Ring of Bright Water caught me off guard. Gavin Maxwell’s memorial to a year of his life shared with an otter and glorious secular hymn to the West Highland seaboard of Scotland hit me between the eyes, thumped me in the solar plexus, then threw a bucket of cold water over me. So I sat up and read it again.
I was about 20. I had been working as a trainee journalist since I was 16 in the epicentre of Scottish journalism which is Dundee, home to D. C. Thomson, and where I was born, grew up and lived for the first twenty-one years of my life. It was an upbringing as solidly East Coast and un-Highland as red sandstone cliffs and Arbroath smokies. But I had dipped a toe in West Highland waters on family holidays, and it’s fair to say that I craved immersion.
I was idealistic, impressionable, addicted to an intoxicating broth of a fantasy Highland idyll and the dazzling journalism of such as James Cameron, John Rafferty, Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson (and yes that Michael Frayn and Michael Parkinson; it was fifty-something years ago). I was ripe for exploitation by something life-defining. It would turn out to be Ring of Bright Water (1960), which I picked up in the first place only because I liked the title. By the time I had read the Foreword, in particular a passage I have read so often in the intervening decades that I know it by heart, I was smitten:
For I am convinced that man has suffered in his separation from the soil and from the other living creatures of the world; the evolution of his intellect has outrun his needs as an animal, and as yet he must still, for security, look long on some portion of the earth as it was before he tampered with it.
By the time I reached the end of the book – twice – I no longer wanted to write like Cameron, Rafferty, Frayn or Parkinson. Instead, a single idea had coalesced in my scrambled brain: ‘I want to look long on some portion of the earth.’
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