“Why aren’t you then?” was the question from Gavin Maxwell, that fired the young John Lister-Kaye’s determination to be a writer himself.
Now, almost a half a century later, Sir John Lister-Kaye, 8th Baronet of Grange, as he is today, happily pays tribute to the impact Maxwell, author of the hugely popular Ring of Bright Water saga about living with otters in the Highlands, had on his own literary career.
His friendship with Maxwell doubt something he may well speak about when he appears at this month’s Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival to discuss his latest work, Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s Eye View of a Highland Year.
The ‘Gods’ of the title are the birds whose song greets Lister-Kaye each morning at Aigas, his estate near Beauly.
Lister-Kaye first went to live in the Highlands in 1968 to work with Maxwell, by then a celebrated author and naturalist.
Maxwell was to die just a year later and Lister-Kaye decided to commemorate Maxwell’s work and writing by finishing the story of the Maxwell otters.
It was to be his first book, published in 1972, and is titled The White Island. It was the book’s success that led to the creation of the first field studies centre for the Highlands and Islands.
Since then, over 25,000 adults and 100,000 children have passed through the welcoming doors of Aigas Field Centre.
And, in recent years, the environmental education for schools programme independently run by the Aigas Trust (founded by Lister-Kaye in 1980) welcomes some 5,000 school children every year.
As well as his career as director of the centre, Lister-Kaye also lectures around the world and Gods of the Morning is his ninth book.
He was awarded an OBE in 2001 for services to nature conservation, and has also received honorary doctorates from two Scottish universities for his contribution to nature writing.
He has served nature conservation for over 45 years, including being Scottish chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and president of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Lister-Kaye has loved the natural world since he was a young boy growing up in Warwickshire.
However, his final career path was not obvious early on, given the family’s business interests in quarrying and cement.
But it was his experience as an eyewitness to the carnage caused after the supertanker, Torrey Canyon, ran aground in 1967 that turned him against a career in industry.
“There weren’t really any environmental journalists back then and no-one was talking about the dead sea birds, the dead otters or the damage caused to the fishing industry,” Lister-Kaye told The Southern.
“So I wrote a piece about it that got into national newspapers. Gavin Maxwell read it and got my address from the papers and wrote to me complimenting me on the article.
“I wrote back to thank him and he replied, inviting me up to the West Highlands to work with him and stay at Sandaig.”
Lister-Kaye says his late friend and mentor was “immensely complicated”, but if it had not been for him, he would not be a writer today.
“Gavin was extremely bright; borderline between genius and madness; very complicated sexually – his private life was always a mess; he was financially incompetent, but very creative.
“Looking back he was obviously bipolar – then it would have been termed manic depression.
“When Gavin was on an ‘up’, he was unstoppable, but when down, he was in the depths of depression.
“He would ring me at 3am saying: ‘Oh God John, when is it all going to end?’ He couldn’t handle life at all.”
Scribbling freelance journalism since he was 18, Lister-Kaye says he had always hankered after a life writing books.
After Maxwell’s death in 1969, he needed a way that would allow him to remain in the Highlands and keep writing and it was this that was the spark that led to the creation of the Aigas centre.
“I wish I could say it was some lofty ideal about helping people re-establish their links with nature, but the truth is I needed a way whereby I could support myself while I continued to write.
“Back in the 1960s, the only people who came to the Highlands, in the main, were those here to stalk deer, shoot grouse and fish for salmon.
“There was no such thing as visitor centres and nature trails and I saw an opportunity. Many people poured cold water on the notion that the public would actually pay to be taken to see a golden eagle, but by then the environmental movement had started flowing eastwards from the United States and it was not long before people were beating a path northwards to experience the glorious outdoors of the north of Scotland for themselves.
“At that time people didn’t have the confidence, they didn’t have the outdoor gear or even binoculars and were prepared to pay someone to experience these things for themselves and who could also take them safely into a Highland glen.”
And while he does see what he terms some ‘green shoots’ as far as environmental awareness is concerned, depressingly Lister-Kaye does not think the human race as a whole has taken much heed of the warnings about ecological disaster first sounded over 50 years ago by Rachel Carson in her famous and seminal book, Silent Spring.
“Absolutely not. I don’t think we’ve really learned anything at all. Western society is still governed with a view mainly to wealth creation. There is no excuse now, we have the technical expertise but not the political will.
“We’ve just had an extraordinary general election, yet not one of the principal political parties – Labour, Conservative or the SNP – mentioned the environment. It just was not on the agenda.”
Lister-Kaye says he is definitely looking forward to making the trip to Melrose for this year’s book festival: “I love doing book festivals – by the end of this year I think I will have done around 30.”
And he knows he will probably be asked the perennial question: what is the secret to being a successful author?
“The answer is relatively simple – you have to live the dream. Once, late at night and after much whisky, Gavin Maxwell asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
“I, very tentatively and apologetically, given how famous he was, said I wanted to write.
“He replied: ‘Why aren’t you then?’ That had a great impact on me. He said all you needed was a pencil and paper.
“And when he put it like that I felt a little foolish. But it was a career-changing moment for me. So I now say to people, if you want to do it, get on and do it. But you must always keep reading – read, read, read.”
l Sir John Lister-Kaye, Saturday, June 13, at 4.45pm in Harmony Marquee. Event sponsored by Boydell Architecture.