Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Maxwell’s Ghost. An Epilogue to Gavin Maxwell’s Camusfearna, by Richard Frere

71TQNmp3EDL._AA1500_When I was a child, about 11 years old, I remember exactly where I was and how I felt when I first read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring Of Bright Water. I was on a camping holiday in Snowdonia, at the end of a lake with Snowdon as a backdrop, and although it wasn’t the West Coast of Scotland, it was possibly the first time I felt that where I was and the world I was reading about were utterly in tune. It is hard I think now for anyone much younger than I am to understand just what an impact Gavin Maxwell’s otter trilogy had on the national imagination in the 1960s. Although these days a lot could be argued against Maxwell’s approach to bringing a wild creature into his life as a human, at the time, it was a paean to the wilderness, and an optimistic plea for humans and wild animals to live in harmony in their natural environment. He bonded with the otters he took into his care but, until it all started to go wrong, he did not domesticate them as pets or keep them as captives – it was a genuine attempt at a new way of coexisting with a wild animal. Maxwell’s wild refuge, Camusfearna, the Bay of Alders, was his dream of that elusive place. I think I need a fresh visit to the trilogy, to see how it reads now. The real Gavin Maxwell, such a complex and utterly original figure, was well hidden in his own writing, and even better hidden in the famous film, starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (who else?), in which the aristocratic Maxwell becomes the urban escapee Merrill.

But the book I am examining today looks at that story from the outside, and specifically at the final years and the dissolution of Maxwell’s dream. Richard Frere’s book Maxwell’s Ghost is almost unclassifiable. It is at once an autobiography, a biography, a work of natural history and adventure. It was first published in 1976, I remember reading it then, and it created such a vivid impression on me that I was delighted to find that it has been republished and read it again. Even if the character and story of Gavin Maxwell do not mean very much to you, Maxwell’s Ghost is, in my opinion, a classic piece of autobiographical, and biographical, writing that deserves to be rediscovered.

51vIpNbBkML._SL500_AA300_The back story is this: Gavin Maxwell (1914-1969) was the youngest brother of Sir Aymer Maxwell Bt, and grew up in impoverished aristocratic style in South-West Scotland. He served in SOE during the war, and afterwards built a great reputation and a hand-to-mouth financial career as an explorer, naturalist and writer. He returned to his beloved West Coast of Scotland and embarked on a series of risky ventures, the financial disasters of which he rescued in part by writing about them – such as Harpoon at a Venture, the story of his failed shark fishery off Skye. His breakthrough in the public consciousness came after he wrote a classic account of an expedition with Wilfred Thesiger (another fascinating character) among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, in A Reed Shaken by the Wind. Maxwell brought home with him from Iraq a smooth coated otter called Mijbil, and set up a home in a remote location on the Scottish mainland, facing Skye across the Sound of Sleat. Here, he attempted to create an environment where he and the otter (and the others that later lived with him) could live together in harmony, until Mijbil’s tragic death. He wrote of this experience in A Ring Of Bright Water, published in 1960, which took the world (and me) by storm, and its sequel The Rocks Remain (1963). This success changed his life, and that of his otters, in that he became the focus for huge public attention. Sandaig, the secret site of Camusfearna, was decoded and became a place of pilgrimage, but also essentially a tiny, private zoo. One of Mijbil’s successors, Edal, turned against her human companions, causing life-changing injury to one of Maxwell’s staff (Terry Nutkins), and the otters had to be confined for the safety of all. The money, for once, rolled in, and Maxwell, with his unerringly fallible business sense, attempted to make investments for the future. He bought island properties off Skye and planned to develop them as holiday homes for people to share some of the atmosphere of ‘Camusfearna’. Enter Richard Frere: now read on.

Frere starts his book with a prologue set after Maxwell’s death. Frere bore an uncanny resemblance to Maxwell, especially if wearing the dark glasses that were Maxwell’s trademark. He walks into a pub near Sandaig, a year after Maxwell had died, and is hailed as his ghost. In the early 60s Frere and his wife Joan are drawn into Maxwell’s world, not long after Ring was published, when they agree to help him with the development of these cottages. I suppose the start of this narrative is rather low-key, and could be regarded as a slowly drawn-out episode of SOS DIY in a stunningly beautiful setting. But gradually we learn more about Maxwell, and about Frere (who is ferociously honest about his own failures and shortcomings), about Maxwell’s charm, charisma and fierce intelligence, his flakiness, and ultimately in the face of the dissolution of his dream and his own death, his courage. They become friends, after a shaky start, and in due course Frere takes the role of business manager for Maxwell Enterprises. He tackles this, the worst job in the world, in the face of fluctuating finances from writing (Maxwell suffered from severe writer’s block, though one would never know that from his work), and essentially tries and fails to hold back the tide of disaster about to sweep over Camusfearna. The final tragedy is the catastrophic fire that destroyed the house and took the life of one of the otters, Edal, written about in the final book of the trilogy Raven Seek Thy Brother (1969). By that time Maxwell’s health begins to break down, and the final pages are an unsparing account of his decline with a mystery illness, finally and too late diagnosed as lung cancer.

