IN 1987, at the age of 18, Dan Boothby made his second visit – pilgrimage, really – to Sandaig in Wester Ross, the former home of the writer and naturalist Gavin Maxwell, who had referred to it in his books as Camusfeàrna. Here Maxwell had lived with his otters – Mij and Edal – and wrote about them in Ring Of Bright Water, the 1960 memoir which made him famous and, for a while, rich. His ashes are buried on the site of what was once his house, beneath a boulder, and it was there, in the midst of a storm, that the teenage Boothby, his head swirling with magic mushrooms, left a blackberry as an offering for Maxwell’s ghost. Finding shelter from the rain in a filthy old barn, he told his friend the story of the writer and his adventures, ‘how I wished I’d met him and come to live at Sandaig with him in the black-and-white photographed world of his books’. In fungi veritas – Boothby is obsessed by Maxwell, in love with the idea of him, and the reason Island Of Dreams throbs with a sorrowful ache is precisely because he can never draw closer to him than the pages of his writings. Where he craves flesh, he finds paper; in place of blood, ink.
Island Of Dreams: A Personal History of a Remarkable Place tells the story of the year or so, beginning in the summer of 2005, that Boothby spent living and working as caretaker on Eilean Bàn, the lighthouse island beneath the Skye Bridge, that had been Maxwell’s home from January, 1968, until his death from lung cancer, at the age of 55, in September, 1969. ‘I felt drawn to Kyleakin as I had to few places in my life,’ Maxwell wrote of the island. ‘I felt as if I were coming home.’
He had moved there amid a serious decline in his health and finances, and following a fire which destroyed Camusfeàrna and caused the death of the otter, Edal. He believed himself to be cursed, writing in Raven Seek Thy Brother that, following a quarrel, the poet Kathleen Raine – who loved him intensely and was not loved in return – had placed her hands on the trunk of the rowan tree at the burn beside his home and begged of the fates, ‘Let him suffer here as I am suffering.’ The Kyleakin lighthouse must have seemed a beacon to a man who felt he had been caught on the tide of one woman’s hatred and was drawing ever nearer to the rocks.
Raven Seek Thy Brother is the book which began Dan Boothby’s obsession with Maxwell. He chanced upon it mis-shelved in the library during a half-term break from boarding school, and something about it spoke to him. He sought out the other titles in the Camusfeàrna trilogy – Ring Of Bright Water and The Rocks Remain – and found himself filled with desire for the Highland landscape described, such a contrast with the Norfolk flatlands where he lived. More precisely, the 15 year old Boothby felt pulled towards Maxwell himself – the middle-aged man in the jacket photograph, asleep with an otter on his lap – who was assisted and kept company in his seeming idyll at Camusfeàrna by a succession of teenage boys, the best known of whom was Terry Nutkins. ‘I wanted to be in Gavin Maxwell’s stories,’ Boothby recalls. ‘I wanted the life I imagined those boys had.’
What else did he want? A father figure, perhaps; one whose rootlessness reflected his own. Early in Island Of Dreams, Boothby writes that, ‘My brother, sisters and I had been brought up to all intents fatherless, and for the first four years of my life we had lived with our mother in a gypsy caravan by the side of various roads.’ From the age of four until 12, his home was Shrubb Farm, sometimes known as Larling, a hippy commune which, in 1974, was the subject of a BBC documentary called A Different Sort of Family in which Boothby, then four, appeared. As a shy ‘commune kid’, at school he felt the stigma of being different, so retreated into a world of books and imagination, dreaming his way to a better future.
In Raven Seek Thy Brother, Maxwell muses that ‘the secret of keeping one’s vision was to always be a nomad, never to remain long enough in one place to allow time for the deadly clouding of sight, the creeping cataract, that is composed of preoccupation with past mistakes and their present results’. Boothby doesn’t quote this passage in his book, but it may well have resonated. Maxwell had built a life, career and personal philosophy on being a wanderer, and by following in those footsteps – and in those otter tracks – so, surely, could he. In June 2005, when he first walked into the cottage on Kyleakin where Maxwell had once lived, he felt, quite explicitly, that their stories were merging: ‘I was entering the myth that had gripped me all those years ago as a boy.’
