Posted on 12th March, 2023 in Books from Scotland
The Courage to Follow Nan Shepherd
“I set out on my journey in pure love.” So said Aberdeenshire author, Nan Shepherd, in The Living Mountain, her now-celebrated account of exploring the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. It is the also the opening sentence of my book in response, The Hidden Fires. Like her, the journey began in childhood, gazing up at snowy peaks with longing and devotion. Unlike her, my first mountains were the Himalayas of Nepal and North India. So our journeys are different in origins and time, but they meet in the Cairngorms and in mind.
Though she ‘had run from childhood’ in both the Deeside hills to the south-east of them and the Monadhliath range to the north-west, she was in her early twenties before she made her first fateful walk up to their western hem, climbing Creag Dubh. I also was in my early twenties when I first ventured into the Cairngorms, walking over the plateau and down to the Shelter Stone. But I was a fleeting visitor at the time, on a round-the-world trip after six months back in South Asia, discovering Scotland with my new love. He became my lasting love and we made home together here, first in Stirling and then in the Cairngorms area for the past 17 years. And like Shepherd, I was in my early 50s when I began to write about them.
Or, more specifically, it is the time when we both wrote our non-fiction accounts. They loom as a distant horizon in her three modernist novels set in rural Aberdeenshire and published between 1928 and 1933, when she was in her 30s. They come into sharp focus in her 1934 poetry collection titled In the Cairngorms, where her images are as clear and ringing as the light, water and hills she describes. For me, there was also early poetry, and then this landscape became a potent element in my 2021 novel Of Stone and Sky, that reaches its emotional high point in a peak far up in the Cairngorms. So, by the time Shepherd set down her ‘traffic of love’ with the mountains, and I wove mine around hers, we had both been contending with them in walking and words for some time.
But to follow her is no mean feat. It is perhaps presumptous. Dangerous even. As John Lister-Kay said, “You have to be brave to meddle with a beloved classic such as Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain.” Or foolish. I don’t feel very brave and I do feel the fool quite often, in my writing and my mountain-going, as The Hidden Fires makes eminently clear. I am not an expert on mountaineering in general or the Cairngorms in particular; nor on Shepherd or her extraordinary literature. Others have got those patches well covered and I explore their work with enthusiasm and cite them in my bibliography. But what I have set out to do is tell a new story about both this range and Shepherd’s relationship with it through the lens of my own. And I’ll tell you what gave me the courage to ‘dare the exploit’, to borrow a Shepherd phrase. It was her.
Throughout her life she championed others and cheered them on, both in their walking and their writing. Although there was a long pause in her own publication between her poetry collection and The Living Mountain, she was not ‘silent’. Rather, she edited the Aberdeen University Review for many years, wrote reviews, contributed to literary organisations and supported and maintained a lively correspondence with several fellow authors. As a walker, she regularly took friends, students and children up to the Cairngorms, delighting in their discovery of her beloved mountains as much as in her own. Though she treasured hill-going by herself, she spoke of the pleasure of ‘the perfect hill companion’. Such a person, she wrote ‘is the one whose identity is for the time being merged in that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be’.
I think it would have pleased her to know that she became such a companion for me. Writing my own book felt like a quiet, expansive conversation across time with a kindred spirit and I believe she would have felt joy at another person falling in love with the Cairngorms, at being moved by her work and wanting to share the journey with her – and with others. As I follow her in recounting the ‘grace accorded from the mountain’, I sense her blessing.
Extract from The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd
Chapter 3: The Plateau
We had a brew of coffee and a chat with the porridge family, then set off south across the rock-tumbled terrain. Its lip yielded startling views down into Lochain Uaine, one of the four ‘green lochs’ of the Cairngorms. Not green that day, it was a deep, ringing indigo blue that softened to turquoise at the edges where the water was so clear we could see the steep sides sloping down into unfathomable depths. Above us, the sky vaulted in echoing blue, holding together the sharp ridge lines, the glowing hills, the distant horizon. The ocean of cloud had slipped away from the nearby chasms, and its retreating tide eddied like surf in the valleys. At my feet, grasses like threads of gold were tousled in the breeze and there was no sound but fleeting bird whistles and the rush of a burn. Perched on a rock high above the loch, I watched the sunlight spangling its surface and drew the world into me like breath. Writing of the mountain, Shepherd says, ‘The mind cannot carry away all that it has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away.’ No, indeed. The mind cannot even begin to receive it all, let alone retain or understand it, but in the act of trying, the self is enlarged. Beauty opens me; high mountain air stretches my lungs, far views flood my head, the whole wild presence of it expanding the whole of me till I become porous. It is not just the sacred space that is ‘thin’ but the person who sees it. Wonder pours into me and lifts me up, like a lantern, floating and filled with light. Perhaps it is what Shepherd meant when she said, ‘[O]ne walks the flesh transparent.’
This article first appeared on Books from Scotland