Nan Shepherd, Scottish Writer, Poet, and Mountaineer
By Elodie Barnes | On April 17, 2023 | Updated May 1, 2023 | Comments (0)
Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893 – February 27, 1981) was a Scottish modernist poet, writer, and mountaineer.
Best known for The Living Mountain, she published three novels, a collection of poems, several essays, articles, and letters.
Her deep love of the Scottish mountains and her knowledge of them through walking was fundamental to her writing and shaped most of her work.
Early life and education
Anna Shepherd was born in East Peterculter, near Aberdeen on the North East coast of Scotland, in February 1893. She was the second child of John Shepherd, a civil engineer, and Jane (known as Jeannie), who came from a well-established middle-class Aberdeen family.
Her older brother Francis, known as Frank, had been born in 1890. The family moved to nearby Cults not long after she was born, and Shepherd — despite traveling widely to Europe and South Africa — lived in the same house there until nearly the end of her life.
It was here that her love of the mountains took root and was encouraged by her father, also a keen hillwalker. The hills of Deeside made a natural playground, and much of her time outside of school was spent outdoors. Later, she would write of a photograph in which she is sitting on her mother’s knee as a toddler:
“[I was] all movement, legs and arms flailing as though I was demanding to get at life — I swear those limbs move as you look at them.”
Nan was also an avid reader, and at age fourteen started the first of what she called her “medleys” — exercise books into which she would copy quotes and citations from her literary, religious, and philosophical reading.
She attended Aberdeen High School for Girls and studied at Aberdeen University, graduating with an MA in 1915.
Shepherd taught English literature at the Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers (later the College of Education). She remained there until her retirement in 1956, having become known as an inspiring teacher with a feminist slant to her work.
She wryly described her role as “the heaven-appointed task of trying to prevent a few of the students who pass through our Institution from conforming altogether to the approved pattern.”
After her retirement, she continued her involvement with the literature community by editing the Aberdeen University Review from 1957 – 1963. In 1964 the University awarded her an honorary doctorate.
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Novels and poetry
In 1933 Shepherd confessed, “I don’t like writing, really. In fact, I very rarely write. No. I never do short stories and articles. I only write when I feel that there’s something that simply must be written.”
Much of what Shepherd considered “simply must be written” was condensed into a frenetic, five-year period between 1928 and 1933. During this time, she published three novels: The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, and A Pass in the Grampians. All three are modernist in style and have been compared to the writing of Virginia Woolf.
Shepherd drew inspiration from the places and people she knew well, setting her stories in the North East of Scotland, with a focus on country communities and the harsh way of life imposed by the landscape.
The Quarry Wood in particular was heavily autobiographical, and her friend Agnes Mure Mackenzie wrote saying that she had enjoyed the “transmutation, ordering, supplementing, modifying and blending” of life and fiction, in particular when she had recognized herself.
A volume of Shepherd’s poetry, In the Cairngorms, was published a year later in 1934, and most of the poems express her love of nature and the mountains. The final section of the book contains love sonnets, which Shepherd admitted were written for one man in particular, but she never revealed who it was.
She never married. Instead, she devoted much of her personal life to caring for her invalid mother, and maintained a close network of friends, including fellow writers Neil Gunn, J.C. Milne, Charles Murray, Jessie Kesson, and Hugh MacDiarmid.
“Going dumb,” and a comeback
Even at this pinnacle of her literary output, around 1931 Shepherd was feeling pressured and depressed. Writer’s block felt like an imminent problem: she wrote to Neil Gunn:
“I’ve gone dumb … I suppose there’s nothing for it but to go on living. Speech may come. Or it may not. And if it doesn’t I suppose one just has to be content to be dumb. At least not shout for the mere sake of making a noise.”
By the late 1960s, her books were out of print, and she had slipped into obscurity. When asked by the poet Rachel Annand Taylor in 1959, “Why, I wonder, did you give up literature so early?” Shepherd replied, “It just didn’t come to me anymore.”
She did continue to occasionally write, however, producing (despite her claim to the contrary) articles and a short story, Descent from the Cross, as well as more poetry.
Only in 1977, toward the end of her life, what would become her most famous work, The Living Mountain, was quietly published by Aberdeen University Press. Shepherd had first written it in the 1940s, but the manuscript was rejected by a publisher and remained in a drawer for the next thirty years.
Essentially a hymn to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain is still famed for the unsettling beauty and lyricism of its prose. A friend and fellow poet Ken Morrice wrote shortly after its publication: “Rarely can such acute observation be matched by a gift for poetic expression. “Gentle” it is not: powerful, muscular, vivid, experiential…”
It was everything, in other words, that Shepherd herself experienced in the mountains that she had fallen so deeply, passionately in love with as a young woman.
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The Cairngorms: the greatest love of Nan Shepherd’s life
Nan Shepherd had first ventured into the Cairngorms in June 1928, at the age of thirty-five. These formidable mountains, hulking to the west of Aberdeen, had previously seemed to her “a legendary task, which heroes, not men, accomplished. Certainly not children.”
This first experience of the mountains was the start of a passion that came to define both her life and her writing. From then on, she sought to escape into the Cairngorms whenever her job would allow. Often she would walk alone, although occasionally she was accompanied by friends and fellow walkers from the Deeside Field Club, or by students from the university.