Maxwell was a complicated, brilliant, troubled man, who essentially left a trail of broken hearts. His Highland idyll is shared by a number of young men, drawn to work with him in such beautiful and adventurous surroundings, but with his smothering egotism and possessiveness he drives them away, one after the other, though all revered and honoured him thereafter – they just had to get away. He is homosexual, and comes out to Frere only once the law has changed (a failure in meeting of minds that is described in a stark passage in this book). He attempts relationships with women, all disastrous. (The best-documented is with the poet Kathleen Raine, and the episode where she curses a rowan tree outside his home is the subject of reciprocal accounts in his Raven Seek Thy Brother and her The Lion’s Mouth. In Maxwell’s Ghost it is the subject of one heavily coded sentence.)

He also made enduring friendships, one of them with Richard Frere (who died in 1999). This book, the stoical and clear-eyed story of that friendship is, I think, a fitting tribute to this forgotten, flawed hero. When it was first published, it was controversial, thought to be disparaging of a hero, revealing scandalous secrets about a man no longer there to defend himself. Now (as it did to to me in 1976), it reads like a tribute of honesty to a remarkable man and a good friend. Gavin Maxwell is firmly lodged in my heart and mind, and I shall never forget just how his books fed my growing imagination. I too, long after his death, made the breathtaking journey from Glenshiel through Kintail, over the Mam Ratagan pass, through mysterious, beautiful Glenelg, the Isle of Skye so close you could almost touch it, and visited Sandaig – Camusfearna – with its two tiny memorials, one to Edal and one to Maxwell. Reading Maxwell’s Ghost only increases my feeling of empathy with this brilliant, difficult man.

Richard Frere: Maxwell’s Ghost. An Epilogue to Gavin Maxwell’s Camusfearna. Edinburgh, Birlinn Ltd, 2011. 256pp
ISBN 13: 9781780270111
First published: Victor Gollancz, 1976.

31 comments on “Maxwell’s Ghost. An Epilogue to Gavin Maxwell’s Camusfearna, by Richard Frere

  1. David
    February 1, 2013

    Wasn’t Gavin Maxwell actually married to Kathleen Raine: an incongruous union if ever there was one ! For example, they slept together, completely uneventfully owing to his homosexuality but despite Kathleen Raine’s very great attractiveness and beauty. kR’s own lengthy autobiography provides more background to Maxwell, and another perspective to it all (albeit her own somewhat wacky one). She never forgave herself for wishing him ill, and I think to her grave blamed herself grievously for his ultimate misfortune, suffering and death.

    The title ‘Ring of Bright Water’ was itself lifted from a Kathleen Raine poem.

    Mandatory Norman Nicholson content: Kathleen Raine was a close friend too of NN – they spent lots of time together at Helen Sutherland’s artistic enclave above Ullswater, Cockley Moor.

  2. c mcgaughey
    February 1, 2013

    This was my favourite book as a boy. I must have been fixated on it as I remember thinking I’d never seen such a beautiful font. A classmate wrote to him and went to stay. Afterwards he never spoke about it to me! Thank you for a lovely review.

  3. Hilary
    February 1, 2013

    Thanks for your comment, David.

    No, absolutely not, I think that until she recognised how platonic their incredibly close relationship was on his side it would have been her dearest wish, but they were not married, and one of the causes of the huge hurt she experienced was that after their break-up Maxwell married Lavinia Renton (they parted less than a year later I believe).

    My recollection is that it was the fire that brought the remembrance of the curse back to both their minds, and you are right, it blighted Raine’s memory of him for the rest of her life.

    I’m now inspired to go back to Maxwell’s writing, and may well reread, compare and contrast his otter trilogy with Raine’s The Lion’s Mouth.

    And thank you too, c mcgaughey. What an interesting and rather significant anecdote about your friend.

  4. david
    February 1, 2013

    My mistake, Hilary, re the marriage

  5. Kate
    February 1, 2013

    RoBW has never captured me the way it has the rest of the world, i think. I just don’t get books about animals and how humans try to have relationships with them. But what I really liked about this review was the back story, the life of a writer struggling to keep the public face intact while suffering so much behind it. That fasinates me much more than the animals.

