The White Island

the white island by john lister-kayeA Foreword to the re-publication of The White Island

It is now more than forty years since Gavin Maxwell died in 1969 and fifty years since he published the lyrical account of his life with otters in his West Highland retreat Camusfearna, of  Ring of Bright Water fame. In the 1960’s and ‘70s that book was to sell two million copies and result in a feature film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, making Gavin Maxwell a household name throughout Britain and America.

The intervening decades have brought sweeping changes to the Highlands and Islands; indeed many aspects of the Highlands Gavin loved and wrote about now barely exist. The wild, remote, largely electricity and radio-free mountain fastness of the West Highlands, where nature held control and man eked a precarious existence from the land or sea, in a world cut off from mainstream Britain, has now been opened up and exposed to the market forces of tourism, development and expansion.

These years have also witnessed a sea-change in public perception of the environment and wildlife. It is inconceivable that in 1969 the general public would have been even remotely interested in the natural world around us; in Gavin’s own words:

 “…a strange and wonderful world in which all our emotions find intense   reflection. Perhaps it is the lost world of childhood, of the individual or the race – vision undimmed, sense of wonder unconfined…like a splendid cave drawing, telling as much of man as of beast, and leaving us in awe of each.” 
  John Lister-Kaye
  House of Aigas, 2013

Excerpts from the book  

Fresh Hills and Outer Air P23 - P25

The ferry quickly bored across the seaway and its engines were grinding astern again to slow up for the Kyleakin slip-way long before I realized we were that close. Kyleakin, it seemed was asleep too. The slipway was deserted and I edged off the heaving vessel and on to terra firma. Skye is the largest Hebridean Island and has very varied scenery, but the arrival point at Kyleakin is among the most picturesque.
I dumped my belongings down on the beach and sat on a large flat stone to await the boat from the island. The sea was calm and in places where no current ran it lay shimmering like glass. At its edge there was the gentlest movement, tiny wavelets lapping the shingle at my feet. The air was so still that I could hear the hum of the dinghy's outboard engine even before it left the island jetty. It appeared suddenly from behind the island promontory like a mouse from its hole and headed out into the seaway, a speck on the water with a curling white wake peeling away from its bows.

The beach shelved away quickly below me and I could see the transition from the crystal shallows at my feet to the vivid green of deeper water a few yards out. Down there I could see oar-weed and sea-tangle waving, an effortless, sinous motion. The whole scene was so peaceful that with the warm sun on the back of my neck I was tempted to close my eyes and doze. I stood up and stretched and walked a little way down the beach. The island and its stout white sentry were reflected full length in the shimmering deeps at its foot, and behind it the imposing hulks of Raasay and Scalpay stretched dim and blue to the horizon. The sky was bright blue, the first I had seen for many weeks, and whisps of cirrus cloud hung like tufts of cotton wool. The impression after months of storm and wind ran deep and, although I have now seen this water lashed by a hundred-mile-an-hour gale into raging fury with fifteen-foot waves pounding in savage thunder against the lighthouse, that image of tranquillity remains in my mind.

The Journey Home, P107 – P109

On Saturday 6th I returned to the island, and when on the following morning I answered the telephone to Richard Frere I could find nothing to say. I remember only his opening words: ‘The news from the hospital is the worst possible…’ The rest of that conversation is lost among a hundred confused reactions which whirled around my brain. I do not even remember breaking the news to Donald, although I must have done so within minutes of replacing the receiver. My diary records nothing. We can have spoken little as there was nothing to say, and, for a few hours, the island was quiet except for the continuous rustling of the sea and the wind endlessly shifting around us.

The nightmare which followed was to rage for thirty-six continuous hours before the world’s thirst for confirmation of the tragedy began to abate. By midday I had answered the phone to seven national daily newspapers, a B.B.C. News Department, the local police who in turn had been receiving an incessant stream of inquiries and many sympathetic friends in neighbouring towns and villages who had heard the first news reports. I sat at the telephone all afternoon without a break, and after the evening radio and television announcements the stream of telegrams began; messages of commiseration and sympathy, many from personal friends, many more from distant acquaintances whose names were unknown to me, and the vast majority from his reading public. Late into the night the phone still rang, and in the small hours of the morning as I lay on my bed snatching what little sleep I could, I reached out to answer crackling, trans-Atlantic calls from Americans, strained faltering voices, some scarcely audible or intelligible, who had felt impulsively moved to contact Gavin’s home or his family.


“The White Island” ‘is also a tribute to the uniqueness of Gavin Maxwell himself, another fitting chapter in the “Ring of Bright Water” legend.’
The Anniston Star 8C, World of books, 11 March 1973 B.H.H

‘You might think that Lister-Kaye got into print only because he was a friend of Gavin Maxwell (Ring of Bright Water), but this lovely book does quite well on its own, thank you’.
Chicago Tribune Book World, 18 March 1973

‘The story of Maxwell’s last days and what happened to his plans and dreams is told by Lister-Kaye in a charming tribute to the versatility of nature and to the remarkable man who gave back to nature “whatever joy she gave to (him)." '                                                                
The Horn Book Mag, Boston, Mass, October 1973

‘A thoroughly appealing book by a wildlife authority… His (Lister-Kaye’s) remembrances, anecdotes, stories of adventure and work with animals and birds…are wholly engaging.’
Dutton, Time book review, March 1975

‘What a delightful book! I finished it feeling refreshed and happy.’
Dorothy Stickney

“‘The White Island” is also an engaging chronicle of life on a wild, wind-swept island written with charm and a love of nature that Maxwell would certainly have approved.’
Saturday Review Syndicate, Review by John Barkham



Recommended for further reading are the three original ‘otter’ books by Gavin Maxwell:

  • 1. Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell,  Longman 1960
  • 2. The Rocks Remain – Gavin Maxwell, Longman 1963
  • 3. Raven Seek Thy Brother – Gavin Maxwell, Longman 1968

All three have now been republished in one volume:

4. The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy – Gavin Maxwell, edited by Austin Chinn, Viking 2000
Maxwell’s first book about the West Highlands, now republished with a foreword by John Lister-Kaye:

5. Harpoon at a Venture – Gavin Maxwell, House of Lochar 1998
The third and last volume of Kathleen Raine’s autobiography in which she recounts her joy and ultimate crushing sadness of her unrequited love affair with Maxwell:

6. The Lion’s Mouth – Kathleen Raine, Hamish Hamilton 1977
Richard Frere’s amusing account of his work with Gavin Maxwell:

7. Maxwell’s Ghost – Richard Frere, Gollancz 1976


And finally, the official, quite beautifully written biography by his old friend Doug Botting:

8. Gavin Maxwell, A Life – Douglas Botting, Harper Collins 1993

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