Stories that bring the world together

Last week was a whirlwind mini book tour for The Hidden Fires around central Scotland and I’m only just catching my breath and catching up on the photos and messages. Here are some highlights for you:

It kicked off on Tuesday afternoon at Dundee Central Library where Tanya and Kate had gone above and beyond in organising and marketing the event. Libraries are vital community hubs, so I was delighted to share my Cairngorms journey with the 30+ folk who gathered. One of the audience was Mary, the daughter of Sydney Scroggie, whose book ‘Cairngorms Scene and Unseen’ was a valuable source to me. After the talk, it was a privilege to be interviewed by Graeme Tarbert of Dundee Audio News, a terrific charity providing recorded news stories for the visually impaired. Learn more at North East Sensory Services.

Author Merryn Glover giving presentation to live audience

Sunrise in the Cairngorms, Dundee Central Library

That evening, I blissfully burrowed in to the Aladdin’s Cave that is Topping’s bookshop in St Andrew’s. Grace led me to a table in a book-lined nook, complete with glass of wine and shortbread biscuits, where she passed me book after book for signing. It is Toppings custom to wrap all new hardbacks in a cellophane sheath for protection and, if signed, to include an elegant paper band reading ‘Signed First Edition’. It was the biggest book-signing stack of my life so far – 50 books!

Author Merryn Glover holding signed copy of book The Hidden Fires

Signed, sealed & delivered!

The audience this time included a goodly assortment of academic folks with questions like, ‘What do you think of New Nature Writing as a genre and do you position yourself in it?’ Since I had to ask the lady what New Nature Writing was, clearly I haven’t done much thinking or positioning on the subject!

On Wednesday, it was off to Toppings Edinburgh, an even bigger beautiful, breath-taking labyrinth of books! I would have cheerfully got lost and never been found again except as a pile of bones curled around dusty tomes. With better plans, however, the attentive staff swept me up to the curved art room with a small signing table under tall windows. Over ginger tea and a swift flow of book – signature – book – signature, Aristotelis and I discussed Greek myths and moving to Scotland from elsewhere. 70 books this time and the fleeting awareness that my signature may soon be as bad as my GP husband’s.

Another appreciative audience, including a young woman who told me later of her mother who had passed away the year before. She had loved Nan Shepherd so much, the family had read The Living Mountain aloud to her in her final days. It is these encounters that make all the difference: this affirmation of how literature speaks into people’s lives and leaves them changed.


On Thursday, it was a joy to round off the trip with a visit to Adventure Into Books in Blairgowrie. This exquisite little bookshop was opened by Kate and Ralph just before the pandemic and has not just survived, but thrived. They hosted the maximum of 16 folks in their small, but perfectly formed space, where Kate asked great questions, including, ‘Did you meet these trolls frequently in your explorations?’ To find out who these trolls were, I guess you’ll just have to read The Hidden Fires. (Clue: they’re not the internet variety.)

Among its many treasures, Adventure Into Books hosts Bookshop Mouse and two bears called Honeysuckle and Cornelius. It is also the host bookshop for the wonderful Bookmark Book Festival held in Blairgowrie in October. My Cairngorms-set novel, Of Stone and Sky, won their Book of the Year in 2021, which meant I was a guest there in 2022. I’ll be back this year chairing the opening event with Jim Crumley and Patrick Galbraith, so do join us for what is set to be a fascinating conversation. (I might even ask them about trolls and where they sit with New Nature Writing…)

I got home on Friday, bearing cards, gifts and books from these four havens in four different regions of Scotland, brimming with thankfulness for the kindness of my hosts, the connections with readers and the power of books to bring meaning to our lives.

If you’d like to join me at a future Hidden Fires event, do have a look at my Events page here.


I first met Joanna Penn ten years ago at a course in Inverness set up by Peter Urpeth of what was HiArts and then became Emergents and is now XpoNorth. I have learnt so much from her ever since and loved our conversation on her podcast about the backstory of The Hidden Fires and so much more! You can listen to it here. Our interview begins at 18:20.


The view to the Cairngorms across Loch Morlich. Photo: Merryn Glover

The view to the Cairngorms across Loch Morlich

My March article for the Guardian Country Diary charts a snowy walk up a northern spur of Cairngorm mountain with two walking buddies, one of them furry!

You can read it here.

