Angela’s Obsession With Otters


Shutterstock / Laura Hedien © obession with otters

It was World Otter Day on May 27. So this seems the perfect time to share my obsession with otters!

My passion for these elusive, beautiful creatures is life-long and was sparked by reading “Tarka The Otter” as a child.  Henry Williamson’s classic novel, first published in 1927, captured my imagination and my heart.

At school, aged twelve, I chose otters as the topic of my biology project and started to find out more about them.

Sadly, that included the fact that they were endangered and rare, struggling to survive in our polluted waterways. Ever seeing one for myself seemed an impossible dream.

I discovered “Ring Of Bright Water” by Gavin Maxwell, still one of my favourite books of all time. The true story of one man and his extraordinary relationship with otters captivated me like no other.

The book – and the later film – made me cry. And the grip otters had on my heart only tightened.

Elusive

As the years went by, reports started to come in that otters were returning to many of Scotland’s lochs and rivers. By now I was living close to the Tay, an otter stronghold. But they are notoriously hard to see, and remained elusive.

Then, one memorable day around 20 years ago, whilst holidaying in a tiny and remote hotel about 30 minutes from Oban, the unthinkable happened. A flash of brown streaked across the path just a few feet in front of me. An otter, heading home after a morning’s fishing!

I tucked it away as a treasured memory, a rare and special sighting. And whenever I heard wildlife experts talking of how they’d never managed to spot an otter in the wild, I felt very lucky.

Otters On Skye

I love visiting Scotland’s islands, and Skye is my favourite. Not least because, on my very first trip there, I stood at the window of our shore-side holiday cottage and watched in astonishment as an otter ate a fish on the rocks in front of me. Two sightings!

The tiny island of Eilean Ban, now part of the footings of the Skye Bridge, was once owned by Gavin Maxwell.

Imagine my excitement, the day I visited the island myself. I was treated to a private tour of the cottage, lighthouse and grounds. It was a wonderful highlight.

Afterwards, I discovered a book called “Island Of Dreams” by Dan Boothby, all about the year he spent as a warden on Eilean Ban. It’s a great read.

On a trip to Dumfries and Galloway in 2017, I stumbled across a memorial to Gavin Maxwell and his otters on a windswept hillside at Monreith.

obsession with otters

Photograph by Angela Gilchrist.

The statue overlooks the beach where Maxwell used to take his otters when he returned to his childhood home.

It was easy, if you squinted into the wind, to imagine a man down below on the sands, a lithe, sinuous creature leaping round his heels . . .

obsession with otters

Photograph by Angela Gilchrist.

But I’ve saved the best till last.

Time stood still

In the midst of lockdown, in May 2020, I took a walk in the hills near home.

It was an overcast day, cloudy, grey and breezy. I was feeling tired, and almost turned back.

I crested a small summit and rounded a bend. And there, on the lochside just ahead of me, was an otter!

I dropped immediately to the ground and silently took the binoculars from my pocket.

For the next 20 minutes, time stood still. The otter played in the shallows, splashing in and out of the water. It chased a little pied wagtail bobbing on the shore, up and down.

And then it slid into the water and started playing in the foam at the edge of the reeds. Ducking its head under, then resurfacing and shaking foam from its whiskers . . . It was magical.

Eventually, the otter tired of its game and swam gracefully away. I watched till the ripples had settled and no trace remained of the creature I’d just seen. The memory, though, is imprinted in my mind’s eye.

To date, I haven’t seen another one. But my obsession with otters continues!

I live in hope, and never leave the house without my binoculars.


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Angela Gilchrist

Angela is Editor-in-Chief of “The People’s Friend” magazine. Her passions include cats, Highland ponies, good books, vegetarian food and long walks in the Scottish countryside. Her favourite place to get away from it all is the magical Isle of Skye.