For Shepherd, the goal was never really the summit of a mountain: it was not climbing up that excited her so much as “clambering down,” discovering all the hidden parts of the mountain that only an attentive walker would notice. One such place in The Living Mountain is Loch Avon:
“This loch lies at an altitude of some 2,300 feet, but its banks soar up for another fifteen hundred….From the lower end of this mile-and-a-half gash in the rock, exit is easy but very long…But higher up the loch there is no way out, save by scrambling up one or other of the burns that tumble from the heights…”
Within her poetic descriptions are threaded geology, geography, and history; her account of the routes she takes are so detailed that readers could quite easily follow in her footsteps across the Cairngorms.
The mountains, for Shepherd, were living beings, and she nurtured her relationship with them by walking. She wrote of the Cairngorms as “friends” that she “visits”, and with whom her imagination is fired as if “touched by another mind.”
“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent, but no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body … I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life…”
Risk and reward
Despite this all-consuming passion, Shepherd warned, “This journey to the sources is not to be taken lightly. One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable…” She was very aware of the real dangers faced in the mountains and knew firsthand how the weather in the Cairngorms could be harsh and unpredictable.
Snow and ice — not just in winter — could make the paths hazardous, and she was intimately acquainted with accidents and deaths. One casualty was a former pupil, who was found with a man “months too late, far out of their path, the girl on abraded hands and knees as she clawed her way through drift…”
Her own experiences were often fraught with danger, and she was sometimes horrified at herself when recalling “the places I have run lightly over with no sense of fear.” Once, she was struck with snow blindness in what should have been spring:
“… I had taken no precautions against exposure … After a while I found the glare intolerable; I saw scarlet patches on the snow; I felt sick and weak. My companion refused to leave me sitting in the snow and I refused to defeat the object of his walk, which was to photograph the loch in its still wintry condition; so I struggled on, with his dark handkerchief veiling my eyes — a miserable blinkered imprisonment.”
Such experiences were, for Shepherd, a necessary risk that “we must all take when we accept individual responsibility for ourselves on the mountain, and until we have done that, we do not begin to know it.”
And knowing the mountain was essential for her, not just to write but to live; she wholeheartedly believed that only through walking and experiencing could insight be gained.
“The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect … the more the mystery deepens.”
In search of the spiritual
The idea of “mystery” was an important one for Shepherd. There is a strong spiritual element in her writing, and she was strongly influenced by her reading on Buddhism and the Tao. On coming across the stream that would eventually become the river Dee, below the summit of Braeriach, she observed:
“These are the Wells of Dee. This is the rover. Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can be seen here at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me … It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”
Prose, she felt, was inadequate to describe such mysteries. Poetry was the only means by which she felt she could do them justice, and yet she did not always enjoy writing poetry. She once wrote to Neil Gunn explaining her reluctance, saying that she tended to “shrink … from the subsequent exhaustion. Not being physically very strong, I grudge the way it eats up my vitality …”
It might be hard to imagine Shepherd as anything other than strong, given the physical challenges of the hills, but although she was powerful in walking she was also slight, apparently weighing just 44kg (98 lbs) in 1948.
She didn’t always have the resources that poetry demanded of her, even going to far as to say it was “eating” her, but it remained an important way for her to write about her experiences.
The result of this conflict is poetry that is unsettling, startling, beautiful, and somehow poised between worlds:
Out of these mountains,
Out of the defiant torment of Plutonic rock,
Out of fire, terror, blackness and upheaval,
Leap the clear burns,
Like some pure essence of being…
(from ‘The Hill Burns’, In the Cairngorms)
This pursuit of the spiritual sustained her throughout her life, even when her body began to fail and she was physically confined to a nursing home in Torphins. When asked by Jessie Kesson whether she believed in an afterlife, she replied, “I hope it is true for those who have had a lean life”, but she considered her own life, even in infirmity, to be “so good, so fulfilling.”
Nan Shepherd died on February 27, 1981, at Woodend Hospital, Aberdeen, Scotland.
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Nan Shepherd on the Scottish banknote
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The legacy of Nan Shepherd
Despite the obscurity that characterized much of her life (and which Shepherd herself undoubtedly enjoyed as a very private person), she’s known today as one of the foremost Scottish modernist writers.
Her novels were republished in the late 1980s. The Living Mountain and In the Cairngorms were reprinted later (the latter with a foreword by eminent nature writer Robert Macfarlane and an afterword by writer Jeanette Winterson).
She is anthologized in collections of Scottish women poets, and a stone dedicated to her was laid at Makars’ Court in Edinburgh in 2000, with the engraving “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.”
Nan Shepherd is the first woman writer to be featured on a Scottish banknote, and the Nan Shepherd Prize is granted annually to underrepresented voices in nature writing.
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Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at Elodie Rose Barnes.
More about Nan Shepherd
- In the Cairngorms (1934)
- The Living Mountain (1977)
- The Grampian Quartet: The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse, A Pass in the Grampians,
The Living Mountain (2001)
- Wild Geese: A Collection of Nan Shepherd’s Writing, edited by Charlotte Peacock (2019)
- Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock (2021)
- Wanderers: A History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews (2021; includes a section on Nan Shepherd)
- Scottish Poetry Library
- How Nan Shepherd Remade My Vision of the Cairgorns
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
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