What can we learn from Nan Shepherd? To go to the hills with sense

Shepherd-Nan-©-The-Estate-Two important days occurred this week: World Book Day and International Women’s Day.

As I left my desk in the office to answer the horn of the coffee van, I pulled a £5 note out of my pocket. Looking at it, I saw a woman gazing strongly to the left of the note – an expression of indefinable strength and mystery.

To the untrained eye, she appears as a Native American woman; a band across her head, full, braided hair and caring eyes with a touch of the wild in them. Her chin is lifted, jaw set and cheeks youthful.

This is a face I became fascinated with during my postgraduate. Who is she? Well, I have asked that question to many people.

“Not a clue,” the coffee man said, eyebrows raised apologetically. I showed a fellow customer: Nothing.

The ironic thing about this now well-used photograph of this woman – often described as “enigmatic” and “far away” – is how contradictory it is to her overall character.

If memory serves me correctly, a friend with a camera had a bit of old film, which she took and placed upon her head. A small brooch was added, her hair curling effeminately over her shoulders. It could not be a more deceiving picture.

Her name is Nan Shepherd – ‘Scotland’s answer to Virginia Woolf’. To give you an insight into her personality, there is a telling story from the Easter of 1941.

Sitting on the train on Easter Monday, Nan met Jessie Kesson. At the time, Nan was teaching in Aberdeen and was on her way to the hills. During the war, the hills were quiet – just how she liked them.

“Arriving at Inverurie station just as the guard was about to raise his green flag, Jessie scrambled into the carriage, falling over the long, slim, brogue-shod feet of its only other occupant. Gathering herself together, as she dusted herself down, she surveyed the woman sitting opposite.

“Pale skinned, with clear, hazel eyes, her auburn hair wound into ‘earphones’ either side of her head in a style harking back to the 1920s, the woman was dressed in clothes matching her tawny colouring: browns, russets and muted greens. Below a flowering, calf-length skirt, her slender legs were uncrossed, nearly pressed together ankle to ankle. This, Jessie decided, was ‘A Lady'”.

Charlotte Peacock writes in her recent work Into the Mountains: A Life on Nan Shepherd, of how the two women spoke rapturously of poet Charles Murray, Dorric phrases blazing sparking through their conversation.

Three years later, Jessie made a discovery: Nan was a published author. Not just of one book, but three, published a decade earlier. She didn’t even learn the fact from the woman herself. Nan put the book aside when Jessie mentioned it and “immediately began to talk of other things”.

There’s a lot to be said for modesty, but perhaps Nan’s elusiveness is the reason few have heard of her outside of the vernacular, outdoors and literary spheres. There are few who you can talk to about books and have read The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, or A Pass in the Grampians, published between 1928 and 1933.

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Nan in the garden of the family’s Dunvegan cottage.

And yet, perhaps that is how Nan would have wanted it. Her books did not follow grand adventures, feats of bravery worthy of world-wide recognition or heroes and heroines of our time. They don’t even follow a definitive plot, instead following her characters and communities through life.

What they do look at are the adventures of the ordinary folk, people like you and I whose bravery and heroism is borne out of everyday actions and emotions. They are heroes and heroines to us because they are us, albeit we now look upon them with a view decades later.

Each of her books are somewhat autobiographical; Quarry Wood particularly so, which sees the protagonist Martha (Marty to her friends) follow her dream of going to university and teaching, a path Nan followed to teach at Aberdeen University.

In The Quarry Wood, though, we see the burgeoning of what would become the work Nan was most proud of. Her three novels may be of people, but it was of people and their connection to landscape that makes her stories truly gripping. Even The Quarry Wood is, as Martha’s fancy describes it, “Marty’s wood – the Quarry Wood”.

Take this, for example, from the novel: “May was a frail blue radiance. Was there ever such a summer? Day after day the sun rose softly and night after night sank in a shimmering haze. The hills trembled, so liquid a blue that they seemed at the point of dissolution; and clouds like silver thistle-down floated and hovered above them. Stifling one night in the low-roofed bedroom, where Madge’s cheap scents befouled the air, Martha rose exasperated and carried her shoddy bed outside. There, she watched till morning the changes of the sky and saw the familiar line of hills grow strange in the dusky pallor of a summer midnight. Thereafter she made the field her cubicle and in its privacy she spent her nights.”

One can see Nan’s familiarity with the scene. There is an understanding in the lines that can only be written by someone who has experienced landscape as Nan had.

It was not until almost 50 years later that her seminal work would be published – The Living Mountain.

I wrote on Shepherd a number of times during my postgraduate, eventually being refused the chance to write about her for my final thesis to attain my Masters degree. I refused to write on another writer, taking my love for her work to the hills with me.

It was this book, The Living Mountain, which captured my imagination. In his preface to the 2011 version of the book, Robert Macfarlane plays on Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am. For Macfarlane, Nan changed that – I walk therefore I am.

A lot of interpretations of the famous book that lay dormant in a drawer for nearly four decades touch on metaphysical and Buddhist references. Albeit these are present, there is something more touching.

Nan writes of the simple things on the hill, as well as its beauty and the sensuous experience gleaned from being in the presence of nature. She not only understands how many of us experience the hill, she identifies the things we can never understand.

The simplicity and innocence she wrote of in The Quarry Wood she recreates here: “No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the minds grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world.

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“Loch A’an, Loch A’an, hoo deep ye lie! Tell nane yer depth and nane shall I.”

“These moments of quiescent perceptiveness before sleep are among the most rewarding of the day. I am emptied of preoccupation, there is nothing between me and the earth and the sky. In midsummer the north glows with light long after midnight is past. As i watch, the light comes pouring round the edges of the shapes that stand against the sky, sharpening them till the more slender have a sort of glowing insubstantiality, as though they were themselves nothing but light.”

As you might imagine, I could wax lyrical about Shepherd’s work for days. Her adventures through the Cairngorms, including her novels set in the north east, can teach us a few things when in the hills.

What can we take from Shepherd?

Not the metaphysics, that your self can be elevated to higher planes (even if her students described Nan herself as such). No. It is to go to the hills to feel them.

It is easy to just use the eyes when in the hills, but every sense should be deployed. Feel, truly feel, the moss and the water at your feet. Learn about the bog cotton, the ling, the purple saxifrage, the skylarks and the granite.

Stay curious. Taste things if it seems safe! Smell widely. And, if you do look, look differently. As Nan wrote: “By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round.”

Here is to Nan this past World Book Day and International Women’s Day. You took to the mountains in your way, and helped to make sense of the way I go to the mountains.

To finish with the woman herself: “Knowing another is endless. The thing to be known grows with the knowing.” I feel we can take a lot from those words.

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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