I’m rather late coming to Nan Shepherd – I’ve only just finishing reading her most acclaimed work, The Living Mountain (six years after she appeared on an RBS banknote, when I should really have noticed). But then everyone, including Nan Shepherd herself, has been quite late coming to Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain (about the whole Cairngorm plateau, rather than just Cairn Gorm) was written in the 1940s but not published until the 1970s.
Extraordinary to think what’s now hailed as one of Britain’s finest works of nature writing lay abandoned in a drawer for 30-odd years. But then Shepherd’s life was a bit of a paradox. Born in 1893, she lived just outside Aberdeen her whole life and worked for 41 years in the same job (as a lecturer in English at an Aberdeen college). She loved the Cairngorms (she saw the whole plateau as “a single mountain with individual tops”), spent as much time as possible there and knew it probably far better than the back of her hand.
Her background would make you think that her book would be narrow and nerdy but it’s just the opposite. It’s a love letter to the area, a beautiful piece of writing with descriptions that are spot-on yet make you look, think and see again the simplest thing, from the rocks under your feet to the air above your head.
For those who love the Cairngorms, it’s great geographically to follow her – and she really does get in some places. For me, I love the fact that she doesn’t feel it important to charge up to summits – one of my bugbears – and instead just to enjoy the journey itself. But she is wise enough to have patience with those who do. She also loves the purple glow on birch trees in late winter, one of my best-loved sights, but she’s even made me consider my favourite tree again – apparently it smells like brandy when wet. Why have I never smelt trees more closely before?! Now when I’m out I’m using another sense – I’ve already discovered larch trees smell of honeyed plums.
The rhythm of life is in her feet as she walks in all seasons and all weathers, eating cloudberries, striding barefoot over the heather, swimming in lochans, chatting to ancient crofters, waking under the stars and watching stags fight.
Sometimes I feel, however sensitive I try to be to the landscapes that I love and walk through, that I’m just a tourist in nature, tramping along, wildlife fleeing at the sound of my coming, each sweep of my manmade boots helping to erode away the earth, treating the outdoors as a playground. Nan Shepherd was one of those extraordinary human beings who tried to ascend that, to understand and immerse herself in the landscape so much she almost became part of it. Reading The Living Mountain has made me determined to tread with a metaphorically lighter step in future. And I might even try barefoot!