Searching for Nan Shepherd

Searching for Nan Shepherd

Searching for Nan Shepherd b/w path into Cairngorms
Copyright Charlotte Peacock

Searching for Nan Shepherd, I came across a painting of her conservatory by Barbara Balmer.  Shepherd was introduced to Balmer by a neighbour in the 1970s when Balmer was a visiting lecturer at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen.

Theirs was a brief but intense friendship (ended by Shepherd’s death in 1981) during which Balmer painted ‘Nan Shepherd’s Sun Porch’.

Nan Shepherd’s sun porch

The sun porch (conservatory) was Shepherd’s favourite room in Dunvegan, the Aberdeenshire house where she lived almost all her life. Her father added it on shortly after the family moved there in March 1893.

Searching for Nan Shepherd. Painting of her conservatory
©Barbara Balmer

In photographs, Shepherd is often seen sitting in it. Smiling, in her wicker chair, among the pots of clashing scarlet and pink geraniums, the cat on her lap. But in Balmer’s picture, the chair is empty, turned instead towards the door leading to the garden, which stands open.

It’s as though, with her quiet walk, Shepherd might suddenly appear in the doorway. Or that she’s just left.


Nan Shepherd often seemed far away, somewhere else

Barbara Balmer was impervious to mountains. But she ‘got’ the enigmatic Shepherd. And I think has perfectly captured her essence in the painting.

Friends of Shepherd’s said she often seemed far away, somewhere else. Perhaps not unlike Martha, the heroine of her first novel, The Quarry Wood.

As Martha’s world widens, through university, she grows more and more detached:

The cottage did not absorb her…it received her back. She was in its life, but not of it.

‘Nan Shepherd’s Sun Porch’ is all about Nan Shepherd; her home; her chair; her garden. Yet she’s not there. She’s somewhere else.

Balmer’s painting now hangs in Huntly’s Deveron Arts Gallery. It’s at the top of the stairs leading from the entrance hall. Early on in my research, when I discovered its existence, I bought a postcard for 50p from the gallery and stuck it on the wall above my desk.

And on one of my footstepping forays to Scotland, I went and saw it for myself.

But by then, I already knew where I’d find Shepherd.

A lovely day in the hills

‘You’re like a lovely day in the hills,’ her friend, the novelist Neil Gunn once described her. And it was on a lovely day in the hills I found her. Alone, on a particular hill, where a path beckoned me into the mountain.

I’ve put away the postcard now. Along with my notes and files.

But like Nan Shepherd, it haunts me.

Read more about Nan Shepherd.

Searching for Nan Shepherd
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Searching for Nan Shepherd
Charlotte Peacock explains how when she was searching for Nan Shepherd she came across a painting that captures the writer's essence.
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