Mel Nicol immerses herself in a meticulously researched biography of Nan Shepherd for The John Muir Trust newsletter.
Robert Macfarlane has done much to encourage a new audience for Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain – famously published in 1977 more than 30 years after it was first written. Into the Mountain, a meticulously researched biography by Charlotte Peacock, gives us the story behind the book and takes us as far beneath the skin of Nan the person as we can expect to get.
It includes extensive and illuminating extracts from private correspondence with a host of acclaimed writers of the day, including Hugh MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn, Inverness-born novelist Jessie Kesson and Agnes Mure Mackenzie.
I naively assumed this book would mainly focus on the mountain experiences that drove Nan Shepherd’s poetry and writing. But while this book couldn’t have been written without reference to and discussion of mountaineering and her experiences in the Cairngorms, the action mainly centres on Aberdeen where she lived all her life.
Into the Mountain has greatly enhanced my understanding of the era in which she grew up, the culture of Aberdeen and the north-east, the position of women in society at that time, and Nan Shepherd’s own immense contribution to the education of women through her work as a lecturer.
A further thought-provoking aspect for me was the exploration of the challenges for writers of the Scottish Modernist genre of staying true to local dialect with all its diversity and subtle nuances – so vital to communicating aspects of landscape and weather – while striving to be accessible to a wider UK readership.
I was fascinated, too, by her perhaps surprising struggle to put into words the profound experiences and sensations that are part of being out in the hills. Like Nan, the mountains have given me countless intense experiences, but because I have rarely attempted to communicate these in writing it was interesting to read how hard she worked to ‘articulate those movements of being so that they were translated out of themselves and into words’.
We learn that ‘Nan was concerned right up to the end with the difficulty of translating felt experience into language’ and that ‘her focused from 1934 onwards [was] to translate felt experience into words so that it moved in the blood for the reader, just as Neil Gunn’s writing did for her’.
There is a poignant and sensitive description of the last years of Nan’s life, as she stares out at Clachnaben from her care home window. The author reflects on how Nan seemed able to ‘walk out of her body and into her mountain’. She quotes a letter received by Nan from Jessie Kesson in which the novelist writes: ‘I know you do more than look. You know the feel of it beneath your feet, the sting of its rain on your face – you breathe the hill smells’.
Interestingly, Charlotte Peacock had never climbed a mountain until she was inspired to do so to mirror Nan’s own quest of self-discovery. And although this is her first book, it is testament to her skill that, on turning the last page, I am now re-reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. I feel sure it will be with much greater sensitivity than on first reading some years ago.
About the reviewer: Mel Nicoll is the John Muir Trust’s Campaigns Co-ordinator.