I have never read Ring of Bright Water, nor have I seen the film starring Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna, so it might have seemed like a strange desire to want to stay in Gavin Maxwell’s cottage on Eilean Bàn.
Gavin Maxwell wrote Ring of Bright Water in 1960; he lived on the island of Eilean Bàn––Gaelic for White Island; and he made famous the wild otters who shared his small Scottish retreat with him.
Maxwell died in 1969, and a small museum to his memory was established on Eilean Bàn, which is open each year from Easter to late-September. The cottage where he lived is now available for holidaymakers to rent, and is surprisingly spacious. The front door leads into a huge kitchen with expansive views of the loch, and then a long hallway leads to two double bedrooms, a big bathroom and a pleasant sitting-room. In the cottage write-up, I had been slightly unnerved by the description of the wood-burning stove, and had privately planned to stick to microwaveable meals, but I needn’t have feared. The wood-burner was in the sitting-room, and purely used as an optional source of heating; while the kitchen was equipped with both microwave and conventional ovens, and there were electric heaters in every room––a necessity in early-Spring.
It is a beautiful location; a mile distant from Kyle of Lochalsh, the cottage itself overlooks the long sweep of Loch Alsh to the east. In Maxwell’s time, the island would only have been accessible by boat; nowadays, it hosts one of the huge supports of the Skye Bridge, and access is possible through a small, private gate leading off from the road that crosses the Bridge itself. Nevertheless, it still retains its sense of isolation, particularly at night, when the nearest visible lights are those showing from Kyleakin on Skye.
When the museum is open, a warden sometimes stays in an adjoining property but, in early-March, and still firmly out-of-season, I have the entire 6-acre island to myself. It was like a dream come true: my own private island. I set off exploring with all the innocent enthusiasm of a character from a story by Enid Blyton. Grassy pathways traversed several routes around my kingdom: to the lighthouse in one direction; to the bird-hide in another; whilst one entire end of the island remained an impenetrable and untamed tangle of thick gorse and heather.
A visitor’s book in the cottage catalogued wildlife sightings by previous guests: seals and porpoises in the loch; pine martens and mink; and otters, of course. Otters recorded in the little bay, only a stone’s throw from my front door. And what did I see during my stay? Nothing. A solitary, inquisitive Robin proved my only island companion.
Was I disappointed? Not really. Eilean Bàn remains a magical place and, although I may not have spotted any of the wild creatures that I had hoped to see, the small island realm remains a world of glorious possibilities.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny keeps a watch for wildlife on Eilean Bàn.
Read more about E. C. Glendenny’s travels in her latest book Slow and Easy.