In the Spring of 1930, Nan Shepherd was ill. She was losing weight and feeling low.
The hills had revived her.
It wasn’t just that physically she felt stronger, she told Gunn, it was as if her ‘whole nature has suddenly leaped into life’.
She was churning out verse. Most of which, made it into In the Cairngorms:
‘I’ve been making poems at about the rate of one a day — almost effortlessly — and yet with sufficient detachment from any intoxication to recognise that they are really the product of a thousand efforts, of thoughts that have tormented me and emotions that have wrung and exalted, and things seen and heard long ago that suddenly slip into just the imagery to convey a whole complex of thought and feeling.
And as each new poem wells up into being, it doesn’t seem to matter what my critical judging self will think of it when the stirring of the wells is over.’
The shanty on the edge of the Cairngorms where one lives and is
This well-stirring was going on at Braeview. ‘The shanty on the edge of the Cairngorms where one lives and is’, Shepherd described it to the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid.
It was built in 1926, by James ‘Jimmy’ MacGregor for himself and his wife Amelia. Just a few strides down the slope from Downie’s Croft, the house Jimmy grew up in.
Nan Shepherd knew Downie’s Cottage from girlhood.
‘We never climbed Morrone but we stopped to look at its ancient knobble of glass in one of the windows, to speak to the old people and perhaps be allowed a peep in at the door of the old house (‘up by’ as it always was to us after we became habituees of the new cottage lower down)…’
The house ‘doon by’
But the ‘doon by’ house, as Shepherd nicknamed Braeview, she’d first heard about from her great friend Agnes ‘Mure’ Mackenzie.
In 1927, Mackenzie told Shepherd how she’d been sleeping there in the little bedroom with the gable window and woken at dawn to see 16 stags in the garden. Her presence at the window startled them and like a wave, they flowed over the containing wall.
Later, Jimmy MacGregor broke new ground for the garden. Fencing it securely against deer and rabbit so his wife could grow flowers.
But what Shepherd loved best was the ‘exquisite clump of bluebells’ by the door. Their ‘slender stems and delicate inflorescence’ increasing with each of her visits, year after year.
Love at first sight
It was on an April day in 1928 she first saw Braeview. It was love at first sight.
‘Its diminutive size, its compactness, the ingenuity with which it used every fraction of its interior space, its stair that ran up straight and narrow like a ship’s companion-way, its gable window, its poised and groomed assurance, stole my heart’, she said.
She loved, too, the roebuck antlers, the milky quartz, the wind-chiselled pieces of limestone from the streak running across Morrone and the stones brought from the steading at Glen Ey from which Jimmy’s grandfather, old John Downie, had been evicted in 1840.
‘All placed with natural rightness. Into the parcel of land – house, fields and garden – was put the genius of this man’, she wrote, after MacGregor’s death in 1962.
Shepherd’s lust for ice-cold peaks
In fact, when she heard Braeview was where he and his wife Jean were honeymooning, she insisted on joining them. Cosy. Shepherd’s lust for ice-cold peaks, seems to have clouded her judgement…
A photograph, taken in 1944 (presumably by Grant) shows a beaming Nan, standing behind Jimmy and an aproned Amelia. Jean is barelegged in kilt and boots, and at Jimmy’s feet, is Conny, his collie.
Nan Shepherd’s shanty still sits to the hill
Over fifty years on, the ‘shanty’ is still there. The window-frames are white now. And some of the clapboard has been covered and painted green beneath its rust-coloured, corrugated roof.
It may have been too early for the bluebells, when I was there in May. But there is no sign now of the MacGregor’s carefully planted garden. Just a few nodding daffodils.
For more on Shepherd’s hill walking years read Into the Mountain.
You can now read Nan Shepherd’s piece on ‘James Macgregor and the Downies of Braemar’, in Wild Geese.
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