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17 January 2023

How Nan Shepherd shaped modern nature writing

Snubbed by its first readers, her visionary book The Living Mountain went on to inspire a new literature of landscape.

By Alice Vincent

“Any sort of tripe gets praise from a reviewer and you can never know if your work is positively good until you’ve been dead a century or so,” advised Agnes Mure Mackenzie in a letter to Nan Shepherd in 1926. Shepherd considered the two of them to be “comrades” in life and in publishing. Mackenzie’s jaded advice came from one published author to another on the cusp of success – Shepherd’s debut novel The Quarry Wood would be released with her friend’s ushering in 1928.

Neither could have realised Mackenzie’s prescience: it would take three decades after Shepherd’s death, in 1981, for her to be elevated out of obscurity. The writer receives far more attention now than she ever did when she was alive. Shepherd’s work inspires theatre festivals; Robert Macfarlane has made BBC radio documentaries in her honour, Kathleen Jamie and Ali Smith are among the authors who admire her. Her portrait – an open, determined face between Boudicca-like braids – has adorned the Scottish £5 note since 2016. Beneath it lie her words: “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.”

These days, Shepherd’s best-known work is The Living Mountain, a slim meditation on years spent walking in the Cairngorms, which has been recorded for audiobook by Tilda Swinton and shifted 175,000 copies since 2011 alone. But the manuscript spent 30 years lingering in a drawer before it was finally published, four years before Shepherd died, aged 88. Had it not been, the contemporary fascination with nature writing may never have unfolded.

The Shepherd tucked into people’s wallets is something of an illusion: the adolescent Nan had fashioned her headband from a piece of film and a brooch while “fooling around at the photographers”. In many of the archival photos included in Charlotte Peacock’s biography Into the Mountain, she is smiling broadly, towering over her friends and family. But she hardly cut her auburn hair, preferring to wind it around her ears, and never gave up her long skirts for trousers, even when hill-walking. Those who knew Shepherd described her as almost metaphysical: “There was something otherworldly about her,” Erlend Clouston, Shepherd’s literary executor whom she treated like a grandson, told Radio 4’s Open Country in 2017. Her friend, the hill-walker Jean Roger, was “aware that [Shepherd] lived almost on another plane”.

Shepherd was unconventional. She slept in the same bedroom, in the same house in Cults, now a suburb of Aberdeen, her entire life. She was not one for central heating or lighting fires and she never married, staying at home to nurse her parents. Her writing pushed at literary boundaries and embodied a quietly fierce feminism. Shepherd’s novels – after The Quarry Wood came The Weatherhouse and, finally, A Pass in the Grampians, all published within five years – used Scots language, or Doric, in dialogue and challenged the more popular romanticised castles-and-kilts portrayal of the country on the page. One critic declared Shepherd “a novelist to put alongside… Virginia Woolf”. “She was a pioneer in matters both of form and content,” says the novelist Smith. “All her fiction’s full of powerful social appraisal, gender analysis and subjects close to taboo, way ahead of her contemporaries.”

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And yet among Scottish Renaissance writers – considered Scotland’s answer to modernism – Shepherd was usually outshone. While she went on to edit the Aberdeen University Review, she never gave up her day job, as a lecturer at the city’s College of Education, to write. Lewis Grassic Gibbon keenly followed Shepherd’s style with the more famous Sunset Song (1932), and yet his criticism of her work ranged from snubbing to the downright vicious. Shepherd’s novels and poetry were out of print by the late Sixties. Her final interview, given to the Aberdeen Evening Express in 1976, was headlined: “Writer of genius gave up”.

Shepherd was far keener to encourage other writers than shout about her own work. “She was modest and self-effacing about her talent,” says Smith, “and simultaneously an important creative and generous force at the core of the Scottish literary renaissance.” The morning after The Quarry Wood was published, Shepherd silenced her students’ rapturous applause and continued with her lectures as if it were any other day. Even when The Living Mountain was published Shepherd barely mentioned it: Clouston only became aware of it when he was asked to review it. “She never urged us to read any of her books,” he said. “She just waited for us to discover them.”

Shepherd was 30 when she started walking in the Cairngorms, the brutally remote mountains that loomed over her horizon from childhood, and she did so largely alone. In the turbulent interwar years the hills offered an escape ­– from war, from politics, from people. When she was 41, she finally waded into the startlingly clear waters of Loch Avon, one of the range’s most inaccessible landmarks. It was there, she’d later write in The Living Mountain, that “the mind stopped”: she realised that by going into the mountain, she was also gaining a greater understanding of herself.

Shepherd submitted The Living Mountain for publication twice. First, upon its completion in 1945, to Batsford Books who rejected it, and the 30,000-word manuscript was slid into the drawer of a table in Shepherd’s hallway. Later, in 1977, she tried again at the insistence of a neighbour, Harold Watt, who happened to be the managing director of Aberdeen University Press and who published it later that year. 

It wasn’t that Shepherd changed in the in-between decades; rather the societal landscape did. The Zen Buddhist teaching that she held close had grown more mainstream by the 1970s, as had spiritual-leaning travelogues such as Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The notion of achieving a transcendental state, whether by drugs, meditation or hill-walking, was far more acceptable four decades after Shepherd had entered her own in Loch Avon.

Still, The Living Mountain was slow to wake up the publishing world: now first editions from 1977 are impossibly rare; second editions go for £75. Canongate published it alongside her three novels as The Grampian Quartet in 1996. Twelve years later, they were inundated after Macfarlane wrote about Shepherd’s “aimless, sensual exploration of the Cairngorms” in the Guardian. Since 2019 the publisher has run The Nan Shepherd Prize, which offers a £10,000 book deal to under-represented voices in nature writing.

The Living Mountain is now well-read enough to have its own discourse. In his introduction Macfarlane described the “eroticism” of Shepherd’s response to the Cairngorms, and subsequently other writers have speculated about her sexuality. As Peacock repeatedly states in her biography, Shepherd kept her private life out of her prolific letter-writing. “We know very little about how much sex Shepherd had and how she felt about that,” wrote the author Samantha Walton in a recent Twitter thread: “I can’t think of anything more reductive, offensive, heterosexist and breathtakingly stupid than to suggest [she] writes sensually about nature because she was unsatisfied and horny.”

It’s notable that while the millennial resurgence in nature writing has reimagined all manner of landscapes, Shepherd’s depiction of the Cairngorms remains unchallenged. She set out into the mountain in 1922. A century on, we’re still seeking to escape the horrors of war, politics and pandemics by taking on the outside world and hoping we’ll know our human bodies better in the process. But perhaps it’s not surprising The Living Mountain feels so modern – it takes time to catch up with revolutionary writing. As Shepherd wrote to a friend upon its publication: “Thirty years in the life of a mountain is nothing – the flicker of an eyelid.”

This piece has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to Robert Macfarlane’s writing on Nan Shepherd.

Alice Vincent’s “Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival” (Canongate) is published on 2 March.

[See also: Clare and Michael Morpurgo: Experiencing nature is as important as literature]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis