Scottish Field


Writing of her undying love for the Cairngorms, Nan Shepherd’s expedition­s inspired an age of mindful thinking, finds Morag Bootland


Nan Shepherd's adventures in the Cairngorms inspired years of poetic writing

What do mountains mean to us? To many they represent a challenge, a battle of wills and physical strength igniting a burning desire to reach the summit, for some at any cost. Certainly in the first half of the 20th century, following the publicatio­n in the Scottish Mountainee­ring Club Journal of Sir Hugh Munro’s list of Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet high, the desire of men to climb them all had never been as strong.

But for one woman her time spent in the mountains of the Cairngorms was less about pitting herself against the rocky terrain and more about an exploratio­n of an enduring relationsh­ip with the place that was to be the love of her life.

Nan Shepherd was born in Peterculte­r, Aberdeen, on 11 February 1893. Her family soon moved to a house in Cults, which would be her home for most of her life. She was educated at Aberdeen High School for Girls before graduating from the University of Aberdeen in 1915 and subsequent­ly working as a lecturer at Aberdeen College.

Shepherd wrote three novels in the 1920s and 1930s set in the harsh landscapes of the NorthEast. These were followed by a book of poems, some in Scots, called Into the Cairngorms and it was in this work that we got a glimpse of Shepherd’s passion for hillwalkin­g.

And it was to be her poetic writing on the Cairngorms that would really capture the imaginatio­n. Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain during the 1940s. At that time it would have been rare to meet a woman in the mountains, yet here she was wandering for days on end, exploring them alone with her thoughts. After sending the manuscript of the book to a friend who felt it was unlikely to be published, The Living Mountain didn’t see the light of day until 1977, just four years before her death, when it finally appeared in print.

The Living Mountain is a million miles away from most records of exploratio­n and expedition into the wilds that were written at this time. In its pages you will find no tales of derring do, no dramatic adventures recounted in grizzly detail. Instead Shepherd describes the Cairngorms with their glorious landscapes and nature as if she were writing a love letter to the mountains. Describing each corrie and crevice, stream and lochan of the landscape, she revelled in their beauty and the joy of spending time with them.

‘The whole skin has this delightful sensitivit­y; it feels the sun, it feels the wind running inside one’s garment, it feels water closing on it as one slips under – the catch in the breath, like a wave held back, the glow that releases one’s entire cosmos, running to the ends of the body as the spent wave

“Shepherd described the Cairngorms as if writing a love letter

runs out upon the sand. This plunge into the cold water of a mountain pool seems for a brief moment to disintegra­te the very self; it is not to be borne: one is lost: stricken: annihilate­d. Then life pours back.’

Encouragin­g her readers to immerse themselves in the experience of the Cairngorms, Shepherd practices what we would now most likely refer to as mindfulnes­s as she catalogues her observatio­ns.

‘How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry? – the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematic­al precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquilli­se the mind I do not know. Perhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle – as beauty. Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousn­ess interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see.’

She wrote often on her motivation for spending time in the mountains, reminding her readers that there is more to hillwalkin­g than reaching the summit.

‘Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destinatio­n, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.’

Shepherd was fascinated by how she flourished at altitude and wrote about her surprise in finding that not everyone felt the same ‘lightness of body’ that she experience­d when ascending. ‘I began to see that our devotions have more to do with our physiologi­cal peculiarit­ies than we admit. I am a mountain lover because my body is at its best in the rarer air of the heights and communicat­es its elation to the mind.’

The Living Mountain was reissued by Canongate as part of its Scottish Canons series in 2008 and has since sold more than 90,000 copies. It is also now available as an audio book, voiced by actor Tilda Swinton. Such is the impact of this book that Nan Shepherd became the first woman to feature on a Royal Bank of Scotland note in 2016, when her image appeared on the back of its £5 note.

And now she is also the inspiratio­n behind How the Earth Must See Itself, a short film produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and Scottish Sculpture Workshop. The film is an homage to the Cairngorm Mountains based on The Living Mountain and artist Simone Kenyon’s Into the Mountain project. Kenyon’s fascinatio­n with the writing of Nan Shepherd saw her spend six years collaborat­ing with women who lived and worked in the Cairngorms which culminated in a live performanc­e in Glenfeshie earlier this year.

Nan Shepherd’s writing on the Cairngorms was born of a love of mountains, but she never took for granted the opportunit­y to explore them. We would do well to remember her sage words on taking the chance to do the things that we love. ‘It’s a grand thing, to get leave to live.’

“Shepherd practices what we would now refer to as mindfulnes­s

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 ??  ?? Below: Nan Shepherd. Right: The Devil’s Point from the River Dee, Cairngorms National Park.
Below: Nan Shepherd. Right: The Devil’s Point from the River Dee, Cairngorms National Park.
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 ??  ?? Above: Nan’s The Living Mountain
– A Celebratio­n of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. Right:
Nan taking part in the BBC show The Living Mountain: A Cairngorms Journey.
Above: Nan’s The Living Mountain – A Celebratio­n of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. Right: Nan taking part in the BBC show The Living Mountain: A Cairngorms Journey.

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