Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell

Ring of Bright Water


Gavin Maxwell, ensconced in a house on the beautiful coast of Scotland, decides to keep an otter as a pet - at any cost. And costs there are - financial, emotional, and (for the otters) existential.


Ring of Bright Water and its sequel, The Rocks Remain, were two of the books, along with Gerald Durrell’s and James Herriot’s, that made the adolescent me think seriously about animals. I owe them for that. Unfortunately, the books look quite different to a wiser, older me.

Ring of Bright Water is more lyrical in its descriptions than I recall. In fact, there’s quite a lot of the book that’s simply describing the setting – the isolated house of Camusfearna and the nature around it. The otter I remember, Mijbil, doesn’t even enter the book until fairly late. And his successor, Edal enters in, though I’d thought she was only in the sequel.

What does stand out, though, much as it did in Maxwell’s memoir of childhood, The House of Elrig, is his attitude toward animals. What is clear now, but I don’t think was to the child me, is that Maxwell is focused on individuals. He loves Mijbil and Edal deeply and fully. But he’s not really concerned with animals more broadly – or, if he is, only in a somewhat selfish way. The very way he acquires the otters is fraught with risk – for them. Even he admits, in the end, that his very pursuit of exotic pets supports and instigates a cruel, brutal trade that causes many of them to die. It’s a fact that stands out to my adult view from the beginning. As a child, I was no wiser than he, and was simply mesmerized by the otters. Now, some of it is horrible.

I’d planned to go on to the sequel, but now I’m not so sure I can stomach Maxwell’s casual disregard of animal pain or his apparent view of them as an instrument for human enjoyment. Perhaps it’s not surprising in a man who grew up both collecting and killing with equal interest, and who initially set up a shark-hunting venture. Those elements come out with far more weight for me now than they did back in the ’70s.

If you’re an animal lover, I can no longer recommend this. There’s just too much that’s wrong in Maxwell’s approach. If what you’re primarily interested in is lush description, Maxwell’s prose hasn’t changed, and there’s a lot to like in his long descriptions of Camusfearna and the otters.


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