Nan Shepherd: living mountain

Nan Shepherd: living mountain

Image: Patrick Hendry

Nan Shepherd Living Mountain. The name and the work are synonymous. Which is not surprising really, given that The Living Mountain is the work for which Nan Shepherd is currently best known. But is there more to her than her ‘hill book’? I think so.

To mark her 86th birthday, in 1979, Cuthbert Graham wrote a poem for Nan Shepherd:

 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 currently best known for The Living Mountain.  Cuthbert Graham was a huge fan of the work and, when the book was first published in 1977, wrote a rapturous review in the Aberdeen Press & Journal  Hill walkers, climbers and skiers would all love The Living Mountain, he said. But it was not aimed at them alone:

‘It is for everybody who has ever puzzled over the mystery of life’.

Cuthbert Graham, Aberdeen Press & Journal.

It is.

Nan Shepherd books

But there is more to Nan Shepherd than her ‘hill book’, as the novelist Neil Gunn described it.

There were her three, remarkable novels: The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouseand A Pass in the Grampians published between 1928 and 1933. And, of course, there was In the Cairngorms, the slim volume of her verse, printed in 1934.

Hailed as ‘a writer of genius’, a novelist to put alongside Virginia Woolf, her novels met with critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet Shepherd, who was harshly critical of her own work, rarely mentioned them.

‘Don’t you loathe having your work over-praised?’ she wrote to Neil Gunn in March 1930. ‘It makes me feel positively nasty towards the praiser’.

But that ‘ever-seeing eye’ of The Living Mountain is already in use in Shepherd’s earlier fiction. Most obviously, I think, in The Weatherhouse. This second novel of hers demands close-reading, it’s true. But like her short story, ‘Descent from the Cross’, all its surfaces are surfaces.

For more on Shepherd’s fiction, read Quiet pioneer: the novels of Nan Shepherd.

The Living Mountain

By the 1960s, however, all four of Shepherd’s works were out of print. She appeared to have slipped into literary obscurity. Until 1977, when The Living Mountain was published.

Still, it took until the early 21st century for Shepherd’s work to really excite the attention it deserves. Her novels, poetry and other writings are back in print. And The Living Mountain has gone global.

What shall be Nan Shepherd’s badge?

When I first came across Cutherbert Graham’s poem, I couldn’t decide which badge was the best fit. Now, I think it’s the silver-barked birch. But what do you think? Which is your favourite work?

Leave me a comment and tell me. I’d really love to know.

There’s more about Nan Shepherd on my blog. And a list of her books with quick summaries of each on my website.

All quotes are 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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Nan Shepherd: What shall be your badge?
Article Name
Nan Shepherd: What shall be your badge?
There's more to Nan Shepherd than her 'hill book', as Cuthbert Graham knew in 1979. After The Living Mountain was published in 1977, he wrote a poem wondering pondering what she would be remembered for. Shepherd's biographer, Charlotte Peacock, discusses her legacy.

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