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.
“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
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
My New Year piece for the Guardian Country Diary captured a winter walk up Creag Dhubh – The Black Crag – above Newtonmore. You can read it here.
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.’
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.
Leaves captured in frozen puddles become works of art.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here in the Cairngorms, Winter has put on quite the show. I know it might not be over. There is probably more snow and ice to come – especially on the mountain tops – but as Spring makes her entrance and tries to usher old Winter offstage, I wanted to catch him in the wings and say thanks. You were amazing, dahling. Unforgettable.
There are rumours that the temperatures dropped to -20 celsius one night. Certainly, it stayed cold for weeks and the lochs in the valley froze over, with people walking, skating, ski-ing and cycling across them. Swimmers hacked through the ice to take dips and I even joined them: once on New Year’s Day, once in February, and once on International Women’s Day last week, when the ice was melted and it sounded for all the world like the ducks were laughing at me.
So, here are some stills from Winter’s glorious run at the Cairngorms theatre. I hope you will enjoy looking at them as much as I enjoyed living them. And for the story of a magical paddle across Loch Insh, just days before it started freezing, have a look at Winter Canoe.
The coming of Spring also means the launch of my Cairngorms novel, Of Stone and Sky, which is incredibly exciting. (For me, anyway.) Keep May 6th free to join us for the launch (time to be confirmed.) It will be digital, which I know is tough on all of us already utterly Zoomed out, but it does mean more folks can attend AND, fear not, we have lots of fun things up our sleeves. In the meantime, follow the series of Signs in the novel on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
Till then, do share with me some of your magical Winter moments – or Summer ones, for those in the southern hemisphere! It’s a beautiful world.
Friends and faithful readers of Writing the Way, I cannot tell you how happy I am to share this news with you. Below is today’s press release from Scottish independent publisher, *Polygon:
FACT AND FICTION: TWO-BOOK DEAL FOR MERRYN GLOVER’S CAIRNGORMS
Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited, has signed Merryn Glover to a two-book deal for a novel and a non-fiction work each set in the Cairngorm mountains. Glover was the first writer in residence at the Cairngorms National Park and has won Creative Scotland support for both projects.
Polygon has bought World All Language rights from Cathryn Summerhayes at Curtis Brown and will publish novel Of Stone and Sky in Spring 2021 and The Hidden Fires: A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd in 2022.
Of Stone and Sky is a multi-generational family story set in the Scottish Highlands. After shepherd Colvin Munro disappears, a mysterious trail of his twelve possessions leads into the Cairngorm mountains. His foster sister Mo and prodigal brother Sorley are driven to discover the forces that led to his disappearance. Spanning almost a century, the novel is a paean to the bonds between people, their land and way of life. A profound mystery, a political manifesto and a passionate story of love, the novel is shot through with wisdom and humour.
The Hidden Fires is Glover’s response to Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Drawing from her upbringing in the Himalayas and gradual adaptation to Scotland’s hills, she contrasts her own Cairngorm experiences with Shepherd’s. Exploring the same landscapes and themes of the classic work, she challenges herself and the reader to new understandings of this mountain range and its significance in contemporary Scotland.
Edward Crossan, Editor at Polygon, said: ‘I am thrilled that we are publishing Merryn Glover, an exceptional writer. Her moving and profound novel, Of Stone and Sky, was commissioned on the strength of its compelling narrative and elegant prose. Her non-fiction work, The Hidden Fires, which uses The Living Mountain as its guiding light, is a poetic piece of nature writing, a fitting tribute to Nan Shepherd, and is so vital now, more than ever.’
Glover is the author of A House Called Askival (Freight, 2014), four radio plays for BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio Scotland and numerous short stories. She was born in Kathmandu and grew up in Nepal, India and Pakistan. Australian by citizenship, she lives in the Highlands and has called Scotland home for over 25 years.
