‘I don’t like writing, really. In fact, I very rarely write. No I never do short stories and articles’, Nan Shepherd confessed in 1933. ‘I only write when I feel that there’s something that simply must be written’.
Certainly, Shepherd was not one of shout for the sake of making noise: her oeuvre is slender.
During her lifetime (1893-1981) she published just five major works.
First, between 1928 and 1933, came three complex and remarkable novels:
Those hoping for a renaissance in Scottish letters were encouraged. A few more writers of Shepherd’s power and originality and Scotland might yet have a literature of its own.
Readers and critics eagerly waiting for what Miss Shepherd did next, however, were disappointed. She appeared to have lost her voice.
By the late 1960s her books were out of print and she had slipped into literary obscurity. ‘Why, I wonder, did you give up literature so early?’, the poet, Rachel Annand Taylor asked in 1959. ‘It just didn’t come to me anymore’, Shepherd answered, when pressed, years later.
But Shepherd had not given up. Like the skein she describes in ‘Wild Geese in Glen Collator’, which, ‘buffeted and mishandled’ by the wind, turned back before disappearing into ‘diaphanous cloud’, her flight was merely deflected.
Towards the end of the Second World War something else simply had to be written. An enlightened series of meditations on her beloved Cairngorms, Shepherd’s last book was ahead of its time. Courteously rejected in 1945, the manuscript lay in waiting for over thirty years, until she decided the world was ready for it. First published in 1977, The Living Mountain is now considered a masterpiece of landscape literature.
It has taken less than half that time for Shepherd’s literary legacy to be given the recognition it deserves. The first woman writer to grace a Scottish banknote, all five of her major works are once again in print. A volume of her other writings is timely – if not overdue.
During those forty-three years between books, speech did return to Shepherd, albeit intermittently. And despite what she said in 1933, it took the form of a short story and a host of articles. She also produced more verse.
Much of her work was never published outside local magazines and journals, and is reprinted here in Wild Geese for the first time in book form.
Some of the poems in this volume appear here for the first time in any publication; they were found while I was researching Into the Mountain.