By Dan Boothby
A few months after a fire wiped out Camusfeàrna, Gavin Maxwell, the author of Ring of Bright Water installed himself in some splendour in the converted lighthouse keepers’ cottages on Eilean Bàn, by Kyle of Lochalsh in Wester Ross. Maxwell died eighteen months later, in September 1969, aged 55, of lung cancer. In July 2005, on the trail of Gavin Maxwell and other ghosts, I went to live on Eilean Bàn. I worked for my rent – as warden, tour guide, curator, caretaker. Looking back, I was, I think, in love with the island. I stayed for two years.
From the span of the bridge, up there, thirty metres above the sea, you look down on the lighthouse and the lighthouse shed, on the heather-thatch roofs of the hide, the network of paths, the house and the bothy. A lawn almost obliterated by a tangle of brambles and bracken slopes steeply away from the house down to a rocky shoreline and the loch. An alder tree stands at the loch’s edge, its trunk obscured by more brambles and a mass of rosebay willowherb. Along the foreshore a hooded crow, with its sideways, skipping, Richard III gait, jabs at sea-wrack and shells; foraging, pecking, casting aside. And there is the cobbled path, the slipway and, until a few years ago, my little blue and white dinghy moored to its buoy in the bay. Over in Kyle, a train is parked at the platform. A helicopter rises up from amidst a pile of brown industrial buildings, circles tightly over two small islands near the harbour and blatters towards you before bearing away over the bridge. Fishing boats nod at anchor in a nearby bay. Half a mile away across the other side of the loch, in Kyleakin, a shingle beach stretches below a strip development of modern housing, a village green, pubs. Cars and vans move along the road, flashes behind trees. A red-hulled fishing boat putters around Kyleakin slip and comes motoring towards and beneath you, leaving bubbles and ‘V’s on calm water in its wake. Behind you, to the north-west, the Inner Sound, the Cuillin Hills, islands and the open sea.
My dictionary defines an island as ‘a mass of land, surrounded by water, smaller than a continent’. The Isle of Skye and Eilean Bàn, then, remain islands, though they are also almost-isles, connected to the mainland as they are by the concrete and steel construction that leers over the Kyle like a bramble tendril.
Ferries plied the Kyle-Kyleakin route from the 1600s, but by the end of the twentieth century the popularity of the route was causing regular mile-long traffic queues through the two villages. Something had to change.
A consortium of investors put up £25 million. (The final cost would approach £39 million.) Land in Kyleakin and Kyle of Lochalsh, and Eilean Bàn, was bought by compulsory purchase order. Construction of the Skye Bridge began in 1992. Three years of rock-blasting, bulldozing and splashing about of concrete followed. Navigation lights were placed on the bridge and the lighthouse on Eilean Bàn decommissioned. The ferries continued to run until the tollbooths opened at the end of 1995. Traffic could now speed between Skye and the mainland, but at a price. The tolls were set at the same rate as those that had been charged on the ferries, which had never been cheap. In the first year of operation more than 612,000 vehicles used the bridge. Protesters claimed the bridge was an extension of the national road network, a public road therefore, and passage along it should be free. The investors wanted to recoup their costs and march into profit. There was a campaign of non-payment. Over a hundred people were convicted for refusal to pay the tolls. Tempers flared.
After being mauled about, dynamited and concreted, Eilean Bàn was abandoned by the bridge builders. The lighthouse keepers’ cottage and the bothy deteriorated, the lighthouse remained unlit, obsolete. The Scottish Office found themselves the owners of an island they didn’t want while the Northern Lighthouse Board retained a lighthouse they didn’t need. The island was put up for sale by public auction, valued at around £40,000 – cheap for a Hebridean almost-isle with million-pound views.