Glover said, “I am honoured and excited to be published by Polygon, a proud, independent Scottish publisher and the perfect home for these books, so rooted in Scotland. I am also delighted that Polygon matches the international vision and wide reach that is so important in my work”
- Polygon Books is an imprint of Birlinn Limited, Scotland’s largest independent publisher. It publishes literary fiction, poetry, and books on popular culture from award-winning writers such as Liz Lochhead, Norman MacCaig, Jenni Fagan, Stuart Cosgrove, and the author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. Polygon was originally established by students of Edinburgh University, including a young Gordon Brown, in the late 1960s. It became part of Birlinn Limited in 2002. In 2018, Polygon was the home of the Centenary Edition of the Novels of Muriel Spark.
- Press release on Polygon’s site here.
Living by the Spey, most of my walks into the Cairngorms are from the north-western side, such as the one to Angel’s Peak last year. I’ve always wanted to venture in from the Deeside on the south-east, walking up to Loch Etchachan and Ben MacDuie, so on a recent weekend we drove round the top of the mountains to begin a three-day camping trek from the Linn of Dee near Bramar. We were blessed with endless sunshine, but the unusually still air meant we were also cursed by Scotland’s smallest and most infuriating fiends: the midges! Apart from their invasions morning and evening, it was a trip of radiant light and colour, of long days and far views, of rushing water, birdsong and quiet. I’ll let the photos tell the story.
We got to Braemar by 5.30 that evening, extremely thankful for hot showers, a pub meal and a huge soft bed. But even more thankful for three days walking, swimming, sleeping, looking and listening in the Cairngorms.
“However much I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me.”
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
It’s the Cairngorms Nature at Home Big 10 Days! This WAS going to be the Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend and I WAS going to be over with the rangers in The Cabrach in Morayshire leading a family story-making session. Hopefully, all of that can still happen next year, but in the meantime the folks at Cairngorms Nature have organised a fantastic programme of virtual events from 15th to 24th May. That means people all around the world can enjoy this exceptional place while staying safely at home.
To mark the event, I’m sharing a nature poem each day on Instagram and Twitter. The ten together make up a series called The High Tongue, printed below, which were my contribution to our Shared Stories anthology last year. Exploring the names of ten of the Cairngorm mountains, each title begins with the anglicised version, followed by the Gaelic spelling (if different) and then the translation, which is explored in the rest of the poem. They are all Cairngorms Lyrics. This is a new poetic form I invented last year as Writer in Residence for the Park and you can read all about it here. (For pronunciation of the Gaelic names, look out for a recording I’ll post soon of me reading them all.)
Ben MacDuie – Beinn MacDuibh The Mountain of the Son of Duff High King of Thunder Old Grey Man Chief of the Range Head of the Clan Cairn Gorm – An Càrn Gorm The Blue Mountain Rainbow height: blaeberry bog brown red deer snow white blackbird dog violet moss green bright
Carn Ealer - Carn an Fhidhleir Mountain of the Fiddler She plays the rock with the bow of the wind for the stars to dance Cairn Toul – Càrn an t-Sabhail The Barn Shaped Mountain Storehouse of stone Boulders shouldering like beasts in this dark byre Hail drumming the watershed
Ben Vuirich – Beinn a’ Bhùirich Mountain of the Roaring Once the haunt of wolves howling at night now just their ghosts in failing light Coire an t-Sneachda – Coirie an t-Sneachdaidh Corrie of the Snow Bowl of white light black rock wind run ice hold hollow of the mountain’s hand
Beinn a’ Bhuird The Mountain of the Table Giants gather in clouds of black for a bite and a blether, bit of craic. Ben A’an – Beinn Athfhinn Mountain of the River A’an in a cleft of silence hidden loch secret river name breathed out like a sigh
Braeriach – Am Bràigh Riabhach The Brindled Upland freckled speckled wind rippled shape shifting fallen sky dark light shadow bright land up high Am Monadh Ruadh The Red Mountains Range of russet hills forged in fire at first sunrise old rust rock glowing still