Where is Nan Shepherd’s shanty in the Cairngorms?

Where is Nan Shepherd’s shanty in the Cairngorms?

Nan Shepherd's shanty b/w of Braeview with Braemar in distance
Copyright: Charlotte Peacock

Nan Shepherd’s shanty in the Cairngorms: the April day in 1928 she first saw it, it was love at first sight. From then on she escaped to it as often as she could. But where was it?


In the Spring of 1930, Nan Shepherd was ill. She was losing weight and feeling low.

She escaped to the hills for the Easter break and wrote to her friend, the novelist, Neil Gunn from there in March. 

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’. 

Nan Shepherd In the Cairngorms

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.’

Cairngorms shanty 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’, as Shepherd described it to the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. High on the shoulder of Morrone, with views over the village of Braemar and the Dee valley, Braeview was built in 1926 by Jimmy McGregor for himself and his wife Amelia. Just a few strides down the slope from Downie’s Cottage, the house Jimmy grew up in.

Nan Shepherd knew Downie’s Cottage from girlhood:

We never climbed Morrone‘ she said ‘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)…’

Nan Shepherd, James McGregor and the Downies of Braemar.

Said to be the highest in Scotland, the Downie’s Croft sits still to the hill. Abandoned between the wars, it was in ruins for years. But has now been lovingly restored as a holiday let. 

The house ‘doon by’

The ‘doon by’ house (as Shepherd nicknamed Braeview) she’d first heard about from her great friend, the writer, 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 McGregor 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.

Nan Shepherd, James McGregor and the Downies of Braemar

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 McGregor’s death in 1962.

Nan Shepherd's shanty in the Cairngorms. Braeview in black and white, Shepherd is in the doorway
Braeview. Mrs McGregor stands in front, Nan Shepherd is in the doorway.

And, at least until the 1960s, she went back at least once, if not twice a year. Often with ‘the botanist’ of The Living Mountain, Grant Roger. 

Lust for ice-cold peaks

In fact, when she heard Grant and his artist wife Jean were spending their honeymoon at Braeview she insisted on joining them. Must have been cosy. On this occasion, Shepherd’s lust for ice-cold peaks seems to have clouded her judgement… 

Nan Shepherd's shanty in the Cairngorms. Shepherd, the McGregors and Jean Roger stand in the doorway.

A photograph, taken by Grant Roger in 1944, shows the honeymoon party. A beaming Nan stands behind Jimmy and an aproned Amelia. Jean is barelegged in kilt and boots, and at Jimmy’s feet, is his collie, Conny.

One January, Conny would not be kept off the hill, despite the snow, and insisted on following Shepherd up Morrone:

The land is gleaming white, the snow is made up of a million sharp-edged atoms of ice that a furious wind lifts and drives against us. They strike me at knee level but Conny in the eye. She looks pitifully at me, we stop again and again and with the warmth of my bare hands I free her shaggy eyebrows from the ice. I wear ridged rubber boots on which the snow does not cling but her paws are weighted with balls of ice. I hold them in my hands and free them, and say, ‘Go home, Conny.’ But I can’t turn back and she will not. We reach our summit. ‘Did she do it to you then, poor beast?’ I can hear her master’s voice, teasing, affectionate, enjoying its own virtue. But the small hot room is full of friendliness: he knows why Conny and I had to go on. And he listens attentively to my description of the strange columnar structure I have found in the snow near the summit, and of the hunting eagle that flew low up the valley.

Nan Shepherd, James McGregor and the Downies of Braemar




Nan Shepherd’s shanty still sits to the hill

Over fifty years on, Nan Shepherd’s shanty in the Cairngorms 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 McGregor’s carefully planted garden. Just a few nodding daffodils. 


For more on Shepherd’s hill walking years read Into the Mountain.

The article Nan Shepherd’s wrote for the Deeside Field, ‘James McGregor and the Downies of Braemar’, is included in Wild Geese: A Collection of Nan Shepherd’s writing.  And you’ll find more on Downie’s Cottage in my blog post Nan Shepherd and the house ‘up by’.

Read more from the blog about Nan Shepherd.

This post includes affiliate links. Which means, if you click one and buy the product, I get a small commission.

Summary
Nan Shepherds shanty in the Cairngorms
Article Name
Nan Shepherds shanty in the Cairngorms
Description
Nan Shepherd escaped to the hills whenever she could, often to the 'shanty in the Cairngorms where one lives and is' as she described it to the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. But where is it? Charlotte Peacock found out during research for her biography of Shepherd, Into the Mountain and went to see it:
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