‘I must hold on to the knowledge that I recognise Shepherd’s passion in myself, and that once I am there – exploring, learning, writing, immersing myself in what fascinates and bewilders me – I, too, will be fey again, and will be made brave by the Earth’s magic.’
The Living Mountain
By Nan Shepherd
Published by Canongate Books
‘A book is a door; on the other side is somewhere else.’
So writes Jeanette Winterson in her excellent afterword to The Living Mountain, expressing a sentiment which – to me – has never rung more true than over the pandemic years. I was a masters student when the first lockdown began and all the doors of reality were slammed shut, and my dreams of flying away after graduation froze, fixed in place some distance away from me, unmoving as desert mirages even as I marched towards them in time. The whole wide world simultaneously felt tiny (shrunk down to fit snugly around me sitting hunched over my laptop screen) and impossibly gigantic, as it must have felt in the days before air travel, before we had stripped our planet of the power of its cosmic vastness with our feats of science and engineering.
With real-life doors to carry me to far-flung places shut indefinitely, the only doors left open were books, and so I turned to some of the great works of travel writing. I flew through the audiobooks of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and The Songlines, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts. I fell especially in love with D H Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy and Mornings in Mexico, delighting in the imaginative rabbit holes, spun from exquisite language, into which he draws his readers.
But the greatest piece of travel writing I have read in recent years is, without doubt, The Living Mountain – though Nan Shepherd would not have liked me saying so (‘Don’t you loathe having your work over-praised?’, she wrote in a letter in 1930; ‘It makes me feel positively nasty towards the praiser’). But it is difficult to imagine Shepherd even vaguely nasty, because this book of hers is so much a love letter, and showcases its author at her most tender and affectionate. For The Living Mountain is not about some distant, foreign wonderland – it is about Shepherd’s home, a landscape she loved all her long life – the Cairngorm Mountains, in north-east Scotland.
Shepherds’ depiction of this region makes for delicious reading. She tells us of sunrises where ‘the whole plateau burn[s] with a hot violet incandescence until noon’, and of lochs with ‘the green gleam of old copper roofs’; there are glowing purple birches , their twigs like ‘spun silk floss’ that seem ‘to be created out of light’. In winter, a sprig of heather freezes into ‘a tree of purest glass, like an ingenious toy’, and in summer, plants emit the perfume of ‘strawberry jam on the boil’. At night, the ‘alien lights’ of the aurora borealis blaze, and ‘minute pricks of phosphorescent light’ leap in black ooze. And there are animals – tits ‘scolding like fish-wives’, squirrels with the ‘wilful petulance’ of ‘small children who have too many toys’, ‘moths like oiled paper, and moths like burnt paper’, and ‘frogs jumping like tiddlywinks’. Nothing is ordinary – rather, everything is made extraordinary through Shepherd’s experienced and observant eyes.
It is not just visual scenery that Shepherd paints so exquisitely: she explores the Cairngorms with all her senses, and is unrestrainedly physical. Shepherd has a body, and uses all of it to engage with the landscape, while so many of her male counterparts who still dominate the travel writing canon write with something of an anthropologist-like detachment, and tell tales of the mind. Shepherd, by contrast, delights in portraying visceral engagement with the land – whether that’s following her nose (‘I am like a dog – smells excite me’) or swimming naked, so that ‘the freshness of the water slides over the skin like shadow’. Shepherd wants to touch everything, not just look at and describe it from afar – ‘touch is the most intimate sense of all’, she tells us: everything ‘has its own identity for the hand, as much as for the eye’, and so ‘the hands have an infinity of pleasure in them’.
This is one of Shepherd’s most likeable qualities as a narrator – her sheer pleasure at being among the mountains, a pleasure that is endless and infectious. Her imagination was first captured as a child, when the image of a ‘stormy violet gully’ ‘haunted my dreams’: from that instant, she ‘belonged to the Cairngorms’. Decades later, she still possesses a kind of childlike wonder and excitement (she describes being unable to wait for the rest of her walking party before running up to the summit: ‘The morning was cloudless and blue, it was June, I was young. Nothing could have held me back.’) And she retains her ability to marvel at the wonders of nature even with the scientific understanding of how they work. ‘Knowledge does not dispel mystery,’ she tells us. For Shepherd, science may ‘make the world so interesting’, but still, her ‘imagination boggles’.
