In December 1976, five years before her death, the Aberdeen Evening Express ran an interview with Nan Shepherd. Then aged 83, she had not published a book for over forty years. Asked why this was, she said, ‘it just didn’t come to me anymore’, thus prompting the headline, ‘Writer of genius gave up’.
We know now, of course, that Shepherd had not given up and that throughout those lean decades she wrote regularly if not prolifically, including articles for a variety of journals and newspapers. She also wrote a decent short story, ‘Descent from the Cross’, a handful of poems, and her short book, The Living Mountain, which she wrote in the 1940s in the midst of the Second World War and upon which her posthumous reputation largely rests.
The Living Mountain finally appeared in 1977 and caused quite a stir. Its publisher was Aberdeen University Press, then owned by Pergamon Press, the milch cow of the buccaneering entrepreneur Robert Maxwell. As Charlotte Peacock notes in Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain caught the new vogue for travel writing typified by the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor and John McPhee. The author with whom Shepherd shared most affinity, however, was Peter Matthiessen (misspelled by Peacock) whose book The Snow Leopard described his futile quest to find the fabled beast in Nepal. Like Matthiessen, Shepherd was more interested than the journey than the destination. She thought of mountains as living entities, beings in themselves, which spoke to those with ears to listen. She communed with them in a Zen-like, quasi-religious manner, which appealed to people, such as her friend and correspondent Neil Gunn, of a poetic and spiritual nature. Less impressed were hardened hill trampers such as ‘Cairngorm guru’ – as he is described by Peacock – Adam Watson who last year produced a damning page by page review of The Living Mountain, accusing Shepherd, whom he knew well, of being a snob. ‘Always,’ wrote Watson, ‘I have found her book fanciful, contrived and fundamentally anthropocentric. I read it once, and it meant little to me.’ A second reading of it, it seems, impressed him even less.
Such barbs have not impacted on the popularity of Shepherd’s slim book. With the imprimatur of nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who in 2011 provided an introduction to a new edition, it has become an unlikely bestseller. Indeed the Guardian’s hyperventilating reviewer was so taken with it that he described it as ‘the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. Thereafter, in 2016, Shepherd’s portrait appeared on Scottish £5 notes, moving Macfarlane to hymn: ‘She’s an incredibly inspiring figure, and an unusual one, in the sense of being a woman writing about mountains and the wilderness and nature. She found her own path in life and in literature, and it feels like she’s so far ahead of us – we’re always only starting to catch Nan up. Philosophically and stylistically, she was extraordinary.’
Be that as it may, even Shepherd’s most fervent admirers – of whom, I fear, I am not one – would have had trouble producing even a shilling life of her. Charlotte Peacock’s book is therefore warmly to be welcomed for here at last we have an attempt to put flesh on the bones of the books and to offer a portrait of an enigmatic and elusive woman. Quoting copiously from Shepherd’s three novels – The Weatherhouse, The Quarry Wood and A Pass in the Grampians – Peacock flits between fact and fiction until the line between them becomes as blurry the path to a misty summit.
Shepherd’s parents, John and Jeannie, were members of the north-east’s professional middle-class. Nan, their second child, was born in 1893, shortly after which the family moved into Dunvegan Cottage on Deeside, near West Cults station from which her father commuted to work at the Ferryhill Foundry. It was there, with its view of the river and beyond it Blairs College, that Nan would live all of her long life. Her childhood was essentially unremarkable but for the fact that after her birth her mother took to her bed and rarely left it until she died in 1950 aged 85. ‘Not a bad “innings”,’ notes Peacock with understatement, ‘for someone who was too ill to leave the house for over fifty years.’ What exactly was the matter with Jeannie Shepherd is unclear. ME is a possibility, depression another. Alternatively, her ‘illness’ may simply have been a severe case of malingering. Without hard evidence to go on, Peacock speculates, rather unconvincingly: ‘It might also have been her way of rebelling against the strictures of Victorian marriage – a way of finding space for self – getting leave to live.’ If so, it was a rather bizarre way to go about it.
