THIS week sees the 50th anniversary of the death of a Scottish writer and explorer whose story of his life with otters charmed the world and was the basis for a memorable film.

Gavin Maxwell lived just long enough to see the successful release of the film Ring Of Bright Water, which was loosely based on Maxwell’s biographical work of that name which he published in 1960 and which has never been out of print since, having now sold around two million copies.

The tragedy that coloured Maxwell’s life happened less than three months after he was born on July 15, 1914. His father, Lt. Col Aymer Maxwell, formerly of the Grenadier Guards and Lovat Scouts, was commanding marines of the Royal Naval Division early in the First World War when he was mortally wounded during the Siege of Antwerp on October 8, dying the following day.

Maxwell’s mother Mary, daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, was bereft at her loss and lavished all her attention and affection on her baby, the youngest of her three sons. He was devoted to her as he grew up and often said that the worst day of his life was when he was sent to boarding school.

The family owned a large estate, Monreith, near Port William in what is now Dumfries and Galloway. It was at Elrig on the estate that Maxwell was born and about which he wrote a superb memoir of childhood, The House Of Elrig.

It was here that Maxwell was able to indulge his love of the outdoors and shooting – he became an expert on all forms of guns and rifles and a top-class marksman.

He studied estate management at Hertford College, Oxford, but by his own admission spent most of his three years there on everything but academic studies, though he gained his degree by dint of last-minute cramming.

Joining the Scots Guards at the outbreak of the Second World War, Maxwell’s natural aptitude with firearms saw him selected to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE) which Winston Churchill established in 1940 to ‘‘set Europe ablaze’’ through covert missions and support of Resistance movements on the Continent.

Unfortunately for Maxwell, he badly broke his ankle during parachute training and the injury meant he could not go on SOE missions. Instead, he spent the rest of the war instructing SOE agents in the use of firearms.

After the war, the ever-restless Maxwell tried painting and journalism before he moved to Soay, an island off Skye, setting himself up in business as a basking shark fisherman and processor. The business failed spectacularly and left many of his relatives out of pocket.

The venture did provide Maxwell with the basis of his future career as a writer, his book Harpoon At A Venture being published to much critical acclaim.

In 1956 he joined the explorer Wilfred Thesiger on a journey to Iraq where they lived among the Marsh Arabs.

The experience provided Maxwell with the material for another highly praised book, A Reed Shaken By The Wind, and also brought him an otter pup called Mijbil which he somehow managed to smuggle back to London.

He would put the young otter on a lead and take it for walks in Chelsea. A photograph of the odd pair was featured in a national newspaper.

He realised that this was no life for a wild creature and decided to move back to Scotland where he had a cottage at Sandaig on the coast at Loch Nevis near Glenelg.

His stories of life with Mij and two other otters, Edal and Teko, were told in Ring Of Bright Water, a much darker work than the film.

He disguised Sandaig as Camusfeàrna in his books, and while there he could write lyrically: “Into this bright, watery landscape Mij moved and took possession with a delight that communicated itself as clearly as any articulate speech could have done.

“The waterfall, the burn, the white beaches and the islands; his form became the familiar foreground to them all.”

The truth about Maxwell is that he related much better to animals than he did to humans. He was ahead of his time as a conservationist and naturalist, but he was also a homosexual in the days when it was illegal, and though in 1962 he briefly married Lavinia Renton, there was no child from that union.

The great female love of his life was the poet Kathleen Raine – the title Ring Of Bright Water comes from one of her poems – but it was she who Maxwell blamed for cursing him and Sandaig, which burned down in 1968, Edal the otter dying in the fire.

A very heavy smoker and drinker, Maxwell was never good with money – or at least holding on to it – and despite the success of Ring Of Bright Water and his other books, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother, he ended up deep in debt, some of it due to buying lighthouse cottages on Eilean Bàn, the “White Island” between Skye and the Kyle of Lochalsh.

It was to Eilean Bàn that he moved after the loss of Sandaig, and he had plans to establish a conservation project there.

In August 1969, he wrote to Raine: “For your eyes only please... well it was borrowed time and not much of it, I have cancer. It is not operable and the time left is short.”

She replied to him on his death bed: “You and I have seen the beauty of Eternity, such beauty and such glimpses of joy. For me this earth is simply the place where you are, where we have met. Without you it will be the place where you are not.”

After his death on September 6, 1969, Maxwell was cremated and his ashes were scattered at Sandaig, though his many fans will always think of it as Camusfeàrna. He is remembered in the museum which Ring Of Bright Water actress Virginia McKenna helped to create on Eilean Bàn.