In 1932, Scots novelist and poet Nan Shepherd wrote to a friend to say she was off to London for a “sophisticated fortnight with theatres and new frocks to purge one of the lust for ice-cold peaks”. This was a lust, however, never to be purged. Her love affair with the Cairngorms in north-eastern Scotland lasted until her death in 1981 and inspired her masterpiece, The Living Mountain.
Her passion began in childhood. Born in 1893 near Aberdeen, Shepherd was happiest outdoors from an early age. A youth spent roaming the Deeside hills made her well accustomed to hill-walking. But to climb the snow-gilded, granite mass towering at summits of over 1,200m (3,935ft) to the west of her home seemed to her “a legendary task, which heroes, not men, accomplished. Certainly not children”.
Yet the Cairngorms haunted her and in June 1928, aged 35, Shepherd set foot on their ice-cold peaks for the first time. From there, she was hooked. Whenever her role as lecturer in English at Aberdeen Training College allowed, she escaped to the mountains, and continued to do so long after retirement.
At first, addicted to the tang of height, Shepherd scaled all six summits – some twice over. But it was only by exploring the Cairngorms recesses and discovering the mountain’s inside – going into rather than up it – that she began to know its essence. And it was knowledge that Shepherd was after (although, as she admits in The Living Mountain, “one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it”).
Shepherd would hike for days, foraging for berries and drinking from burns. She swam naked in lochs, trod barefoot on heather and, believing that “no one can know the mountain completely who has not slept upon it”, regularly slept out from May to October. If she did shelter under a friend’s roof for the night, she would sleep near the door so she could prowl outside at all hours.
Tall, lithe, eschewing the trousers adopted by other female climbers from the 1920s onwards, Shepherd cut an elegant figure even ‘on the tramp’ as she called it. She walked with friends, fellow members of the Deeside Field Club and groups of students, who recall her lectures on “the sinfulness of dropping sweetie papers about the countryside”. She never married, but joined a couple on their honeymoon when she heard they were headed for her beloved hills. Often, she walked alone with no particular destination in mind, happy just to be with the mountain “as one visits a friend”.
A distillation of her Cairngorms experiences, Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain towards the close of the Second World War, by which time she was already a well-established author of Scottish Modernist literature and poetry. Her novels The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, A Pass in the Grampians and her poetry anthology In the Cairngorms had been published by 1934. Now considered a classic of mountain literature, The Living Mountain is a powerful, poetic piece of prose that has influenced contemporary authors such as Robert Macfarlane, who says the work remade his vision of the Cairngorms.
Yet The Living Mountain was initially rejected for publication. More than 30 years passed before Shepherd retrieved the manuscript from a drawer, convinced the tale of her ‘traffic of love’ with a mountain was still valid. It was and remains so: the book finally appeared in 1977 and has recently been reprinted.
Asked about her other interests, Shepherd loved gardening. She was particularly fond of delphiniums, crocuses and her geranium-filled conservatory. But more than any garden, she loved her mountains.
Countryfile Magazine, 26th April 2016.