Nan Shepherd went to school in Aberdeen after which she attended its university. A photograph of her as an undergraduate shows her hatless, bag cast to one side, sitting upright on the grass, peering warily at the camera. Among her professors was Herbert Grierson, author of the influential Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, whose first lecture she memorialized in The Quarry Wood, her finest novel, as one of those “moments of apocalypse by which life is dated’. Shepherd was a keen and intelligent student and won a number of prizes. Opportunities post-university, however, were limited. After graduating she wrote entries for an encyclopaedia of religion and ethics but, she recollected, ‘it was not a life that drew me’. Nor, it seems, did teaching, the favoured profession of many women in her situation. What did draw her was the idea of becoming a teacher of teachers which she did until her retirement in 1956.
What, we might well ask, was her personal life like? Family circumstances, including the early death of her elder brother and that of her father, not to mention her housebound mother, meant she was tied largely to the home in which she had been brought up. There were no lovers, male or female, as far as Peacock has been able to ascertain, and few if any identifiable romantic attachments.The one person with whom Shepherd seems to have been in love was John Macmurray who, inconveniently, was married to her best friend, Betty Campbell. Macmurray was a philosopher who is perhaps best remembered today because Tony Blair said he found his book, The Clue to History, ‘mind-blowing stuff’. In particular, Blair was drawn to Macmurray for the accessibility of his prose and the modernity of his thought: ‘he confronted what will be the critical political question of the twenty-first century: the relationship between individual and society’.
Tall, thin and bearded, Macmurray, whom one witness quoted by Peacock says was sometimes mistaken for DH Lawrence, was attractive to women. In The Quarry Wood, his fictional counterpart is Luke, who has a passion for Dussie (Betty) but is more in sync intellectually with Martha (Nan). The latter, Shepherd writes of her alter ego, ‘was worth knowing… She’s so absolutely herself…so still and self-contained too. She’s like – a crystal flame. Perfectly rigid in its own shape, but with all the play and life of flame.’ Clearly, it was not only Macmurray who could be compared to Lawrence.
Peacock, who has had access to papers previously unseen, says that Shepherd was in love with Macmurray for a number of years. This may well have been the case but if so it appears to have been unrequited and unreciprocated. The Macmurrays, who had an open marriage, did not include Shepherd among their satellites. Nor is there any mention of her in John’s diaries or Betty’s memoirs. ‘This is odd,’ writes Peacock, ‘given that over the years Nan often holidayed with the Macmurrays and even went to visit them while they were living in South Africa. The two women were in touch until the end of their lives. Not long before Nan’s death Betty visited her at Dunvegan.’
Even curiouser is Peacock’s assertion that, in 1922, when Shepherd turned twenty-nine, ‘She was not going to let her virginity wither’. What, if anything, she did to prevent this happening we are not told. If there was a man in her life no evidence is offered for this. By the age of thirty-five, we learn, Shepherd had been ‘knocked down – in love and life’. Her father and brother had died and her fate was bound tightly to Dunvegan. ‘John Macmurray,’ moreover, ‘was unavailable.’ His unlikely replacement was not another man but ‘the mountain’. This was the heyday of mountaineering with several women competing with men on the high peaks of the Alps and Himalaya. Nan was a hillwalker rather than climber and would go regularly with other women into the Cairngorms. For her, the experience was cathartic, lifeaffirming, intense. ‘It was also,’ writes Peacock, ‘a release: physically, emotionally and spiritually.’ ‘At height,’ she adds, ‘Nan’s body was at peak performance. She was fey, she said, drunk on the “joyous release of body that is engendered by climbing”.
’It is this reaction that infuses The Living Mountain and which led to many rapturous reviews. It is a book that chimes with a time when Edens are under threat. Many of the mountains in which Shepherd immersed herself are today defiled by unsightly so-called ‘wind farms’ and pylons which marched across the landscape like an army of metallic giants. It was in 1928, at the height of the Depression, when many folk sought solace from poverty and unemployment in high places pretty much unsullied since they were created, that Shepherd became hooked on the hills.
Charlotte Peacock, who first encountered her name when she read it in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, has done Scottish literature a service in producing this sensitive and sober biography. Not the least of its qualities is the consideration it gives to several women – Agnes Mure Mackenzie, Rachel Taylor Annand, Helen Cruikshank, Lorna Moon, Jessie Kesson, Marion Angus – whose contribution to the national culture, if not exactly ignored, has hitherto been shamefully neglected and underappreciated. A few of those mentioned, like Nan Shepherd, may have been rescued from oblivion; too many others remain in the shadows.