Merryn Glover with binoculars in the Cairngorm mountains

“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

Jean Roger and Nan Shepherd sitting on the grass on a hillwalk

Jean Roger (L) with Nan Shepherd (R) on a hillwalk in 1944. Photo: JG Roger

International Women’s Day is a good opportunity to remember Nan Shepherd and celebrate her legacy. She was an Aberdeenshire author and at the time she published her three modernist novels and poetry collection, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, she was a respected voice in the Scottish literary renaissance. But by the end of WW2, when her profound hymn to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, was finished, it was rejected by one publisher and put away. Her reputation and readership slowly waned, so that when she self-published it in 1977, the book earned some good reviews but not much attention. She was 84 years old and died four years later with hundreds of copies still in boxes.

But she is evidence of how much our lives can give, even after death, and of the power of art to resonate across time and place. Her work has gradually regained recognition until now, The Living Mountain is hailed as one of the finest works of nature writing published in Britain, with translations in over 16 languages and countless devoted readers around the world. But more significant than the numbers is the depth of meaning found in her work: far more than just a book about the life of nature, it is a meditation on the nature of life, and that is why all kinds of people have heard it speak to them.

And that is what I heard, too, and why I wanted to respond. Like Shepherd, my love of mountains is as old as my memory, but the ground of my childhood was the Himalayas. I discovered the Cairngorms for the first time in my early twenties and only with greater exploration after moving to this area in 2006. And so, in the words of Shepherd, ‘my journey into an experience began.’ It was first an experience of the mountains themselves and then intensified when I discovered The Living Mountain. My book, The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd, follows her footsteps and her writing as I chart my very different pathway and reflect on how she and I intersect and diverge, as walkers, as writers and as women.

She was a remarkable woman in so many ways: in her independence of mind, her literary bravery and her hardy embrace of the Cairngorms, whose dangers she knew all too well. There has been much discussion about her as a feminist icon, though it was not a term she applied to herself, nor did she comment on sexual politics or gendered experience in The Living Mountain. As I observe in The Hidden Fires, “Probably her most powerful statement about the independent agency of women… was her walking the Cairngorms – particularly alone, which was rare at the time – casting convention and her clothes to the wind, and being so captivated by the experience that she didn’t even think about gender. Or if she did, she couldn’t be bothered to mention it.”

And isn’t that what we ultimately want? For women to be free to walk this earth and to find their own path across it – or even ‘the unpath’, as Shepherd called it.

This article first appeared for International Women’s Day 2023 on the Cairngorms Voices page of the Cairngorms National Park website

When the author Nan Shepherd was walking the Cairngorms in the 1940s, she once dedicated an entire day to studying the ice patterns in the burns, writing about them in her now-iconic book The Living Mountain. A quote from it is on the Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note: ‘But the struggle between frost and the force in running water is not quickly over. The battle fluctuates, and at the point of fluctuation between the motion in water and the immobility of frost, strange and beautiful forms are evolved.’

Two sides of RBS £5 note featuring Scottish author Nan Shepherd
Scottish Modernist author, Nan Shepherd on RBS £5 note

I am writing my own Cairngorms book in response to her work, so following her example, I take a slow winter day in the hills watching ice and water. My trail leads up Allt Mor, ‘the big stream’, that runs from the ski slopes on Cairngorm mountain down into the Glenmore forest. A stretch of water under a bridge looks fluid, until a certain angle reveals an intricate cross-hatching, like the frost patterns on a window. The whole decorated surface is thin as film and blends without border into the flow.

Ice patterns on a frozen stream

Leaves captured in frozen puddles become works of art.

ice and leaf patterns in a frozen puddle

Higher up, more ice appears. It forms a shiny skin over rocks rising from the stream, tight as varnish. Climbers call it verglas or glaze ice and curse it, offering the counter-intuitive advice to ford streams on stones just below the running water, as they will not be icy. Often, verglas sits like a cap on a rock, with its bottom edge fringed with baubles where the running water has splashed and frozen. When the glaze has thawed a little, water slides under it in runnels like shape-shifting tadpoles.

Long crystals hang in pendulous curtains from the mossy boulders, grasses and heathers that overhang the burn. They bubble out in fanciful shapes, thickly clouded or crystal clear, straight and smooth or knobbled.

Higher still, there is snow. Heaped in bridges and banks, it sometimes morphs to ice on its way to the water, forming glassy towers and spires worthy of the wildest science fiction.

