Glimpse of a na­ture-lover’s wild heart

A new col­lec­tion of Nan Shep­herd’s writ­ing dis­plays her love of land­scape and hints at a ro­man­tic mys­tery

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books - Re­view by Su­san Flock­hart


Edited by Char­lotte Pea­cock (Galileo, £14.99)

Nan Shep­herd didn’t be­come a fa­mil­iar house­hold name – or rather a wellkent face – un­til al­most four decades after her death, when her pho­to­graph was pub­lished on Royal Bank of Scot­land ban­knotes in 2016. This prob­a­bly wouldn’t have trou­bled the Aberdeen­shire writer, who even after pro­duc­ing three ac­claimed nov­els and a po­etry col­lec­tion, re­mained en­dear­ingly mod­est about her lit­er­ary pow­ers.

When her book about her beloved Cairn­gorms, The Liv­ing Moun­tain, was re­jected by a pub­lisher in 1945, she humbly con­signed the man­u­script to a drawer. On its even­tual pub­li­ca­tion in 1977, just four years be­fore Shep­herd died aged 88, the book was im­me­di­ately ac­claimed as a mas­ter­piece of na­ture writ­ing. Yet it was not the only one of her works to have lan­guished for decades in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity. De­spite once telling an in­ter­viewer she’d stopped writ­ing, Shep­herd had pro­duced a sig­nif­i­cant body of po­etry, prose and fic­tion dur­ing that sup­posed fal­low pe­riod.

Sev­eral of those pieces have been gath­ered to­gether in Wild Geese: A Col­lec­tion Of Nan Shep­herd’s Writ­ing, which also in­cludes some ear­lier works. In the 1915 es­say On Noises In The Night, the then 22-year-old’s fas­ci­na­tion with raw na­ture is al­ready ap­par­ent. Mo­tor sirens, train en­gines and other “man-made” sounds are, she writes, “false Florimels” com­pared with the noc­tur­nal wind’s moan­ing, whistling, rat­tling abil­ity to “strip us naked to our el­e­men­tal su­per­sti­tious selves”.

The Colours Of Dee­side ex­am­ines Shep­herd’s home land­scape through the moss-greens of its woods, the “ghostly whites” of its mists and the deep gen­tian shad­ows of its cor­ries. Yet she ad­mits she strug­gles to name the hue of its open spa­ces and for all Shep­herd’s dex­ter­ous com­mand of Scots and English, she oc­ca­sion­ally seems to hold up her hands and ad­mit that Earth’s beauty is per­haps bet­ter ex­pe­ri­enced than de­scribed.

Long pas­sages of “na­ture writ­ing” can after all be hard to di­gest, but where such de­scrip­tions oc­cur in Shep­herd’s fic­tion, they suc­ceed bril­liantly in il­lu­mi­nat­ing her char­ac­ters’ in­ner lives. In her won­der­ful short story De­scent From The Cross, a First World War vet­eran rouses him­self from his sickbed to en­counter a fresh April morn­ing, “lovely beyond all his re­mem­ber­ing” with its wet birch trees, ex­ul­tant black­birds and faint green mists. Those clean, ver­dant sur­round­ings make him re­alise he’s been trapped in a men­tal prison.

Tommy is an aspir­ing au­thor strug­gling to write the great book his wife Eliz­a­beth ex­pects of him. Years pre­vi­ously, while be­ing tor­tured as a pris­oner of war, he’d ex­pe­ri­enced an epiphany dur­ing which “the truth of things” was re­vealed to him “with su­per­hu­man clar­ity”. What he’d in­tu­ited, he told Eliz­a­beth, was “some­thing pretty fun­da­men­tal”. It could be “the ba­sis of a whole phi­los­o­phy of liv­ing”. It could save hu­mankind … if only he could re­mem­ber what it was.

Urged by the ide­al­is­tic Eliz­a­beth to chan­nel this pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence into lit­er­a­ture, he’s since been toil­ing away at the work he hopes will make his name and res­cue him from the ignominy of liv­ing off his wife’s earn­ings. But the novel floun­ders as the na­ture of that briefly-glimpsed truth con­tin­ues to elude its au­thor. When Eliz­a­beth’s wid­owed mother comes to stay, Tommy’s hu­mil­i­a­tion is com­plete as she fusses and cleans around him, per­pet­u­ally ask­ing after the book that’s to “make all our for­tunes”.

Un­able to bear her prob­ing ques­tions he de­cides to take any work that will get him out of the house. But this is 1930, the streets are full of hun­gry, hope­less, dis­il­lu­sioned men and he fi­nally se­cures a post sell­ing stock­ings from door to door, only to be re­peat­edly shamed by “the small dis­cour­te­sies and mean­nesses that quite de­cent peo­ple will mete out to the un­suc­cess­ful”.

It’s a pow­er­ful evo­ca­tion of the soul-crush­ing con­di­tions that pre­vailed dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion and Tommy’s de­spair over his book’s fail­ure to ma­te­ri­alise is vis­cer­ally au­then­tic, sug­gest­ing Shep­herd her­self may have been no stranger to the writer’s block that per­haps de­scended when, as she told that in­ter­viewer, “it just didn’t come to [her] any more”. Per­haps, though, Shep­herd’s dry pen didn’t

ac­tu­ally trou­ble her too much. She drew im­mense sat­is­fac­tion from work­ing as an English lec­turer at Aberdeen Col­lege of Ed­u­ca­tion and de­spite her out­stand­ing lit­er­ary tal­ent she seems not to have con­sid­ered the writer’s craft as ex­ist­ing on an el­e­vated plane to teach­ing, farm­ing or sell­ing stock­ings.

There is plenty to savour in this en­joy­able col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing three pieces on 20th-cen­tury Scot­tish po­ets Hugh MacDiarmid, Charles Mur­ray and Mar­ion An­gus – all of whom, like Shep­herd, wrote in Scots. Most en­gag­ingly, she de­scribes Mar­ion An­gus’s po­etic ge­nius for de­pict­ing “folk [who] have their feet firmly set on the soil of the North-East”. Un­happy and un­re­quited love, we learn, are “dom­i­nant” in An­gus’s verse and in her in­sight­ful in­tro­duc­tion Char­lotte Pea­cock asks prob­ing ques­tions about Shep­herd’s own po­ems, sev­eral of which are pub­lished here for the first time. “Ah, love, sur­ren­der could not be more com­plete!” writes Shep­herd por­ten­tously in Union. “She never mar­ried,” Pea­cock tells us. “Nor did she ever re­veal the name of the man for whom” her lovethemed po­ems were writ­ten, al­though there has been much spec­u­la­tion.

Wild Geese con­cludes with an amus­ing se­ries of ru­mi­na­tions ti­tled Things I Shall Never Know. Like­wise, we may never learn the se­crets of Nan Shep­herd’s heart. But her love of the Dee­side land­scape, and its peo­ple, pos­i­tively sings through this book.

Nan Shep­herd in later life, right, on a £5 note

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