ring of Bright Water - The Enigma of Gavin Maxwell". Neil Wilson Publishing. Archived from the original on 21 May 2006.
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