Snowbridge and ice formations around a Cairngorms stream
Snow and ice formations in a mountain stream

On a rock loosely furred with ice, the water flow is caught and released in a rhythmic pulse that makes it look like a living creature, a beating heart of stone on the living mountain.

As Shepherd said, ‘There is no end to the lovely things that frost and the running of water can create between them.’

A version of this article first appeared in the Guardian Country Diary.

It was just before the winter solstice. The day had flung its arms wide for the short hours of light, throwing glitter on every frosted leaf and making the waterways shine. As the sun melted into the south-western hills, the full moon rose directly opposite, like perfectly balanced balls at either end of a cosmic see-saw. The sky around it softened into mauve, smoky blue and turquoise, the silver disc growing bigger and brighter, like a fierce guardian over the depths of winter.

At this darkest, coldest time of the year, it seems a kind of madness to take a canoe onto a Highland loch in the middle of the night. But we did that very thing for the summer solstice, a small party of women in a boat and two paddle boards, on the night that only dims for a few short hours, so it felt right to come back for the year’s counter-weight.

Summer solstice

Now we are just three, striking at the irons of winter to set the world turning again. As we embark, thickly swaddled against the cold, our camp kit stowed, we are the Swallow, off for adventure. There is chatter and laughter, a determined tilt to our chins. But our guiding moon is muted now by a thick mist stealing over the world. As we cut across the loch, the black water fades without seam into grey cloud, all the familiar landmarks on the shore dissolving.

Everything falls quiet in this great and shadowy space without bearings. The silence is broken only by the slap of paddles and the creak of boat until unseen geese are startled. Their rising hullabaloo erupts into a storm of wingbeats and splashing near the shore till they circle above us, invisible. Settling again, their cacophany gradually fades into a few disgruntled squawks and then to silence. It is as though they emerged from a formless abyss only to submerge again, more memory now than substance.

Loch and sky blurry with mist with a small bit of shore at either edge of the frame

We make for the dark island, feeling like the Dawn Treader on the brink of nightmares, at that place in the seas beyond Narnia where dreams come true and nothing could be more terrible. On its shore we judder across a skirt of ice that cracks and splinters beneath us. Now we are the Endurance at the ends of the earth. It is a land we cannot visit from spring to autumn because of a nest that harbours osprey, back from Africa. But we can come now, in winter, to the hallowed ground.

Our vessel hauled up on the frosted shore, we head for a clearing at the foot of giant beeches, sweep away leaves and dig out a circle of turf for a fire. It was the trick of the Highland Travellers, to create a shallow dirt pit for flame and, afterwards, douse it and return the turf, leaving the earth as it was found. Flasks appear, bowls of warm custard on cake and mugs of hot chocolate. There are stories, jokes, memories, hopes. A gathering of women and warmth in the tall forest, on a secret island, in a dark loch, at the heart of winter.

Two women in winter clothes either side of a campfire at night

We stretch out under the air without a tent, making our beds in bivvy bags. But I spend the hours trussing myself in ever more layers of fleece, down and discomfort, my body stiffening into cold. On this longest December night, the moon has suffused the fog with a strange half-light and I am as wakeful as when mid-summer will not surrender the sky. It is not a place where dreams come true but where they simply will not come. In the long, freezing hours, I stare at the trees and the embers and the inside of my bivvy bag, finally understand the longing of the watchmen who wait for the morning.

Hair ice on fallen wood on fallen beech leaves

At last it is 7am, still dark but time to move again. Clearing camp by head torch, we discover hair ice pluming from a fallen branch like candy floss. Shiny white and soft to the touch, it is a small miracle of winter that only occurs when the actions of a particular fungus in rotting wood and very precise temperatures come together. The moon is still shrouded and the sun a long way off. An owl makes a wild, demonic shriek from deep in the trees and we depart the forbidden isle.

Canadian canoe about to launch on icy loch in winter

At first the canoe scrapes across the top of the newly frozen ice before breaking through into water the colour of mercury. Beside us, the reed beds are furred with hoar frost, crackling as we brush past. Cloud holds sway all around, hiding horizons, smudging forest and land, blurring edges. Quietly, we slip back to civilisation, fugitives from another world. In our cargo, the solstice secret, our Promethean fire stolen from the longest night: darkness holds beauty, the cold carves gifts, winter is warmed by friendship.

Loch and sky blurry with mist, shore line on either side, both frosty

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Guardian Country Diary.