  6. rosyb
    February 1, 2013

    i read around the internet when you said you were writing this, Hilary. I knew the books from teenage-hood but I didn’t know about all the angsty background. It’s such a romantic idea to live in harmony with wild creatures, but then looking at it in adulthood you have different questions and perspectives. Indeed, isn’t the otter purchased for him and isn’t even a British otter in the first place but brought over from abroad almost like a novelty animal brought in? It’s not quite the same as having an interaction with a truly wild animals. But still something so gripping about that central concept we want to believe in. Have you seen the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man? This is a brilliant film based on the footage left by a man who went to live with bears. It leaves you with the question – this is how we see them (want to see them) but how exactly do they see us? A thoroughly engaging individual and we so much want to believe in his vision. He is one of Herzog’s failed genius romantics…you get the impression Herzog is also a romantic to love these sorts of characters so much and filter them as he does, but can’t help his own clear-eyed take on the matter.

    Not that I don’t think people and animals can’t have incredible interactions. I used to love Born Free and all those books as a child. Loved loved loved them. But whereas there seemed to be the possibility of proper mutual affection and “familialness” with lions (social animals who live in groups with strong bonds particularly between lionnesses) I remember that there was another book with less success with leopards (solitary animals). And it puts me in mind of the keeper who lost his arm to a tiger he’d been looking after for many years who said something like my fault, I got complacent and trusted him. Tigers of course being solitary creatures where the males can kill their own cubs if encountered on their turf.

    Sorry, rambling….

    The older I get the more I yearn towards these wild solitary places though and I think perhaps that is why books like this call to us – realistic or not. There is something deep in a lot of us answered by that idea at least.

  7. Hilary
    February 1, 2013

    David, my pleasure – thank you for commenting.

    Kate, now I’m grown up, I think that Maxwell himself is easily as fascinating an exotic creature as any of the otters. One of the rather refreshing aspects of Frere’s book is that he freely admits that he thinks the otters are nice looking creatures but he does not feel especially drawn to them. So that rather sums up his view as well, I feel.

    Rosy, it is interesting to me that the 60s was a decade when there was a shift in perception of how humans and animals could interact, away from taming and training towards observation of natural behaviour. Maxwell’s otters and Adamson’s lioness won our hearts. And you’re right in your recollection of Joy Adamson’s experiment with a leopard – it did not have the same success.

    It was a transition to what we believe now is appropriate, which is very different, but I think it is important to see both of them in that context. These days to attempt to do what Maxwell or Joy Adamson did in terms of bonding with wild creatures would bring the wrath of Chris Packham directly down on the head, I feel sure. I watched a programme about a couple who raise orphaned jaguars and release them back into the wild (this is recent). The couple bonded with the jaguars, and their parting was emotional on both sides (jaguar and human), and I was really rather shocked. It felt like a throwback to the Adamson era and very wrong these days, and I wondered how well equipped the creatures were to survive.

    Both stories, actually, Elsa and Mijbil, are of heroic failure, but the world learnt from them.

    Oh – and – I meant to say two things. Rosy, you are right that Mijbil was not a native British otter, but one that Maxwell brought back from his journey to Iraq, but the relationship started in the marshes, so not entirely a deliberate import.

    And I wanted to say how very strongly I feel that Gavin Maxwell is heir to the Romantics in his passion for and emotional connection with the wilderness.

  8. Jackie
    February 1, 2013

    Wow, that was a powerful review, not only of this book, but the other more famous ones and the impact they had on you. I was moved to tears at the end of your piece, at your account of visiting the place. I read the first 2 otter books, but didn’t know anything about the author himself, so this was quite eye opening. Despite all of his failures, I do think that he helped the environmental movement and further educated people about animals that were overlooked.

  9. Kate Lace
    February 1, 2013

    I so loved the book RoBW and the film – I shall have to rad this book now. Job done book foxes, job done

  10. Hilary
    February 1, 2013

    @Kate Lace thank you. It’s lovely to remind oneself of these classic books and their author. I hope you enjoy this book!

    Jackie, thank you. You are so right in identifying Maxwell’s influence in our thinking about the natural world.

  11. Moira
    February 2, 2013

    Absolutely loved this. I already knew quite a lot about Gavin Maxwell, but much of this was new to me. I’ve been haunted by Ring of Bright Water since I was a young teenager. It broke my heart … because although I loved it, the tragedy of Mij’s death has never left me – particularly as I knew it was based on a true story. At that time, of course, I had only the most sketchy and romantic image of Maxwell and knew nothing about his troubled, darker side.

