Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

“He took us by the hand to a world most of us had never seen, a world that sets the imagination aloft” John Lister-Kaye

Hailed a masterpiece when it was first published, the story of Gavin Maxwell’s life with otters on the remote west coast of Scotland remains one of the most lyrical, moving descriptions of a man’s relationship with the natural world.

Read the full introduction by John Lister-Kaye

Paperback with flaps | 216 x 156 mm | 224 pages

Illustrated with photographs and line drawings throughout

Cover artwork by Winifred Nicholson


In stock


Gavin Maxell was born and raised in Scotland – a childhood he later wrote about in The House of Elrig (1965). After Oxford University and wartime service he bought the Hebridean island of Soay where he tried to establish a commercial shark fishery, an experience described in his first book Harpoon at a Venture (1952). In 1956 he travelled through Iraq with the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, later publishing A Reed Shaken By The Wind (1959), hailed as one of the finest works on Arabian travel. During this trip he encountered the Indian smooth-coated otter: previously unknown to the west, the animal was named after the author, Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli. 

Additional information

Weight350 g
Dimensions14 × 156 × 216 mm

6 reviews for Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell

  1. John Lister Kaye (The Telegraph)

    The Telegraph

    A hundred years ago on July 15 1914 the wayward genius and troubled spirit Gavin Maxwell was born. Chaotically eccentric and mildly bipolar, he was to become the author of the nature writing classic Ring of Bright Water (1960). He was three months old when his father was killed in a German artillery barrage in the First World War. Maxwell’s mother, an acknowledged society beauty, was Lady Mary Percy, the daughter of the 7th Duke of Northumberland, head of one of the most ancient families of English nobility. His remote and autocratic paternal grandfather was Sir Herbert Maxwell, the 7th Baronet of Monreith, man of letters, natural historian, prolific author and sometime secretary of state for Scotland, a scion of one of the oldest families in Scotland. Thus Gavin was born into the high aristocratic elite of society, a background and esoteric upbringing that would never equip him for any sort of normal life.

    Read the full article by John Lister Kaye

  2. Marcus Field (The Independent on Sunday)

    The Independent on Sunday

    Today the book is widely regarded as a literary masterpiece. But the deaths of the animals in Maxwell’s care, and the way in which he coveted them as pets, is also at odds with our modern attitude to wild creatures. Richard Mabey, author of Food for Free and our greatest living nature writer, agrees that a darker view of Maxwell needs to be put on record. “I read the books [Ring of Bright Water and its two sequels] when I was quite young and I was captivated; he’s a good descriptive writer, and the romantic idea of this immersion in a remote hideaway with his menagerie was compelling to me,” he says.

    “But since then I’ve got a very different view of him. The fact that he was, by literally all accounts, an extremely unpleasant man, I think is neither here nor there. It’s more what I now feel about his writing about animals, and his treatment of animals. I feel that his legacy has really been quite toxic…”

    Read the full article by Marcus Field

  3. Robert Macfarlane (The Guardian)

    The Guardian

    How far all this is from today’s ethically well-intentioned nature writing. How far, too, from the widespread perception of Maxwell as a man who lived in harmony with the wild world. Harpoon [at a Venture] is about blood and bone and blades and ledger-books; about how chunks of shark flesh continue to quiver eerily for hours after death, even if the “entire fore-part of the head” has been severed with a hatchet.

    Which is what makes it, and pretty much everything Maxwell wrote, so fascinating. His books represent – in their psychodramas and their ultraviolence – the dark side of British place-literature. To read them as hymns to tranquillity is trite. To engage with their tangled understories is mesmerising. Alongside them I would place TH White’s The Goshawk and JA Baker’s The Peregrine, which reads – in its obsessive tallying of body parts, bloodstains and kill paths – like an ornithological CSI.

    Read the full article by Robert Macfarlane

  4. Harry McGrath (The Herald)

    The Herald

    Maxwell was also selling a land and nature myth that I was all too eager to believe. Reading him again, I see that Camusfearna was a kind of extended summer retreat and not the lifestyle I thought it was the first time. And yet whenever he arrives there in the spring and describes the wildcats, or the deer, or the elvers in the burn, in words that shine, it’s possible to imagine for a moment that I am reading it for the first time and that it’s all true.

    Read the full article by Harry McGrath

  5. Dani Garavelli (The Scotsman)

    The Scotsman

    In the post-Savile era, an air of unease hangs over aspects of Maxwell’s life; while in Sandaig he hired two adolescent assistants – Terry Nutkins (who went on to become a well-known TV naturalist) and Jimmy Watt – to help look after the otters. Both under-age, they moved into his home and he became Nutkins’ legal guardian. It was a set-up discomfiting to modern sensibilities, though no allegations have ever been made against Maxwell and those who knew him best believe his desire to be around young boys was merely a product of his stunted emotional development. There is a degree of public ambivalence towards Maxwell’s “conservation” work too. Looked at from a 21st century perspective, his attitude towards animals is distinctly dubious. As a member of the landed gentry, he learned to hunt at an early age; one of his many failed ventures was a fishery for basking sharks; and, far from encouraging the otters to live wild, he anthropomorphised them, giving them their own rooms and feeding them eels shipped in from London.

    Read the full article by Dani Garavelli

  6. Desperate Reader

    Desperate Read has posted a very generous review of our edition of Ring of Bright Water. ‘My original copy of Ring of Bright Water started to fall apart last time I read it,’ she writes, ‘and is now kept for sentimental rather than practical reasons. For a while the only version in print was an abridged amalgamation of Ring of Bright Water and its two sequels; The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother, it’s not a format that appeals to me so I was delighted to find Ring not only back in print, but in such a handsome form.’

    Read the full review at Desperate Reader.

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