The Road to Knowledge
Searching for Nan Shepherd (1893-1981).
I have never climbed a mountain. Nor have I ever had the slightest desire to. It is no coincidence that I live in the flatlands of Suffolk. I have been to Scotland numerous times, but I have never seen the Cairngorms, except in photographs. Then I read Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Then I re-read it and continue to do so. On each re-reading, I find something surprising, some new perspective. Something which makes me gasp and pause. I bore anyone who will listen by reading passages aloud. Take this one, for example:
By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles — though bristles is a word of too much commotion for it. Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.
I would like to say, as Robert Macfarlane does in his introduction to the 2011 edition of the novella, that I read The Living Mountain and was changed. But that would not be the truth, exactly. The truth is, I read it and was intrigued. Not by the Cairngorms, but by the woman who wrote about them. By the woman who turned herself upside down and saw the earth as it must see itself, arching its back and bristling. Yes, I admit, I have tried it too. I will also admit to a bit of a crush on Nan Shepherd.
Any respectable work on life writing counsels the author against becoming too passionate about a potential biographical subject. After all, how can the writer remain objective and gain the reader’s trust in their judgement if he or she is so in love with their subject they can see no faults? Instead, the writer is advised to maintain a healthy respect and curiosity for the subject, to balance ‘empathy and detachment’. Trying to bear this in mind I found, however, that I was propelled by Shepherd’s own words. In her foreword to The Living Mountain she writes, ‘love pursued with fervour is one of the roads to knowledge’. And so it was with fervour, that I began my passionate pursuit. I found her extremely elusive.
Despite the fact that Shepherd is currently enjoying something of a renaissance (all four of her prose works and her poetry anthology have recently been republished) biographical information about her is scanty. What little I could find raised more questions than it answered. My curiosity well and truly piqued, I assembled the biographical bones:
Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd was born on 11 February 1893 to John and Jane Shepherd in Westerton Cottage, East Peterculter, Near Aberdeen. A month after her birth, the family moved to Dunvegan, 503 North Deeside Road in the village of Cults (pronounced ‘Coolts’) 3 miles west of Aberdeen, where Shepherd was to live for most of her life. Educated at the local primary school, followed by Aberdeen High School for Girls, she went on to study at the University of Aberdeen, graduating with an MA in 1915. From then on she lectured in English at the Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers (later Aberdeen College of Education). She retired in 1956 but continued to work, editing the Aberdeen University Review until 1963. Shepherd was also a writer: during her lifetime she published four prose works and a volume of poetry. In 1964 she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Aberdeen. She died on 27 February 1981, aged eighty-eight.
There it was then: a life in one paragraph. The biographical bones needed flesh even if I were only to end up with a ‘shilling life’. I assembled a chronology and a cast of characters and found I had a straightforward cradle to grave outline. But I needed more; I needed the narrative strands to weave a plot. Claire Tomalin maintains that ‘what you look for when you are thinking about a biography are the stories in somebody’s life’. I began to search for the stories.
In the 1930s, Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd was hailed as a writer of genius. A highly respected member of the Scottish Modernist Movement, the poet, novelist and essayist was one of Scotland’s best-known literati. Yet by the 1970s, she had all but been forgotten. ’“That’s what you call a passing reputation”’ shrugged Shepherd in an interview in 1976, a twinkle in her eye.
While still in her thirties, Shepherd published three novels in quick succession. Her first, The Quarry Wood (1928) was praised by Hugh Walpole as ‘a real addition to English Literature’ for its poetic descriptions of nature. The Weatherhouse (1930) and A Pass in the Grampians (1933) were swiftly succeeded by the publication of a volume of poetry, In the Cairngorms in 1934. This initial burst of activity, however, was followed by silence. Shepherd produced nothing more until 1977, when she published arguably her finest work, The Living Mountain.
Why the forty-year silence? When asked the question in that 1976 interview, Shepherd’s answer was: ‘It just didn’t come to me anymore’. Yet she was still writing poetry as late as 1950. Hugh MacPherson describes three of her unpublished poems contained in a manuscript notebook at the National Library of Scotland as the best of her poetry he has seen. Moreover, articles of Shepherd’s were printed in the Aberdeen University Review and The Deeside Field and her short stories appeared in The Scots Magazine well into her retirement from teaching.
