(1893–1981) born in Peterculter, Aberdeenshire
Novelist, poet, and hill walker Nan Shepherd wrote the non-fiction book “The Living Mountain” — an exceptional, 80-page ode to the Cairngorms. And unlike typical mountain literature, where the focus is the summit, Shepherd reasoned that we walk not up mountains, but into them.
“On the mountain,” she wrote, “I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy… I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. That is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”
She also believed that we’d be better to abandon the notion of the summit as the goal, and to instead focus on what she called the ‘total mountain’ — the hope just to be in its company, to sleep high, wander, explore, pry into its hidden corners, to, as she put it, become “a peerer into nooks and crannies.”
Last winter, nature writer Robert Macfarlane presented a wonderful BBC documentary where he retraced Shepherd’s steps in the Cairngorms. But I first discovered Shepherd’s words in my mum and dad’s bathroom, on a linograph.
What a discovery.
In a letter to writer Neil Gunn in 1940, Shepherd wrote:
“To apprehend things – walking on a hill, seeing the light change, the mist, the dark, being aware, using the whole of one’s body to instruct the spirit — yes that is the secret life one has and knows that others have. But to be able to share it, in and through words — that is what frightens me… It dissolves one’s being. I am no longer myself but a part of a life beyond myself when I read pages that are so much an expression of myself.”
I love this part of “The Living Mountain”:
“Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense with an effortless intensity.”
That is home.
Turn out Shepherd’s having quite the moment. I just discovered this album by Wounded Knee. It was recorded in a bothy in the Cairngorms and inspired by “The Living Mountain.”