Boothby had been taken on by the Eilean Bàn Trust as a warden and tour guide. The position was unpaid, but he was allowed to live on the island, to put down roots for the first time in his life. He planned to work on a book of his travels, but more important was the sense of purpose the job gave him. In no time, he fell in love with the place. It could hardly have been otherwise. Visiting a few years previously, he had felt jealous of the man who showed him around. ‘You’ve got my job,’ he thought, ‘and you’re living in my house.’ There is a strong sense of Boothby taking ownership of what is rightfully his. He felt, one senses, that the duration and intensity of his obsession with Maxwell made his stay on the island a sort of earned destiny. That homecoming sensation which Maxwell experienced on his first trip to Eilean Bàn, Boothby felt it, too.
What Boothby wanted, most of all, was to belong somewhere. One evening, he fell into conversation with a woman in the Lochalsh Hotel. ‘Where do you belong?’ she asked, and he didn’t have an answer for her. He could tell her where he lived, but belonging was a different matter. Later, hunting deer in the hills, he spoke to a stalker who explained that he was the third generation in his family to do that job. The stalker was as much a part of the land as the deer and the hill and the heather. Boothby could not make any such claim. No matter how correct it felt that he should be living in Maxwell’s former home, he continued to see himself as an outsider in the area, an English incomer paranoid that centuries of enmity will be held against him. By the time he left Eilean Bàn, at the end of November 2006, his job having come to an end, his sense of dislocation was complete: ‘I didn’t even believe I belonged in the Highlands.’ He wanted to be like Gavin Maxwell, but he was more like Kathleen Raine, suffering from unrequited love and unable ever to get as close as he would like to the man he so admired.
Island Of Dreams is a melancholy book. Boothby seems thwarted and unhappy. Although he professes sorrow, heartbreak even, at having to leave Eilean Bàn, one wonders how healthy it was for him to live there, a Miss Havisham of the Misty Isle, especially in winter. ‘I’d sit long on Maxwell’s old sofa in Long Room,’ he writes, ‘mostly alone, feeding logs into the fire and watching shadows play across the curtains and walls, across Raef Payne’s portrait of his friend, across Maxwell’s furniture and pictures, his wall hangings and desk …’ There is a tremendous sadness in this living not just in the past, but in someone else past; not just a lonely life, but in someone else’s loneliness. Boothby spent his days unearthing the detritus of the past: old photos and letters from a filing cabinet; a broken watch from a tangle of bracken; the initials of a nineteenth-century lighthouse keeper scratched into a rock. ‘I know every inch,’ he says of the island. ‘I’m in love with it.’ But what he loves is the shadow of a cloud that passed over long before.
Reading Island Of Dreams, one keeps waiting for an epiphany that never comes. Late in the book is Boothby’s realization that Maxwell is the ‘surrogate father that, all along, subconsciously, I’d been searching for’. But the astute reader will have understood, long before, that this was what he was seeking. Indeed, it is difficult to believe that Boothby did not grasp it sooner himself, especially when one considers that Maxwell, too, had been a fatherless boy, his own parent having been killed in action in October 1914 when Maxwell was three months old.
Any book written about Gavin Maxwell risks suffering in comparison with his own writing, and Island Of Dreams is no different. It does not transcend its subject. It is, however, an interesting and worthwhile addition to the growing canon of literature about Maxwell, one to place alongside John Lister-Kaye’s The White Island, Richard Frere’s Maxwell’s Ghost and Douglas Botting’s Gavin Maxwell: A Life. It is just another stone on that cairn, and given what a fascinating and complex figure Maxwell was, it seems unlikely that it will remain uppermost for long.
Island Of Dreams: A Personal History Of A Remarkable Place
Picador, £14.99, ISBN 978-1-5098-0075-9, PP320