In 1979 Cuthbert Graham wrote a poem for Nan Shepherd, to mark her eighty-sixth birthday:
Seasons return and the Quarry Wood
blesses you with a continual harvest.
Thanking you for so much good
we ponder as the debt’s expressed,
what shall be your badge
in the ever-living Wood of Caledon?
Birch with her silver bark agleam,
or the red-berried rowan staining and sheltering
the young saplings? The noble larch
showering down tassels on a scene
of dappled shade?
Or proud veteran of all, the Scots Pine,
solitary in its shaggy splendour,
symbol of the untameable mountain?
Nan Shepherd is best known for The Living Mountain, first published in 1977 and now considered ‘a masterpiece of landscape literature’.
Graham was a huge fan of the work and wrote a rapturous review in the Aberdeen Press & Journal shortly after it appeared in print in October 1977. Hill walkers, climbers and skiers would all love the book, he was sure. But it was not aimed at them alone.
‘It is for everybody who has ever puzzled over the mystery of life’.
More than her ‘hill book’
But there is more to Nan Shepherd than her ‘hill book’, as the novelist Neil Gunn called it in a letter he wrote her in April 1947, wondering what she’d done with her manuscript. (After receiving one polite rejection, she’d shoved it in a drawer where it stayed for the next thirty-odd years.)
There were her three novels: The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, and A Pass in the Grampians which appeared between 1928 and 1933. And, of course, there was In the Cairngorms, a slim volume of her verse, printed in 1934.
Harshly critical of her novels, Shepherd rarely mentioned them. Writhing under what she felt were ‘the too flattering ejaculations of the Scots press’, writing to Neil Gunn in March 1930:
‘Don’t you loathe having your work over-praised?
It makes me feel positively nasty towards the praiser’.
That ‘ever-seeing eye’
But that ‘ever-seeing eye’ of The Living Mountain is already in use in Shepherd’s earlier fiction. Most obviously, perhaps, in her multi-perspectiveThe Weatherhouse.
The Weatherhouse, demands close reading, it’s true. But like her short story ‘Descent from the Cross’, it’s worth it. Re-read it and all its surfaces are seen as surfaces.
By the 1960s all four of Shepherd’s works were out of print. She appeared to have slipped into literary obscurity.
Thanks to Canongate and Galileo Publishers, Shepherd’s novels, poetry collection and other writings are now once again available.
So, what shall be her badge?
All quotes referenced in Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd.
Cuthbert Graham’s poem can be found in the Aberdeen University Review, AUP, Vol XLVIII 1979-90, p.203. University of Aberdeen, Special Collections.
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