But – crucially – mixed with this childlike wonder is an experienced awareness of the dangers posed by the landscape she loves, and Shepherd – a teacher all her working life – instructs us not to forget that all this beauty has a dark side. A mountain is like ‘the back of a monster’s head’, she writes: ‘at the other side are the open jaws, the teeth, the terrible fangs’. She recounts tales of casualties of the area – frozen bodies found too late, or climbers who disappear during blizzards, never to be seen again. There are also wrecked aeroplanes, ‘left to rust in lonely corners of the mountains’ (one of the few reminders to the reader that Shepherd is writing in the 1940s).
Death and danger may be ever-present, but so too is life. ‘I draw life in through the delicate hairs of my nostrils,’ she writes. ‘Even the good smell of earth, one of the best smells in the world, is a smell of life, because it is the activity of bacteria in it that sets up this smell.’ Shepherd delights in the resilience of living organisms against all the odds, marvelling at prehistoric flowering plants which – ‘with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age’. In this way, time as a linear continuum seems to collapse in on itself in Shepherd’s writing – we are seeing the Cairngorms from outside time, as they have always been and as they are, simultaneously.
This is just one of a the magical, surreal elements of The Living Mountain, produced simply by virtue of being the product of human observation and imagination. Appearance and reality are often at odds: Shepherd sees a bird with an impossibly huge wingspan – it turns out to be a duck and a drake ‘following one another in perfect formation’, ‘two halves of one organism’. The sound of students yodelling, ‘bell-like and musical’, turns out to be stags. Mountains that are lochs away seem pressed up against her face, and the snow atop summits seems to float above her head, ‘a snow skeleton, attached to nothing’. The figure of a man appears and disappears as a ‘ghostly mentor’ in thick mist as he leads a walk, and pine trees change their forms ‘like any wizard’. The Cairngorms seem to fold in on themselves, endlessly shifting and remapping, erasing and creating.
But it’s not just tricks of the eye – sometimes, the magic of the mountains is somewhat more sinister and inexplicable. Shepherd describes one warm October night with a ‘dawn all mixed up with moonshine’, over which she slept outdoors, as ‘a night of the purest witchery, to make one credit all the tales of glamourie that Scotland tries so hard to refute and cannot’. Everything about the splendour of the Cairngorms – a magnificent, alien, lethal splendour – smacks of scenery plucked from storybooks, the stuff of myth, untethered to our world and our reality. A young Shepherd even thought of the hillwalking she would eventually spend much of her life doing as ‘a legendary task, which heroes, not men, accomplished’.
To me, Shepherd is the very best kind of traveller – one who is never bored of beauty, or of exploring, of always learning and experiencing more. ‘Knowing another is endless,’ she tells us. ‘The thing to be known grows with the knowing.’ I hope to carry this lesson with me as I embark on my own attempt at travel writing. The doors of reality are open again, and my dreams of flying away no longer hang frozen in front of my mind’s eye. Now, they are concrete: a plane ticket to Tokyo in my inbox, a one-year visa, and funding from a San Francisco’ based charity – Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired – to embark on an ambitious adventure around Japan, and write my second book.
The world has changed so much, and I must admit I feel nervous about opening doors I once barely noticed passing through. But Shepherd has words of wisdom for this, too. ‘Often… …I have remembered the places I have run lightly over with no sense of fear, and have gone cold to think of them,’ she writes. ‘It seems to me then that I could never go back… …horror is in my mouth. Yet when I go back, the same leap of the spirit carries me up. God or no god, I am fey again.’ I must hold on to the knowledge that I recognise Shepherd’s passion in myself, and that once I am there – exploring, learning, writing, immersing myself in what fascinates and bewilders me – I, too, will be fey again, and will be made brave by the Earth’s magic.
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is published by Canongate, priced £14.99.
The Year of Stories x Books from Scotland response strand was inspired by Fringe of Colour’s series, which you can read more of at fringeofcolour.co.uk.
‘As far as I’m concerned, character is story – plot can always be adapted and fixed but a novel will …