Published: 08/09/2015 11:38 - Updated: 07/09/2015 12:03

Dan gets too close to his hero on island quest

Eilean Ban, now nestling underneath the Skye Bridge, where Dan Boothby followed his hero Gavin Maxwell. Photo: Gary Anthony.
Eilean Ban, now nestling underneath the Skye Bridge, where Dan Boothby followed his hero Gavin Maxwell. Photo: Gary Anthony.

"NEVER get too close to your heroes."

The warning comes from Dan Boothby who did just that by following in the footsteps of his hero, naturalist and writer Gavin Maxwell, the author of Ring of Bright Water.

That journey took him to Eilean Bàn (White Island), just off Kyleakin on Skye.

This was where Maxwell settled in the former lighthouse keepers’ cottage after his home at Sandaig near Glenelg burned down.

Some 35 years later, it was where Boothby came to live as warden and caretaker of the small museum that recreates Maxwell’s home, an experience that forms the basis of Boothby’s own book, Island of Dreams.

Boothby first discovered Maxwell as 15 year old schoolboy in Norfork when he picked up a copy of Raven Seek Thy Brother.

This was the final book in Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water trilogy about his life at Sandaig, renamed Camusfearna in the books, where he lived with his beloved otters and latterly his teenage assistants Jimmy Watt and the late Terry Nutkins, who was later to become a well known television presenter.

"It was a very self-pitying book, I thought, but it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me into Sandaig’s story and his story," Boothby said.

"He wrote beautifully and painted these pictures in my mind and I fell in love with the whole thing. I wanted to be like Jimmy Watt and Terry Nutkins because it seemed such a wonderful place to be.

Author Dan Boothby. Photo: Ali Roberts.
Author Dan Boothby. Photo: Ali Roberts.

"It became an obsession, really. I’d re-read the books, I’d go out to Sandaig when I could and camp down there. This book is about trying to find out why I had this fascination with this bloke I never met. It was a quest, really."

By the time Boothby took up his post with the Eilean Bàn Trust in 2005, it was connected to both Skye and mainland having become a support for the Skye Bridge, yet this did not diminish the romance of its setting.

"You have got a sort of isolation there, but also you are not far from Kyleakin and Kyle," Boothby said.

"You are observing what is going on at the villages, but at one remove, which is why I think Maxwell chose to live there.

"I was so fascinated with the whole story, living there was a dream come true. The bridge, yes it’s there, but after dinner time everyone goes home and it’s quite quiet. I loved it."

As well as living in Maxwell’s former home, Boothby met a number of locals who remembered the writer, but for Boothby Maxwell, a grandson of the Duke of Northumberland and prone to extreme mood swings, remains an enigmatic figure.

"I don’t think he was an easy man," Boothby said.

"As for me getting a sense of the man, all I can say is that you should never get too close to your heroes.

"Everyone’s flawed and he was a mixed up man, but where he came from in society and the time he lived in, they are not part on my life and in my book I say that trying to cogitate on the psychology of a dead man who lived in a time I never lived in is pointless."

While locals would joke that Eilean Bàn had a reputation for being haunted, it was Sandaig that Boothby found the more oppressive and gloomy of Maxwell’s Highland homes.

"It always felt very intense and if Maxwell was in his glooms, I’m sure he would have really felt it there," Boothby suggested.

"I think the Highlands are quite bi-polar in itself. It’s either heavenly or you are assailed by it.

"I didn’t feel that I was strong enough to live there, really, but in the end it was lack of money that sent me away, scurrying back to the south like so many others before me. You could see the white houses on the hills and it was beautiful, but when I left, I came back a couple of years later and these white dotted houses just looked lonely.

"But I do have a lot of affection for that place. From the age of 15 until I left in 2007, I was thinking about it every year. But I didn’t know why."

Dan Boothby will be talking about his life and his book at the Inverness branch of Waterstones in the Eastgate shopping centre at 6.30pm on Wednesday 9th September and Waterstones’ Elgin bookshop at 12.30pm on Thursday 10th.

Island of Dreams is published by Picador.

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