Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Loch Hourn and the Ring of Bright W'otter

Its funny how some things remain in our memories even though the event itself was not very important. One such memory I have is reading Gavin Maxwell’s book “Ring of Bright Water” for my school O Grade exams. At 16 years of age, I recall struggling to get to grips with the book so my mother broke it down into simple sections and highlighted the important passages to help prepare me for my exam. Her assistance and perseverance must have paid off as I passed that Exam.

Forty years later I still remember the book and the author’s name, even if the chapters have faded a little in my memory. It was a book about the author living alone at Camusfearna, on the west coast of Scotland with his pet otters. Ever since I discovered Camusfearna was at Sandaig near Glenelg, I had wanted to see the place for myself. That is where I was going to walk to after seeing the squalls on Loch Hourn

I parked my car at the start of the forest road that leads to the beach at Sandaig and started walking. The bright spells were intermixed with short sharp spells of rain which added to the atmosphere of the area. The forest commission were cutting trees in the area but it was Sunday so there were no workers to be seen. I was totally alone in my wilderness again.

At the only junction on the forestry road, I saw a little sign which said Sandaig so I knew I was on the right track. A few hundred yards later another sign pointed down this track leading through the trees. The path steepened as it started its descend. Perhaps its just my imagination, but I seem to recall Gavin Maxwell describing the walk to Sandaig for the first time and it all fitted so well.

Less than a mile from the main road I caught the first glimpse of the Sandaig Islands and the sandy beach through a gap in the trees. I really felt like I was walking into his book

Finally, the path started to level beside the river that Gavin’s otters played in. To cross the river involved crossing a primitive rope bridge. It looked worse than it actually was to cross. By taking things slowly and keeping a loose hold on the top rope, the bottom rope was thick enough to hold my weight, not stretch to water level and be wide enough to balance on.

Once across on the other side, I found the memorial to Edal, one of his otters. It sits under a huge tree which would have been there when the otter was alive.

Fifty yards away is another memorial where Gavin Maxwell himself is buried. It is on the site where his cottage stood before it was burnt down in an accidental fire

Following the river into the woods behind the memorials, I found the waterfall where the otters used to swim and slide down the falls.

A couple of hundred yards away is another old cottage. It is not Maxwell’s but I imagine his would have been similar?

Re-crossing the rope bridge I then made my way to the Sandaig Islands and climbed the rocks where Maxwell used to sit and watch his world go by. The tide was almost full in.

The water looked almost tropical in colour with the sandy bottom giving the sea that lovely green sheen.

Although I don’t have a pet otter, I had high hopes of seeing a wild one in the area. In a small bay not too far from the site of Gavin Maxwell’s house, I found the first signs of otter life. A collection of broken crab shells piled on a rock. Crab is a favourite food of the otter.

Although Scottish otters often hunt in the sea, they are not true sea otters. They like to live beside a source of fresh water so they can wash the salt from their fur. Not far from the broken crab shells I saw a small stream running to the sea. Sure enough, there were more signs of otter life, one had scratched the sand, perhaps while having a long stretch after preening in the stream. It looked fresh so I didn’t think it was too far away.

I settled down and amused myself trying to see the place as Maxwell would have seen it. I didn’t have long to wait until a slight movement caught my eye. What is it ? Yup.. looks like my luck was in. Now .. just turn around a bit and smile for the camera :-D

Then in a flash ..the otter was gone again. Something had spooked it. Perhaps it had sensed my presence ? Regardless.. I was now happy.. I had just glimpsed a wild Camusfearna otter and it added a new dimension to my memories of reading the book

I was beginning to see that the Loch Hourn area might not be hell after all


sheila said...

Love Glenelg and the surrounding area. I too have watched an otter a Sandaig and as a child played aboard Maxwells Polar star boat. A truely wonderful place.

Donny Wilcox said...

Hi Sheila, yup..it is a great place and I hope to return there very soon.

Loch Hourn is one of my favourite sea lochs and I would love to explore it further.

Thanks for commenting :-D

Anonymous said...

For anyone who would like to know more about Gavin Maxwell, his books or books by other people who knew him well, there is now a Facebook Group "The Gavin Maxwell Society." New Members welcome!