Into The Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd is a long-overdue reappraisal of one of Scotland’s most significant writers
NAN Shepherd’s portrait is probably familiar to everyone (whether you know it or not) since the new Royal Bank of Scotland’s polymer £5 note carries her image along with a quotation from her novel, The Weatherhouse (1930): “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.”
While she may have approved the affirmation in the quoted line, she said of the portrait, which shows her in headband with Wagnerian plaited hair, eyes raised to the distance of invisible hills, that she’d been “fooling around at the photographer’s and picked up a piece of film which I put around my head and stuck a brooch on the front”.
The image is vivid, but the sense of the invisible world she’s looking towards is more important. Charlotte Peacock gives three instances, three moments in Shepherd’s life, where the imminence of that world became palpable to her. These are at the core of the whole story.
The first is at Loch Avon, in 1934, having crossed the Cairngorms early, walking and scrambling down to the waterside, Shepherd and a female companion wade in: “The clear water was at our knees, then at our thighs. How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal.”
Shepherd walks on until she sees reaching away below her “a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped”. She is unnerved, not by danger, Peacock notes, but by “the exhilarating shock of sudden illumination”.
The second is earlier, on her first ascent of the Cairngorms, where, overlooking them all, she was later to write: “The plateau is the true summit of these mountains. They must be seen as a single mountain, and the individual tops, Ben MacDhui, Braeriach and the rest, though sundered from one another by fissures and deep descents, are no more than eddies on the plateau surface.”
The third is in April 1928, when, reaching the summit of Ben MacDhui and walking through clouds, she realises, as Peacock puts it, “not spaciousness, but an interior”: “This was the perspective-altering second knowledge she retained from her first ascent, that the mountain has an inside.”
Understanding the intrinsic connection of human being and the natural world is at the heart of Shepherd’s life and work, and Charlotte Peacock’s detailed and patient biography is aware of this throughout.
However, it also has the great virtue of being a major contribution to our understanding of the social world of women and men, children and old folk, in north-east Scotland especially through the first half of the 20th century, and the network of social, personal and intellectual relations among writers extending in that period and later.
The biography begins with a memorable encounter between Shepherd and Jessie Kesson, whose life story and (equally splendid) novels form a counterpoint and stark contrast to Shepherd’s in almost every respect. Of lasting significance in any literary reappraisal are Catherine Carswell, Agnes Mure Mackenzie, Marion Angus and Helen Burness Cruickshank, all of whom play significant roles in the biography. This is not to polarise the feminist significance of this book but to acknowledge gratefully the emergence of an understanding of their lives and the writing they produced in a context too easily dominated by the experience and writing of men.
One of Shepherd’s most endearing and admirable qualities was the depth and quickness of her insight into the value of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry. She knew precisely those qualities of depth, interiority and illumination that were – and are – to be found there just as they are in the mountains. One of the sadnesses of the biography is the extrapolation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s hostility, or impatience, with Shepherd’s fiction. Too easily – though he was increasingly ill at the time – he dismisses it as domestic fiction.
Peacock’s exhaustive archival research, sympathetic understanding and ability to delineate the characters of Shepherd’s contemporaries – of whom the closest in many respects was Neil Gunn – are further virtues. Yet Shepherd is not only to be valued as a prescient writer of ecological awareness (though it’s a spiritual as much as a materialist ecology). The book that made such a difference in that regard is The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s but remaining unpublished until 1977.
Before Robert Macfarlane became Shepherd’s champion – another thing to be grateful for – Roderick Watson had presented Shepherd’s novels to a new generation of readers with introductions clearly establishing their quality in the contexts of both the Scottish Renaissance of MacDiarmid, Gunn and Grassic Gibbon, and of international modernism, alongside Virginia Woolf and others whose insights and techniques remain, after a century, “Modern”. Shepherd is of their company by virtue of the social microcosms she presents in her three novels, The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930) and A Pass in the Grampians (1933).