Alice Tarbuck is a PhD student at the Scottish Poetry Library, and the University of Dundee. Most recently, her writing appeared as part of Timespan Festival, in a collaborative commission with visual artist Alison Scott. She considers herself dangerous, and is currently writing her first novel.
Nan Shepherd is having a renaissance. In fact, not even a renaissance. She is far more famous, now, than at any other point in her history. A mere ten years ago, she was probably unknown to 80% of the Scottish population. Now, however, your probably touch her face several times a week: a beautiful portrait, taken from a photograph of her in her youth, is now on the new Scottish five pound note. What is particularly lovely about this, is that it is a celebration of one of Scotland’s dangerous women.
To most people, Nan Shepherd is known as the author of The Living Mountain, an extraordinary book that explores Shepherd’s lifelong relationship with the Cairngorm mountains. In the book, radical new ways of reading and understanding landscape are put forward. Written during the 1940s, the book was not published until 1977, which prevented it from receiving the critical attention it deserved until fairly recently. One of the reasons for the lack of interest in publication was Shepherd’s rather dangerous, modernist prose. She failed to fit into traditional mountain narratives – but nor was she writing straightforward essays on personal experience. Her dangerousness lies in her disregard for conventions and boundaries that govern writing. In this, she was far before her time.
In The Living Mountain, Shepherd moves away from the masculine idealisation of the summit as goal. Instead, she proposes walking around and ‘into’ the landscape: immersing the self so fully in every area of the cairngorms that you cannot separate yourself from them. Critic Robert Macfarlane credits Shepherd’s book with altering his outlook on mountains. A far cry from the conquering language of mountaineering literature, Shepherd’s work, Macfarlane writes, is ‘a meditation not a manifesto […] a pilgrimage and not an attack’. Shepherd is interested in the ‘essential nature’ of the mountain: in understanding it from all angles and in all seasons. She views the mountains not as looming objects of sublime terror, but as acquaintances. ‘Often’ she writes, ‘the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him’.
Shepherd’s steady friendship with the Cairngorms is public property, now. Macfarlane made a television series for the BBC all about it, and Canongate have re-issued The Living Mountain with a new introduction in order to meet demand. Shepherd’s slim volume could be seen on the Waterstone’s nature writing table at Christmas. Truly, she has arrived in public consciousness. This has not, however, dulled her dangerousness. Shepherd’s work challenges contemporary understandings of how to be in nature, and offers a figure of womanhood still regarded as dangerous by many. Unmarried, independent, happy walking barefoot in hills with no company, Shepherd defied polite Aberdeen society, and still defies conventional models of ‘successful’ womanhood.
For me, however, Shepherd has a very different intimacy. Her longstanding friendship with my great-grandmother, to whom she lived next door, has had a significant impact on my life, and the lives of the women in my family. My mother, who stayed with her grandmother weekly, used to go around to Nan Shepherd’s house to play, along with her siblings and cousins. She remembers Nan hosting a Christmas party for them every year, with party games. There would be small favours for the winners, and small forfeits to pay for those who lost.
As my mum grew up, she maintained her relationship with Nan Shepherd, who acted as best man at her wedding. She never spoke, my mum says, about her writing. She was a modest Aberdeen lady, and not one to talk herself up. My mum grew into a keen hill walker, but did not come across Nan’s book until much later. There is something very fetching about this modesty. Shepherd’s relationship to the hills seems to be exactly that of one friend to another: you keep their intimacies close.
My great-grandmother’s house was sold, when she needed to move into accommodation without stairs. Nan and her housekeeper lived in their house until Nan’s death in 1981, seven years before I was born. When I go into the hills, I think of her. When I walk, with my mum, we use our eyes as best we can. Sometimes, I even stand with my head between my legs, looking backwards, to find a new perspective as Shepherd suggests in her book. The sudden rush of blood to the head is strange, but suddenly, at grass-height, everything looks new.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about Shepherd being on the currency is that every time she is pulled out of a purse, or used to buy a loaf of bread, she reminds us: look at things deeply, look at things hard, until everything around you seems new, and you can understand the environment you walk in as a friend. Understanding your environment is still for many women, a radical and dangerous act. To have intimate knowledge of the Cairngorms, an area traditionally claimed by men, and to be able to walk in them alone, without permission or company, is to proclaim your independence, your specialist knowledge, and your place in the world. We could all do well to learn from Shepherd’s fierce joy in her surroundings, and her unconventional life.
Feature photo: Photo courtesy of Glasgow Women’s Library, used with permission