In search of Camusfeàrna
Alan Hendry goes on a solitary pilgrimage to the secluded corner of Wester Ross immortalised in Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water
Far below, a scattering of low-lying islands and skerries spread themselves out into the flat calm of a silvery-blue sea. Across the Sound of Sleat, the sun-dappled slopes of Skye provided a dramatic, majestic backdrop. It was an alluring scene. And somewhere down there, out of view from the single-track road, was the site of Camusfeàrna.
I was about to fulfil a long-held promise to myself to pay a visit – a pilgrimage of sorts – to Sandaig Bay, the setting for Gavin Maxwell’s classic tale Ring of Bright Water. Published in 1960, it was the first part of a trilogy in which Maxwell wrote lyrically and captivatingly about his life with his otters Mijbil, Edal and Teko in this wild, secluded corner of Wester Ross.
I was a relatively late convert, inspired to read the books some 10 years ago after coming across a compelling authorised biography written by Douglas Botting. It portrayed Maxwell as a fascinating and complex character, a “troubled spirit” on a quest for an ideal kind of existence.
Born into an aristocratic family in south-west Scotland, Maxwell showed a taste for adventure with a list of occupations that ranged from racing driver to wartime SOE instructor, training special agents in small-arms and survival techniques in rugged Highland terrain. But above all he was a passionate naturalist who, through his wonderful gifts as a writer, encouraged readers around the world to show respect for wild places and the animals that live in them.
I was won over by the sparkling originality of Maxwell’s narrative style and by the honesty and humour with which he conveyed his deep understanding of the natural world. I became a huge fan.
And this was what had brought me, early one bright May afternoon, along the twisting coastal road south of Glenelg to a point high above Sandaig – the Camusfeàrna (“Bay of the Alders”) of Maxwell’s stories.
Earlier that day I had called in at the Bright Water Visitor Centre in Kyelakin, home of the Eilean Bàn Trust. This admirable volunteer-run organisation looks after Eilean Bàn, the island where Maxwell spent the last year of his life and which now has the Skye Bridge towering over it. His former home there serves as a museum, accessible on guided tours that can be booked at the visitor centre.
Eilean Bàn, then, is very much on the tourist trail. The same cannot be said for Sandaig.
I’d read that a commercial forestry plantation had been established there since Maxwell’s time, and I guessed there would be little or no indication of the area’s literary significance.
So it proved. At the entrance to the forestry track leading down from the road, a large signboard for the Lower Sandaig Timber Harvesting Programme contained the briefest of acknowledgements that this was the way to Sandaig Bay (with some stern advice about making sure you follow the directions). With other signs nearby warning of haulage vehicles on the move and timber operations in progress, there was a distinct feeling that access was granted grudgingly and that walkers were an inconvenience.
In the event, I was to see no evidence of forestry work actually taking place during the three hours or so I spent at Sandaig.
Setting out, I noticed to my left the “reedy hillside lochan” Maxwell had described as being across from the home of his nearest neighbours, the MacKinnons (as he named them).
The track wound its way for a mile and a half through a forlorn expanse of chopped-down and wind-blown trees, with unattended forestry machinery cluttering the clearings. It wasn’t an especially exhilarating approach to a place Maxwell had hailed as “something out of a dream” and “absolute paradise” when he caught his first glimpse of it in 1948.
My spirits were suddenly lifted by the sight of a dark shape soaring overhead from the south. It had disappeared by the time I dug out my binoculars, but from the wingspan and colouring, especially around its head, I was sure it was a sea eagle.
The grassy, rocky isles were now coming into view through the conifers; I glimpsed a few stretches of brilliant white sand and one magical splash of turquoise.
There was a further sign at the start of the final descent to the bay declaring “No unauthorised persons allowed beyond this point”. Ignoring this, I made my way through the last clump of trees to emerge at the bay.
To my left was the sandy, shingly beach, flanked by small boulders and rocky ledges on the near side and the islands beyond. To the right was a rough area of grass where the house of Camusfeàrna once stood – “right on the sea, miles from anywhere”, as an appreciative Maxwell noted after the lonely cottage was made available to him by an old university friend who owned the local estate.
And surrounding this patch of greenery was the ring itself: the curving, stony-bottomed burn that makes Sandaig virtually an island in its own right. “It really is a ring,” I remarked to no-one in particular, gazing around as the retreating sun glinted off the water.
I made my way along the shore and then sat on a sloping rock, absorbed in the tranquillity of the place, lulled into deep reflection by the gentle lapping of the tide and the plaintive cries of passing birds. A dark round head appeared momentarily in the bay, then vanished. A seal? An otter? My imagination?
In no hurry to leave, I made my way over to the large memorial stone under which Maxwell’s ashes are buried. This is the site of Camusfeàrna house, which burnt down in 1968. Maxwell died the following year, aged 55, his Highland idyll having given way to a catalogue of misfortunes.
I found that previous visitors had placed individual seashells and pebbles on the memorial as personal tokens of respect; there was a bunch of flowers at the base of the stone, and a makeshift walking stick leaning against it. I’m not normally one to follow the crowd, so to speak, but I did go off to find a small shell of my own and I added it to the collection. It seemed the right thing to do.
Similar tributes had been left at the nearby memorial cairn to Edal, who died in the Camusfeàrna fire. The plaque here is engraved with Maxwell’s touching words: “Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to Nature.” Just beyond, the waterfall Maxwell looked upon as “the soul of Camusfeàrna” continued to tumble down from the hills.
In his foreword to Ring of Bright Water, Maxwell described Camusfeàrna and other similarly remote locations as symbols of freedom, “whether it be from the prison of over-dense communities and the close confines of human relationships... or simply freedom from the prison of adult life and an escape into the forgotten world of childhood”.
Many of us dream of escaping in this way and living close to nature. Gavin Maxwell not only did it, but wrote with great beauty and insight about his experiences.
Maxwell and his otters have long gone from Sandaig Bay. Nothing is left of the house of Camusfeàrna, and indeed much of the surrounding landscape has undergone change.
But the ring remains: encircling Maxwell’s legacy, protecting all that he believed in, keeping the memory alive.
Pictures (from top): Looking down on the Sandaig Islands; Gavin Maxwell described the area as an "absolute paradise" when he first saw it. The Bright Water Visitor Centre in Kyleakin, home of the Eilean Bàn Trust. Looking towards Eilean Bàn and the Skye Bridge from Kyleakin. Sandaig Bay, the setting for Ring of Bright Water; the house of Camusfeàrna stood on the grassy area near the beach before being destroyed by fire in 1968. The memorial stone under which Gavin Maxwell’s ashes are buried. The memorial cairn to Edal the otter. "The soul of Camusfeàrna": the waterfall at Sandaig.