The writer and naturalist Gavin Maxwell is best known for Ring of Bright Water, his moving account of raising otters on the remote west coast of Scotland – undoubtedly one of the greatest nature books ever written. In his childhood memoir The House of Elrig he describes, with the same lyrical power that made that earlier book a classic, how it all began.
Maxwell was an extraordinary man, born into an extraordinary family. His father, the son of an often notorious line of Scottish landowners, had married Lady Mary Percy, the beautiful daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, and had brought her back to his family’s estate at Monteith on the windswept shores of Galloway, where they built Elrig, the house of the title.
Gavin was only four months old when his father was killed in 1914, and thereafter the most important people in his life after his three older siblings were his mother and her sisters. All equally eccentric, they had grown up in regal splendour at Alnwick Castle, against which background they seemed perpetually in revolt – one entirely devoted to good works, another running a ‘high-pressure chickenfarm’ and later ‘the largest fur rabbit farm in the world’, and a third becoming a serious research zoologist. She it was who fostered the children’s curiosity about the natural world and set Gavin on his life’s path.
But the most powerful influence on this complicated, sensitive small boy was the wild moorland country around his home and the creatures that inhabited it. He evokes it in loving detail, along with the suffocatingly grand and philistine upper-class society into which he would unsuccessfully attempt to fit. As was the custom, he was ripped away from this haven to go to a series of brutalizing schools. But always in his imagination he was at Elrig. It was his refuge and his escape, and the power of his longing and the ecstasy of each return fuel this haunting book.
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