What shall be your badge, we ponder?
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 best known for The Living Mountain. First published in October 1977 it’s 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. 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’, he said.
More to Nan Shepherd than her ‘hill book’
But there is more to Nan Shepherd than her ‘little hill book’, as her friend, the novelist Neil Gunn described it.
And, of course, there was In the Cairngorms, the slim volume of her verse, printed in 1934.
Harshly critical of her own work, Shepherd rarely mentioned her novels.
‘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’.
Shepherd’s ‘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-perspective The Weatherhouse.
The Weatherhouse, demands close reading, it’s true. But like Shepherd’s 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. And she appeared to have slipped into literary obscurity.
Until 1977, of course, when The Living Mountain appeared. But it wasn’t until the 21st century, thanks to the likes of Robert Macfarlane, that Shepherd’s work really began to excite the attention it deserves.
Now her novels, poetry and other writings are back in print.
What shall be her badge? Read them. Then you can decide.
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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