Creag Dhubh is the first hill Scottish writer Nan Shepherd climbed on her journey into the Cairngorms, described in her book The Living Mountain. It means ‘black crag’, but on the day we walk, its slopes are lost in white cloud. Captivated by these ‘forbidden’ mountains from childhood, she made this approach as a young woman, alone and excited by her own daring. It was ‘blue cold and brilliant after heavy snow’. For us, there is also cold and snow, but the earth is sodden and the skies heavy.

View across Loch Gamnha from Creag Fhiaclach in the Cairngorms
Looking back down from Creag Fhiaclach, across Loch Gamnha

Nevertheless, it is exciting. I have been up the Cairngorms often, but this is my first time following Shepherd on this route via Creag Fhiaclach, one of the last remaining stands of montane scrub in this fragment of ancient Caledonian forest. We take what she calls the ‘unpath’, across humpy, heathery ground. Here are spiky, fragrant junipers, Scots pines with red bark and needles of unfailing green, and birch, their lichened trunks rising through a haze of purple branches, beaded with water droplets.

Stunted Scots Pine tree in mist in the Cairngorms
Scots Pine

Like Shepherd, we ‘toil’ up the slope, slower with each snow-sinking step. But unlike her, we do not reach the breath-catching view of Glen Einich down the other side. Instead, we walk deeper and deeper into mist. By the time we reach the scrub, the dwarf trees appear like the ghosts of departed bonsai. We hear red grouse gurgling, but see only their prints and two drifting feathers.

Merryn Glover standing in walking gear in winter white out in the Cairngorms

Checking map, compass and aspect of slope, we climb higher, till even the rocks disappear and there is nothing but white. No seam now between sky and snow, up or down, here or there. Tiny brown tendrils flicker across my vision and disappear like smoke. I am dizzy. For a moment we believe the cloud might dissolve to a singing blue sky, but a hard stare renders only blankness.

Grasses in snow and white-out mist

When Shepherd gained the top, she ‘jumped up and down… laughed and shouted.’ We save that for another day. It has taken too long to get this far already and we must turn home before the short day turns dark. As we plough slowly back, knee deep and led by the voice of a buried stream, the lightest motes of snow begin to fall.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Country Diary.

Setting up a new event is like taking a running jump off a pier. You don’t know if the water’s going to be freezing, or tangled with seaweed or possibly even infested with sharks. But you just have to do it. Even in time of covid when the complications are multiplied and people are afraid. Especially in time of covid.

The Loch Insh Dippers

And so it was that musician Hamish Napier and myself took the plunge with The Storylands Sessions in September. It’s a new series of events in Badenoch, the lesser-known cousin of Strathspey, higher up the legendary river. Meaning ‘the drowned lands’ in Gaelic, this beautiful floodplain between the Cairngorms and the Monadhliaths is a rich source of stories, from Pictish battles to Jacobite strongholds, the Ossian epic to the Wolf of Badenoch.

Explore Badenoch The Storylands

It has led to a new name for the area, ‘The Storylands’, in a drive to celebrate its unique heritage. But the stories are not just from the past. Like the Spey, they loop and flow on down the generations, changing course and character as successive peoples come and go, adding new voices and making new stories. So the idea for The Storylands Sessions was born. These are two monthly events in Badenoch, one an open mic focused on storytelling and poetry, with music weaving it all together, and the second a trad tunes session, threaded with stories.

The venue for the open mic is the Loch Insh Watersports centre, so I decided our first theme would be ‘water’ and desperately begged everyone I knew to come and, better still, tell a tale. I was terrified only two-and-half people would turn up and it would feel like slowly setting concrete. But I arrived to a room bright and beautifully arranged by the Loch Insh team and a gradual trickle of people with eager faces.

People in conversation at a workshop around a table
The first night at Loch Insh

In our Introduction to Storytelling workshop we started by talking about the common sayings and mottos in our families, like “Waste not want not” or “Blood is thicker than water”. And then we asked: who were the natural raconteurs of our upbringing? The repositories of family history and local legend? There are stories all around us and we tell them all the time, from our explanation for being late to the blow-by-blow account of Auntie Yolanda’s disastrous wedding.

After the workshop, Hamish kicked off the open mic with a bright reel on the whistle called Spey in Spate in celebration of this waterway so prone to flooding. We then listened to Duncan Freshwater’s story of his father Clive’s landmark battle to win access rights on the river in the early days of the Loch Insh watersports centre.

