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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

Corona on River Spey in snowy landscape

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.’

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.

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.

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:


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”

Merryn Glover and golden retriever in snowy Cairngorm mountains
On the Northern Corries of the Cairngorms, with Sileas

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.

View up Lui Water, Mar Lodge Estate
The walk begins. Looking north-west up the Lui Water, Mar Lodge Estate, Aberdeenshire.
Low waterfall and pool in Derry Burn
The pool in the Derry Burn where we stopped for lunch and a swim.
View up to the Cairngorms from the south-east
The last of the old Scots pines in Glen Derry, looking north to the Cairngorms, Beinn Mheadhoin on the right.
Merryn Glover on bridge over mountain stream, Cairngorms
The last bridge by the last tree on the track up to Coire Etchachan.
Bog pools in the Cairngorms surrounded by grass, moss and heather
Bog pools filled with sky.
The Hutchison Memorial Hut with the lip into Coire Etchachan behind
The Hutchison Memorial Hut with the lip into Coire Etchachan behind.
Trekker in Coire Etchachan beside the smaller lochan
Arriving into Coire Etchachan beside the smaller lochan.

The small lochan in Coire Etchachan, looking east
The small lochan in Coire Etchachan, looking east, back the way we came.
Merryn Glover swimming in Loch Etchachan
Late afternoon swim in Loch Etchachan. Cold and crystal clear.
Campsite on the shore of Loch Etchachan
Our campsite on the shore of Loch Etchachan. A moment’s peace before the midges arrived!
View into Loch Avon from Beinn Mheadhoin, Cairngorms
Next morning, view into Loch Avon from Beinn Mheadhoin.
Granite tor on Beinn Mheadhoin
Granite tor on Beinn Mheadhoin.
Looking down on Loch Etchachan from Beinn Mheadhoin
Looking back down on Loch Etchachan with our next trail leading up on the left. Ben MacDui is top centre.
The view south in the Cairngorms with Derry Cairngorm top left
The view south with our afternoon hill, Derry Cairngorm, top left.
The rocky top of Derry Cairngorm. Looking north towards Beinn Mheadhoin with its tors, centre back.
The rocky top of Derry Cairngorm. Looking north towards Beinn Mheadhoin with its tors, centre back.
Looking south from Derry Cairngorm to the southern Grampian Mountains.
Looking south from Derry Cairngorm to the southern Grampian Mountains. Glen Laoigh Bheag, in the centre of the picture, will be our route back tomorrow.
Merryn Glover on a spur above Coire Sputan Dearg in the Cairngorms, looking south.
On a spur above Coire Sputan Dearg looking south. The ridges on the right are part of tomorrow’s route.
Pool above Coire Sputan Dearg, looking north-east.
Our second campsite, above Coire Sputan Dearg, looking north-east.
Sunrise in the Cairngorms from the tent, distant valleys sunk in cloud.
Sunrise from the tent, the distant valleys sunk in cloud.
On the spur above Coire Sputan Dearg looking across cloud inversion
Early morning, Alistair on the same spur above Coire Sputan Dearg. The lochan is one of four in the Cairngorms called Lochan Uaine – The Small Green Loch.
Path up Ben MacDui, looking north to Derry Cairngorm, Loch Etchachan and Beinn Mheadhion.
On the walk up Ben MacDui, looking north over our campsite above the small lochan, Derry Cairngorm, Loch Etchachan and Beinn Mheadhion.
Top of Ben MacDui
Top of Ben MacDui, highest mountain in the Cairngorms and second highest in the UK.
View west from Ben MacDuie: Cairn Toul in the middle, the pyramid of Angel's Peak to its right.
View west from Ben MacDuie: Cairn Toul in the middle, the pyramid of Angel’s Peak to the right. (An important mountain in my upcoming novel.)
Walking south down the Sron Riach ridge
Walking south down the Sron Riach ridge.
Lochan Uaine from the Sron Riach ridge
Lochan Uaine from the Sron Riach ridge.
Gleann Laoigh Bheag, with regenerating Scots pine trees
Gleann Laoigh Bheag, with regenerating Scots pine trees.
Sandy track to the Linn of Dee, heather in bloom
The last hour down the sandy track to the Linn of Dee, heather in full blaze. Looking north-west, back the way we came.

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:

bog         brown
red         deer
snow        white
dog         violet
moss        green

The view from the top of Cairngorm

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

Cairn Toul

Cairn Toul

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

Coire an t-Sneachda

Coire an t-Sneachda

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

Loch Avon

Loch Avon

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

Am Monadh Ruadh - the red hills

Am Monadh Ruadh