Nan Shepherd: The Living Mountain

Cover of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

[…] I toiled up the last slope and came out above Glen Einich. Then I gulped the frosty air—I could not contain myself, I jumped up and down, I laughed and shouted. There was the whole plateau, glittering white, within reach of my fingers, an immaculate vision, sun-struck, lifting against a sky of dazzling blue. I drank and drank. I have not yet done drinking that draught. From that hour I belonged to the Cairngorms […]

That’s Nan Shepherd describing her first view of the Cairngorm plateau, on a perfect winter day, in fairly typical style. Shepherd lived in the same house in Aberdeenshire for almost her whole life, and developed an emotional bond with the Cairngorms during decades of exploration. She taught English Literature at the Aberdeen College of Education for forty years, during which time she published three Scottish Modernist novels—The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930), and A Pass In The Grampians (1933)—which I confess I have not read. She also produced a slim volume of poetry, In The Cairngorms (1934). It had an initial very limited print run and then fell into obscurity, but has recently been republished. The poems are full of striking imagery, but tend to veer off impenetrably—I experienced the recurring impression that some key emotional element was present in Shepherd’s head at the time of writing, but didn’t quite make it out into the printed word. I’m apparently not the only person to be left disorientated; Robert Macfarlane, in his introduction to the republished collection, reports that:

‘Very few people understand them’, said Shepherd of the poems late in her life, ‘which makes me feel better’

(Which, again, of course, suggests a hidden emotional context.)

But I think it’s fair to say that Shepherd is known nowadays largely because of her lyrical love-letter to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain—written during the 1940s, but set aside after fellow author Neil Gunn expressed reservations about how publishable it was. It eventually saw the light of day in 1977, just a few years before Shepherd’s death.

It seems likely, though, that many Scots will recognize Shepherd’s face despite never having encountered her name or works, since her striking portrait (based on a youthful photograph) graces the current £5 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland—though the flapper-era headband conjures up Native-American connotations for the uninitiated.

Nan Shepherd portrait on Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note

Next to the portrait are a few lines from The Living Mountain, and Shepherd’s lovely epitaph: “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.”

I first read The Living Mountain back in the early ’80s, when the original Aberdeen University Press paperback was thrust into my hands by a fellow hill-walker who told me, “You’ve got to read this!” So I did. I remember being deeply jealous of Shepherd’s easy familiarity with the hills, and impressed by her beautiful prose, but slightly concerned at how overwrought she could become at fairly slight provocation. And I didn’t read it again, until I was recently reminded of it in chance conversation. Forty years on, with forty more years of roaming the hills behind me, and now more of an age with Shepherd when she wrote the book, I wondered how I’d now feel about it. So I went out and bought the recent Canongate edition, which has a helpful foreword by Robert Macfarlane (and a supererogatory afterword by Jeanette Winterson).

I found much to enjoy, this time around. Shepherd’s summarizes her relationship with the hills in this passage:

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.

This is completely antithetical to the approach of those whom Ian Mitchell has called the “Tickers and Timers”—those who treat the hills as more of a venue for sporting achievement, rather than an end in themselves. And it’s this habit of stravaiging, in its original sense of “wandering aimlessly”, that allows Shepherd to pay so much attention to the hill environment. Probably most hill-walkers have noticed, for instance, the intricate patterns and structures created by the battle between flowing water and freezing conditions. But Shepherd doesn’t merely notice, she stops to observe and reflect, and sets down the results of her observations and reflections in lucid prose. And it’s the poet in her that allows her to say that the waters of Loch an Uaine are not merely green, but have the “green gleam of old copper roofs”, which is exactly right.

And here’s the flight of a golden eagle, as observed by Shepherd:

And when he has soared to the top of his bent, there comes the level flight as far as the eye can follow, straight, clean and effortless as breathing. The wings hardly move, now and then perhaps a lazy flap as though a cyclist, free-wheeling on a gentle slope, turned the crank a time or two. The bird seems to float, but to float with a direct and undeviating force.

Yes, says anyone who has observed an eagle in flight. That’s what it’s like.

On a more philosophical level, she captures two mental experiences that will be familiar to many who have spent long days in the hills. The first is this:

This is one of the reasons why the high plateau where these streams begin, the streams themselves, their cataracts and rocky beds, the corries, the whole wild enchantment, like a work of art is perpetually new when one returns to it. The mind cannot carry away all that it has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away.

For years now I’ve been standing in high places, thinking, I need to try to remember this better. And failing. It’s somehow comforting to see that someone else has had the same difficulty, particularly someone with Shepherd’s undoubted powers of single-minded attention.

And then there’s this:

These moments come unpredictably, yet governed, it would seem, by a law whose working is dimly understood. They come to me […] most of all after hours of steady walking, with the long rhythm of motion sustained until motion is felt, not merely known by the brain, as the ‘still centre’ of being. In some such way I suppose the controlled breathing of the Yogi must operate. Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent.

In modern parlance, Shepherd is I think describing the state of mindfulness, or perhaps the related flow state codified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I think these two linked phenomena, the serene experience of “walking the flesh transparent”, followed by an inability to perfectly recall the experience, are what keeps many of us returning to the hills, again and again, as Shepherd did.

So how have my feelings changed, on rereading The Living Mountain after a gap of forty years? I’m no longer jealous of her familiarity with the hills, but certainly even more impressed by her writing—my own familiarity with the places and conditions she describes means that almost every page contains a phrase or passage that seems perfectly descriptive*. But I still find myself slightly concerned at the intensity with which she seemed to experience life, on occasion becoming almost overwhelmed by simple sensory experiences. So I’m glad she was so frequently able to walk her flesh transparent—it must have been something of a relief.

* I’m not exaggerating, here. It’s my custom, when writing these reviews, to mark pages containing striking phrases or illustrative passages with a slip of paper, for later reference. When I finish this one, the thickness of the book had been all but doubled by my paper markers.

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