Duncan Freshwater tells the tale

Then the night flowed on through poems about eels, the Spey and The Grey Coast; a comic ballad about an old fisherman, a song about boats and more music on piano, guitar and bazouki. There were hot pies and cold drinks and the stories spilled out: the one from Alice Goodridge, our channel swimmer who was ‘billy no mates’ when she arrived here looking for dookin buddies and has gone on to set up Cairngorm Wild Swimmers and Loch Insh Dippers, with hundreds taking the plunge.

Alice Goodridge

I told the story of The Chapel of the Swans, our ancient church above Loch Insh, with its monks, myths and magical bell. We listened to the tale of a runaway canal barge and a woman’s memories of carrying water to her Irish grandmother’s house. The evening finished with the story from Alistair, my husband and a local GP, of the time in Kathmandu when his unconventional use of ‘Water of Life’ – electrolyte solution – saved a woman’s life. Hamish played us out with his original piano piece, The Dance, and by the end, the place was brimming.

People were talking and laughing – masks and space retained where necessary – but still wallowing happily together in the great wash of good company. Afterwards, when we were packed up, I was exhausted, but high as a kid catapulting off a pier.

Two weeks later, we rode the wave again at The Ghillies Rest bar in the Duke of Gordon Hotel, Kingussie. This time Hamish was master of ceremonies for the Trad Tunes night, and his workshop, A Guide to Folk Sessions, was booked out. With guidance on everything from handling beginners’ nerves to arranging jig medleys, it covered the ABCs of making these mysterious, slippery community gigs work.

Hamish Napier leading workshop on folk music sessions
Hamish spells it out

Once the music struck up, we had fiddles, whistles, guitars, keyboard, bodhran, a banjo, two harps and a set of small pipes. Keeping everybody in tune and time is no mean feat, but Hamish never once resorted to whacking folks with a shinty stick. He’s saving that for next time. Along with a host of eager amateurs, we were lucky to have top local musicians Ilona Kennedy and Charlie McKerron on fiddles and Sandy MacDonell on pipes. There was even a song, with everyone belting out the chorus of Yellow on the Broom. Together, we lifted the roof.

We have longed for this: to come back together and share our stories, our songs and our lives.

The Storylands Sessions are on every first and fourth Tuesday of the month till February 2022 – and hopefully longer. The second Tuesday of the month is the storytelling event at Loch Insh Boathouse, Kincraig. Our next one is October 12th and the theme is Migration – of wildlife, people, ideas, languages or however you wish to interpret it – so come and share your tale, poem or music! We’re very lucky to have Traveller, author and storyteller, Jess Smith, as our special guest, who will be telling stories and leading a workshop at 7pm on The Natural Voice. Advance booking is essential: click here.

Jess Smith - Traveller, author & storyteller
Jess Smith

Then, the fourth Tuesday of every month is Hamish’s Trad Tunes session at the Duke of Gordon Hotel, Kingussie. Again, the workshops start at 7 and need to be booked in advance, while the sessions start at 8.30 and are drop-in. For full information and bookings see here. If you’re in the area, come on in – there’s a seat for you.

Hamish & Merryn at The Storylands Sessions

A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Post.

We found the abandoned lamb at the edge of a field, bleating plaintively as it trotted towards us on wobbly legs, its mother nowhere in sight. The farmer scooped it up and tossed it into my arms as we climbed back into his four-wheel-drive. The little creature was all soft fleece, wet nose and warm wriggles as it burrowed into my lap, and it reminded me of cuddling baby goats when I was a child in a Nepali village. It also reminded me how much more fun research is than writing.

lamb on lap of a shepherd in his vehicle
Too wriggly to pose for a photo

It was all in a day’s work for me as I developed my recently published novel Of Stone and Sky. It’s the story of a Highland shepherd, Colvin, who disappears and leaves a puzzling trail of his possessions leading up into the Cairngorm mountains. The idea began in the middle of the night one summer, but as soon as I began to write it, I realised I knew precious little about what a shepherd did all day.

This state of affairs had prevailed despite being surrounded by sheep. Where I live in Badenoch, the upper strath of the River Spey, it’s farming country. In fact, the flock from across the road not uncommonly breach their fences and colonise the neighbourhood, even raiding my garden. But apart from the legendary straying of wayward sheep, I didn’t know much about shepherds. Fortunately, several of the ones around me were only too happy to answer my many questions and let me trail around after them like a clue-less lamb.