A local contacted the actress Virginia McKenna and begged her to use her influence to save the island from becoming the possession of yet another absentee landlord. McKenna and her husband Bill Travers had connections to the area and had starred in the 1969 film version of Ring of Bright Water. And they had a charity, the Born Free Foundation, which campaigned on animal welfare issues. The day before the auction, the director of the Born Free Foundation faxed the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Scottish Office. Could the island be withdrawn from the auction and instead be placed in the hands of a trust (the Eilean Bàn Trust) to be initiated by the Born Free Foundation? It could, and was. A steering committee was formed, the Northern Lighthouse Board agreed to lease the lighthouse to the trust for a pound a year and the Scottish Office paid for the renovation and refurbishment of the lighthouse cottage and bothy.
In October 1998 the keys to Eilean Bàn were handed to Virginia McKenna by a Scottish Office minister, and the island (now a “community resource”) was given into the custody of the communities of Kyle and Kyleakin. Start-up funding was found. A building was leased in Kyleakin to house an interpretation centre – the Bright Water Visitors’ Centre. Education packs and publicity material were produced. A museum celebrating the life of Gavin Maxwell was put together. A project manager, a centre manager and a warden were recruited.
There was a grand opening in May 2000. The start-up funding trickled away. Full-time employees were replaced with part-time volunteers. In 2004 the Scottish Executive bought the Skye Bridge from the consortium of private investors for £27 million. On 21st December 2004 the tolls were abolished and the 21 locals who had jobs running the bridge became unemployed. Almost everyone was happy, except those who had lost their jobs and those who still had criminal records for non-payment of tolls. By July 2005, when I arrived on the island, the fortunes of the Eilean Bàn Trust had gone into free fall.
The island, at the height of summer, with everything growing at full pelt, is awash with life, alive with sound. I found myself surrounded by birds: emerald greenfinches, piping oystercatchers, chevron-winged guillemots, sauntering crows, shags standing with outstretched wings in the sun. I’d catch the multi-hued flash of a jay winging its way over to Skye, the flitting glide of a hurrying wagtail, a swallow; the screams of swifts careering high above. A wren would shout its head off then dodge and hide mute among pink and white dog roses as I passed along the cobbled path. A robin often accompanied me, waiting for titbits, as I tended the paths, making my way on my rounds with wheelbarrow, spade and trowel. And in the mornings the herons made their stately, rather sinister way over the island to the lagoon behind the community centre in Kyleakin, where they spent the days fishing and squabbling, before flapping their slow, steady way back home to their heronry. Out in my boat the grey seals eyed me, curious dogs, blowing bubbles. Then they sank without a sound below the surface, leaving only rings in the still, bright water, and these rings expanded and became eclipsed by the greater expanse of the sea, leaving only bubbles, like memories, behind.
I found echoes of the past everywhere. As I cleaned and cleared out and re-arranged I came across objects previous occupants had left behind: in a tiny cupboard in the lobby of the house a pair of 1930s heavy leather walking boots; on a ledge above a door my prying fingers found a key that fitted no lock; under a sink a square of black card with a tiny whisky bottle glued to it and the words “Break Glass in an Emergency”; a Welsh love spoon and another that had been whittled from the board of a fishbox. A scrunched up piece of paper sticking out from under the washing machine in the kitchen: Gregory, Can you pick us up a couple of bottles of wine (white) when you’re next in Kyle. Thanks xx. Another, fished out from under a desk in the bothy: a drawing of a yacht and a smiley face, Gone sailing. See you later xx. In the evenings I sat on Maxwell’s old sofa in the silence and antique smell of the Long Room and read comments left by the work parties in the first visitors’ books – of midge-bitten days spent laying the paths and pulling bracken and erecting safety barriers along cliff edges, of drunken marches back from the pubs, of evenings by fires and singsongs and leaving parties.
As I walked around the island at low tide and high, beneath blue skies by calm seas and in gales, in hissing rain, or stood by the lighthouse when waves crashing against its base sent clouds of spume and spray splashing into the air, where gulls always hovered, where the soundtrack was of the sea and winds, waves and birds and there was a notable lack of human chatter, I was reminded of Myst. And like that computer game, the island drew me in and immersed me in its world. Here, too, in the real world, I was looking for clues, memories, mementoes. I explored and rooted around. I came to know every inch of that island. But sometimes I wondered what it was I had gone there expecting to find.