    This review brought it all back to me in a flood – a not unmixed blessing.

    But thank you anyway.

  12. Lisa
    February 2, 2013

    “It broke my heart … because although I loved it, the tragedy of Mij’s death has never left me – particularly as I knew it was based on a true story.”

    Yep, me too.

    I knew nothing of Gavin Maxwell and thought this review was completely fascinating. It made me go on a googling spree, which is always a good sign…

  13. Hilary
    February 3, 2013

    Thank you both, you’re very kind. Reading this book has made me dig out the three otter books, and get hold of Raine’s ‘The Lions Mouth’. I’m now wondering if I can re-read any of them without my heart breaking too.

  14. kirstyjane
    March 11, 2013

    Just been re-reading these posts and — I so hope I said it to you at the time — but WOW. Two of your best! And they cast a whole other, sad light on vague childhood reading memories…

  15. Gus Brydon
    March 21, 2013

    Perhaps these photos will be of interest. I have treasured them since 1968 and show Gavin at Camusfearna and Eilean Ban. Enjoy!

  16. Moira
    March 21, 2013

    How absolutely wonderful Gus … Thank you very much indeed for sharing them. They’re beautiful, in a very melancholy way. That’s a gorgeous close up with Gavin and Teko …

  17. Hilary
    March 21, 2013

    Yes, thank you so much, Gus, for posting the link to these photos for us all to enjoy, which are so moving. No wonder you have treasured them.

    The photos of the burnt-out shell of ‘Camusfearna’ are heartbreaking.

  18. n.s.
    September 23, 2013

    thank you so much for these pictures!! did you know gavin yourself or how did you get them? it is nice to know that gavin still has passionate fans, at least one here in finland, too =)

  19. Tw
    October 4, 2013

    I have spent the last 18 months tracing and contacting the remaining cast of characters that surrounded maxwell at that time.i have now found them all.

  20. n.s.
    October 7, 2013

    what happened to andrew, is he still alive?

  21. David D
    November 7, 2013

    If you would like more information about Gavin Maxwell and his books there is now a Facebook Group “The Gavin Maxwell Society.” New members welcome!

  22. Tw
    November 9, 2013

    He’s fine.

  23. n.s.
    November 12, 2013

    i´m happy to hear that! does he live in u.k?

  24. Tw
    November 23, 2013

    N.s. Do you have email add

  25. Pingback: Gavin Maxwell’s Sicily | Vulpes Libris

  26. Hilary
    April 28, 2014

    Just to let commenters know that I’ve found a couple of comments here with personal email addresses in them (one of them belatedly, I’m sorry about that). I have removed them (on your behalf – I have no idea who finds and reads this nor what webcrawlers we attract) and will remove them in future – sorry.

  27. Tw
    May 5, 2014

    Hilary, I suppose that was my fault. I had asked n.s. for he email add, and contacted her directly.i had not thought it would cause apologies for that.
    I am currently reading again Richard freres book,there are a couple of anomalies compared to bottings book, ..

  28. Paul Taylor
    January 12, 2015

    Hello Hilary, thank you for a great review of one of my favourite books. I would only take issue with one particular sentence: “He is homosexual, and comes out to Frere only once the law has changed (a failure in meeting of minds that is described in a stark passage in this book).” Frere makes it very clear, both to Maxwell and to us, that he had no issue with homosexuality per se, but drew the line when Maxwell advocated Moroccan-style pederasty. Which book is more accurate on parallel passages – Botting or Frere? I don’t know. However, Botting’s disclaimer concerning personal relationships makes it impossible to evaluate Frere on this particular “stark passage”.

  29. nannyfairybaker
    June 23, 2016

    I never knew him,read all his books.Just ordered this one. My heart still aches for him.

  30. peter tilsley
    June 11, 2019

    Did Andrew Scott end up working wih animals?

  31. Mike Allen
    February 3, 2021

    I am late to this article and thread. Have been rereading RoBW, and then the others – which I had not read before. Plus the book by Frere. Now – shielding in the pandemic – I have been returning to past days for comfort and to keep me sane. Like many others, I love that part of the world.
    Maxwell was obviously a complex and difficult man, but I think he achieved something good.
    Re Kathleen Raine, there are some very moving poems by her in honour or remembrance of Maxwell after his death. They are in her Collected Poems.
    “ Shall you and I, in all the journeyings of soul‚
    Remember the rowan tree, the waterfall?”

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