Articles - Gavin Maxwell
The Isle of Skye off the north west of Scotland is sometimes referred to as the Island of Mist, or Eilean a’ Cheo in Gaelic.
Until the Skye Bridge was opened in 1995, vehicles and passengers would cross the fast moving stretch of water between the villages of Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland and Kyleakin on Skye aboard a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry.
It was a short crossing, an adventure, especially in winter when driving down the ferry ramp and up the slipway was not without a few anxious moments. Yet I’m willing to bet though it had absolutely no relevance to the situation, that thousands of people, as they sat in their cars, would have lustily sang a few lines of the song they learned in school,
‘Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing over the sea to Skye.’
Now if the mist is low enough travellers may not even realise they have made the same crossing, high above the waves, on the smooth shallow curve of concrete that is the Skye Bridge.
Most of this traffic by-passes Kyleakin. Yet, for good views of the bridge it is worth turning into the village and driving along the shore road. At the far end, close to the once busy slipway, a building that was unremarkable is now the lively Bright Water Visitor Centre.
The name is taken from the book, Ring of Bright Water written by the late Gavin Maxwell. In it, he tells the story of his life with various otters. The book was hugely popular. It was translated into many different languages and made into a film of the same name starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.
When Maxwell’s house in Glenelg on the Scottish mainland was destroyed in a fire he came to live on Eilean Ban, the White Island, which can be seen easily from Kyleakin. Two of the pillars supporting the Skye Bridge stand on this small island.
From the Bright Water Visitor Centre, a community asset run by volunteers, visitors can buy a ticket for a guided tour of Eilean Ban. The tour starts from the gate on the bridge above.
A path leads through trees, passed a garden maintained by the Women’s Royal Institute, to a rock carved with a date and the name ‘Teko.’ This headstone commemorates Maxwell’s last otter who outlived its owner by some months.
There’s a sentimental tale told that Teko died of a broken heart but in truth the creature grew cranky and bad tempered and died of old age. Stand with your back to the stone and look out to sea and you may be lucky enough to spot an otter swimming in the bay. For our group there was not a whisker not a sight, but a flight of five grey herons taking off nearby, their large wings flapping slowly, was most impressive.
The path leads to the cottage where Maxwell lived for two years until his death. To create his last home, two lighthouse keeper’s cottages were converted into one long low building. Virginia McKenna OBE, an award winning British stage and screen film actress offered advice when it was decided a room should be kept as a kind of museum in Maxwell’s memory.
Visitors can see some of his furniture, including his desk where he worked and would sit with binoculars looking out to sea. The walls are decorated with some of his possessions, a large ornate mirror, two harpoons from an earlier business venture, paintings, photographs and a small collection of his books.
The tour moves on to Eilean Ban lighthouse which is no longer lit, but as a daytime marker, must still be kept in good condition. Reached by an iron walkway, the white, seventy foot tall tower was designed by David Stevenson and his brother Robert, father of author Robert Louis Stevenson.
Many islands have been suggested as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s well- known novel Treasure Island. Was Eilean Ban a part of that creative process, I wonder?
The lighthouse was first lit by sperm whale oil which was smoky and smelly then as time went on, with paraffin and later from cylinders of acetylene gas. The lamp is long gone but the windows with green and red sections are still intact. Keeping them clean was one of the lighthouse keeper’s duties and whatever the weather, the lamp had to be kept lit between sunset and sunrise.
Climb a flight of stone stairs and two vertical ladders and you’ll arrive in the room where the lamp would have been tended. A side door opens to the platform encircling the lighthouse tower which is dwarfed by the nearby massive pillars bearing the Skye Bridge overhead.
From the lighthouse it’s no distance along a path edged with orange monbretia and purple heather to the wildlife viewing hides. The wooden buildings, thatched with heather, have proved popular with primary school groups and older students who come here on environmental studies outings.
I like to think Gavin Maxwell would have approved!
On a day of heavy rain when even the wildlife was taking shelter I opted for an easy drive from the bridge to the village of Broadford which is a convenient base for exploring the Strathaird peninsula.
From the main A850, the road down this particular peninsula becomes narrow with passing places. As well as sheep nibbling the roadside verges or sleeping on the sun-warmed tarmac, there are dips, bends, inclines and on-coming traffic to negotiate. Meanwhile the views of mountains and sea become ever more arresting.
Over the years, tourists arriving at the village of Elgol at the end of the peninsula then usually leave from the jetty aboard the Bella Jane. Wildlife sightings are guaranteed.
The on-board guide points out the island of Soay, off to the west. It appears as a low lying lump in the water. Basking whales have been seen around there.
After his horrifying experiences during World War 11, Gavin Maxwell bought Soay and set up a business to harpoon basking sharks. At the time, shark oil was a much sought after commodity.
Maxwell was not to know that one day, people would be happy to pay handsomely for the privilege of observing these incredible creatures and other wildlife in their natural habitats.
On my trip aboard the Bella Jane we got close-ups of cormorants, gannets diving into the sea from a great height and seals that appeared to be keeping a wary eye on us, the intruders.
Passengers leave the boat at a landing stage at the head of Loch Scavaig, a sea loch which cuts deep into the Cuillin Mountains.
Walkers then make their way along a path by the riverside to the inland Loch Coruisk. It’s a soggy walk in places but this dramatic landscape of water and rock that gleams in sunlight, of mountains reaching ever upwards to end in jagged peaks that pierce the clouds, makes up for any discomfort.
Back on the Bella Jane, a complimentary tot of Talisker, the locally distilled malt whisky adds an extra cheer to this trip.
When you have to leave Skye and have no second thoughts about negotiating narrow twisting mountain roads, you might consider the drive to Kylerhea and the crossing to the mainland aboard the M.V.Glenachulish, a vessel with a turntable that is possibly the last of its kind.
Finally, as you drive through Glenelg where Gavin Maxwell lived with his otters until his house burned down, remind yourself to dig out and read his books written about the places you’ve just visited.
First published in The People’s Friend 08.02.2014