Highland shepherds and sheep in Badenoch
On the trail of the shepherds near me

An unfailingly kind source of information were the Slimon family of Laggan, who – like many locals – have farmed here for several generations. I have rarely been as excited by a literary discovery as when I fell upon Campbell Slimon’s book Stells, Stools, Strupag: A personal reminiscence of sheep, shepherding, farming and the social activities of a Highland Parish. (It’s all pacy, racy thrillers for me!) Even better was meeting Campbell and his wife Sheena and their son Archie and daughter-in-law, Cathy, and learning first-hand what the sheep farming life was like.

On a surprisingly cold day in May, I joined them in their draughty shed to watch the previous year’s lambs being sorted and processed for their various futures. At the juncture of their destiny, Archie heaved them one by one onto a wooden platform and pinned them into place to prevent kicking, while Campbell and Cathy delivered various ministrations. If you’re squeamish, look away now. Out came an enormous syringe for vaccination, a sharp knife for the docking of tails and a nifty tool for castration. The ones staying on the farm were also ‘keeled’ with a daub of blue paint on the bum, and got ‘lug-marks’ cut into their ears, a distinct pattern linked to each farm which dates back, in some cases, for hundreds of years.

shepherds shearing sheep with electric clippers
Local clipping

In the summer, I watched Cathy clipping, impressed by the deft handling of disgruntled sheep and the speed of the shearing. Farmers here still help each other out, but community clippings are rapidly giving way to hired contractors. The Slimons gave me a copy of a beautiful film by Jill Brown Media of The Clippings in the Laggan valley, one of the last of its kind. It features local families, and the little kids bouncing on the wool bags grew up into teenagers that I taught at Kingussie High School. The first minute of Jill’s film became the opening for my Zoom book launch.

Then on a bright day in September, I went up the hills above Dalwhinnie for a gathering. Puffing my way up the tussocky slope behind Archie, I marvelled at how the slightest word from him had the dogs rippling out and back, as if joined by invisible threads. At the top, he sent me ahead to wait at the first burn while he prised some sheep out of a gully. Unfortunately, the dogs are not so good at rounding up lost writers, so Archie had to come trudging back to find me, at which point I discovered the trickle I had stopped at was not, in fact, The Burn. Whatever it was, the Slimons now call it Merryn’s Burn.

Shepherd with crook and two dogs

Another September, I met the family again, this time at the Kingussie sheep mart. Although it’s directly across the road from the high school, I’d never really paid it much heed. At one time one of the busiest livestock markets in the Highlands, it is now half an acre of outdoor pens around a low, weather-beaten, wooden building. From the outside, it looks little more than an oversized, round shed, but inside there was a bustling auction in full swing. Wizened farmers in dun-coloured jackets and tweeds leaned over the railings around the edges as bolshy sheep were herded into the ring, bid for and bought, and herded out the other side. Here was a whole industry, a whole way of life, a whole world, happening right under my nose that I’d never known about.

sheep auction in open air ring
Kingussie Sheep Mart

Learning something of its story and characters was one of the great joys of writing Of Stone and Sky. The account of sheep in Scotland is complicated and fraught with divergent perspectives. When I began writing – knowing from the beginning it was a story about the land as much as the people – I walked in blissful ignorance where angels fear to tread. Now that I know more, I acknowledge the difficulties but also realise that, perhaps, that is what the book has been about all along. It is the story of struggle, of relationships with the land that are as much wrestling as embrace, and of a people forever marked by it. Early in the novel, my shepherd Colvin’s mother, who grew up a Highland Traveller, learns the sheep farming life from her father-in-law. My own learning is captured through her eyes.

“She witnessed his bond. To the sheep and the dogs and the land, to the seasons and the weather, to the neighbouring shepherds in time of need, but mainly to this solitary walk; this ancient herding windblown way.”

Of Stone and Sky is available in hardback and ebook wherever you get your books. You are warmly invited to an evening called The Shepherd’s Tale at the Badenoch Heritage Festival at 7.30 on Friday 24th September in Kingussie. Exploing the many ways the sheep farming story is told, it will include readings from the novel, conversation with the Slimons and Jill Brown, along with a showing of her Blaragie Clippings film and live music by traditional musician Hamish Napier.

Merryn Glover on a heathery hill at sunrise with a shepherd's crook
At the top of my local hill at sunrise, with a crook hand-made for me by a friend. The Cairngorms are behind.

I am also appearing at the Nairn Book & Arts Festival this Friday 10th September to share about the book. You can get tickets here.