Eilean Ban is one of my favourite little islands. The name may not be familiar, though you may have visited it, perhaps unwittingly. Not so many years ago it was hard to reach, but for the last dozen years or so it has anchored the Skye Bridge, the little hop from Kyle of Lochalsh before the road rises above the lighthouse.
It is a Stevenson Light, decommissioned when the bridge hosted navigation lights, but now the most accessible of the Stevenson Lights around our coast. I have a Stevenson interest, and a lighthouse interest. Above my desk is Jean Guichard’s magnificent Phares Dans La Tempete – Lu Jument.
A short walk from Stevenson’s tower are the cottages. One is available to hire and I often have a hankering for a few days solitude, notes to write, places around to visit. That cottage on Eilean Ban is where I would go.
It is also where Dan Boothby went. He stayed for two summer seasons, through one winter. He had some work to do, unpaid. He too had places to visit in the area; places he had visited two decades earlier. Island of Dreams is his tale of those days.
The second cottage on the island is a museum, packed with memories, in need of some attention, and some funding. On the day I walked in I was surrounded by familiarities, enthralled and entranced. For that former lighthouse keeper’s cottage was the last home of Gavin Maxwell, and Teko, his last otter.
Down the loch lie the ruins of Camusfearna, Sandaig, and memorials to the man himself, where his ashes are buried, and to Edal, who perished in the fire that wrought ruin.
Boothby too had read the books, from the shark fishery on Soay, to the memories of childhood; from that jaunt with Thesiger and the first otter, Mij, the one who perished beneath the spade of the road-mender, through the otter trilogy, and to the life and the works and all those who shared in it.
Island of Dreams has me yearning to dip once again into those works, to Douglas Botting’s brilliant biography, to the recollections of John Lister-Kaye – the first of his what is now a terrific catalogue of nature writing – and of Richard Frere. And it has the island calling me again. Boothby met with Jimmy Watt, and with Raef Payne, so integral to the goings on in the west highlands, with Maxwell’s other otter boys.
Sadly now the survivors of those days are few. Terry Nutkins, who settled in Glenelg, succumbed a few years ago. Kathleen Raine, who penned those immortal words that titled the most famous of Maxwell’s works, made it to 95.
Dan Boothby’s work is well worth a place on my Maxwell shelf. He has done what many who have placed a pebble on the plinths at Sandaig may have wished they were free to do. He has given his time to the island, and he has written about it, well.
Satisfied with a quick delve into Stevenson and Maxwell, I was chuffed to bits to stir another cherished memory. Boothby’s acknowledgements take me to Ty Newydd, his thanks to Sally and Awen, to Nia and Ceri. If there is ever somewhere to write of islands and dreams it is that magnificent retreat down Criccieth way. Memories, and more.