The island was practically self-sufficient. If I found myself in need, say, of a bracket to fix the split in the door of the hide, or I needed paint or filler, or a plank of wood or tools, screws, nails, bolts, a Petri dish, information to help identify a newly discovered plant or insect, I had only to root around or wait for inspiration before I’d find what I needed. Or something I could re-fashion to fit my purpose. I was always coming across things and thinking, Could be useful. I’ll put it up in the bothy.
I was always stopping to look in those first summer days, looking through binoculars, as I circled the island time and again. I’d read how lighthouse keepers made a habit of walking ever so slowly around their rocky islets in order to notice everything, the infinitesimal changes that all add up to the totality of a turning cycle of seasons. On wet days I’d sit on a chair in the lobby with the door open, alive to all the movement amidst the stillness around me – the birds and animals and humans, the sea lapping, rising, falling, crashing against the rocks. And at night I’d walk the island along moonlit paths as vast container ships, their deck lights flickering on wavelets, passed me by on their way to who knew where.
I bought books to identify what I was seeing: green looping lacewing larvae and hairy ‘woolly bear’ caterpillars of the garden tiger moth, Scotch Argus butterflies, the Scotch burnet moth with the natty, crimson and green satin wings. Pretty common blues were… common. Psychedelic red admirals fluttered drunkenly over the old lawn. An invasion of bumble bees came to harvest the honeysuckle and heather that flourishes along the bothy steps. On hot days, gangs of black robber flies, legs dangling like parachutists, hovered dangerously close to eyes and hair and fell into cups of tea. Beyond our northern land of sea and rock and sudden squalls the busy world south of us still turned. The earth spun and the summer moved on; the days shortening, the nights growing incrementally colder. The moon waxed and waned and the island expanded and shrank with the tides. Sometimes it seemed so small when the sea crowded its shore; and at others so big when the sandbanks and shoals were revealed by a dead low tide. The island changed continually.
Walking late one evening up the cobbled path from the lighthouse I stop to lean on the wall to look at the bay below me. The rumble of tyres over the bridge died out hours ago and there is a quiet gentleness to the sea. The otter dives, the sleek black tip of its tail the last part of its anatomy to go under. Its doglike head reappears, soundlessly. It is calmly watchful, concentrating. It seems to perceive all things. It dives again, surfaces and dives, moving silently away towards the rocks by the lighthouse gangway. Gavin Maxwell’s otters had seemed smelly, volatile, high-maintenance creatures – characteristics all too human. But there was, too, something undeniably charismatic about them. I creep down the path and peer over the wall again. Nothing. I steal onto the gangway, creep from rail to rail, peering. But there is nothing. Like Gavin Maxwell and the black and white world he described in those seductive books of his, gone.
Utopian literature was popular in the 50s and 60s. Books featuring wild places and living-with-wild-animal books were ‘in’. T.H. White’s The Goshawk had been published in 1951 and Michaela Denis’s Leopard in my Lap appeared in 1954. The Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz published King Solomon’s Ring and Man’s Best Friend in the mid-50s, and Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals came out to acclaim in 1956. Rowena Farre’s purely fictional ‘autobiography’ Seal Morning, about a Highland childhood and a trumpet-tooting pet seal, had been a huge best-seller in 1957, as had Lillian Beckwith’s 1959 comic novel The Hills is Lonely, about the goings on of a village on the edge of the Isle of Skye. Joy Adamson’s Elsa-the-lioness book, Born Free was on its way. There was something in the air.
Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, charming, erudite, humorous and escapist, lavishly finished with photographs and drawings, was published in 1960, instantly struck a chord and became a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Until a few years ago everyone was writing about their travels. Today ‘nature writing’ seems to be (back) in vogue. We holidaymakers have been pretty good at destroying with money where we’ve been. The natural world doesn’t want our money. It just carries on doing what it has always done and will continue doing long after we’ve headed into dinosaur oblivion. Go out and appreciate it before you are gone.
Skye Bridge photograph by Michael Macgregor, www.michael-macgregor.co.ukMap and photograph of the cottage by Dan Boothby