I have my own theories about her literary silence, one of which is that this ‘writer of genius gave up’ because The Living Mountain, was originally turned down for publication. Of all her works, this was the one of which Shepherd was most proud. According to her friend and fellow writer Jessie Kesson, ‘she was radiant about that book and quite rightly so.’ Written in the latter half of the Second World War, the manuscript was sent to one publisher who according to Shepherd ‘politely rejected it’. She consigned the work to a drawer.
Fast-forward forty years and as an old woman, Shepherd says she was tidying out her possessions when she came across the manuscript. Reading it again, she realised that the ‘tale of her traffic with a mountain was as valid today as it was then’. Exactly why it had been rejected by the publisher during World War II, at a time when this kind of nature writing was so popular in Britain, currently mystifies me. Nevertheless, in 1977, The Living Mountain finally achieved publication and is now regarded as ‘one of the finest books ever written on nature and landscape in Britain.’
Most works of mountaineering literature are written by men and most of these focus on the summit. Seeing one’s peak is like seeing one’s existence, apparently. Not for Shepherd for whom, despite having conquered all six of the major peaks in the Cairngorms while still a young woman, the goal is not the mountaintop. ‘One does not look upwards to spectacular peaks but downwards from the peaks to spectacular chasms,’ she writes, for ’a mountain has an inside’. Shepherd walks ‘into’ rather than ‘up’ it. The mountain is her road to self-knowledge and as she explores and comes to know its interior, she comes to know herself. There is little trace of her Presbyterian upbringing in the book, which is more Zen-like in its exploration of this connectedness between landscape and self. It is ‘a journey into Being’ which is described in language reminiscent of her poetry – as lyrical as it is sensual.
Interestingly, Shepherd’s mountain is male, and gives itself most completely to her when she goes out merely ‘to be with him’. It is almost as if the mountain is her lover, an observation which brings me rather neatly to another story in Shepherd’s life, one which is surely guaranteed to satisfy the most prurient curiosity of biographers and readers alike.
Shepherd never married, but she did have a lover. At the end of her poetry anthology, In the Cairngorms, is a collection of eleven Petrarchan sonnets. Entitled ‘Fourteen Years’ they are, as Ali Smith observes, ‘bruised and oblique’. Whether the subject of these poems was Shepherd’s fellow poet Charles Murray, or whether they were written, as has also been suggested, after the suicide of a married lover, is currently unknown. Furthermore, implicit in Shepherd’s novels is the suggestion that emotional fulfilment exists beyond heterosexual union.
In attempting to solve these mysteries and write the stories in Shepherd’s life, I had hoped to avoid too much footstepping. I thought I might find most of the answers to my questions through research carried out from the comfort of my study chair. Thanks to Google Maps, I have already ‘walked’ along North Deeside Road. I have even ‘seen’ the same view, from the sloping garden over the railway line to the River Dee, that Shepherd would have spied from her bedroom window.
A trip to Edinburgh is planned. There I have arranged to meet Erlend Clouston, Shepherd’s literary executor, to sift through her private papers and spend some time exploring her archives at the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Poetry Library. I have even decided I might pop from Edinburgh to Aberdeen on an information-gathering exercise at the university library which holds letters to Shepherd from her closest friend, Agnes Mure Mackenzie. Perhaps I will be able to deduce from these whether those literary hints about sexual ambiguity have any foundation whatsoever.
From all these sources, I was sure I would be able to construct an authentic image of Nan Shepherd. And of course, there is also her writing. But despite Virginia Woolf’s assurance that ‘every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works’, the essence of Nan Shepherd continues to evade me. Even to her closest friends she was enigmatic. ‘She was elusive. Reticent about herself. I began to know her essence by instinct,’ Jessie Kesson said.
One of her former students described Shepherd as always seeming far way, somewhere else. Where? I think I knew the answer long before I came across some correspondence to Shepherd from her longstanding friend, the novelist Neil Gunn. In his last letter to her before his death in 1973 he wrote, ‘You’re like a lovely day in the hills.’ It makes sense then, that that is where I will find Nan Shepherd. My road to knowledge is the Cairngorms, for it is where, as she says, ‘I am’.
I have never climbed a mountain. Nor have I ever had any desire to. But I have now reached one inescapable conclusion: that is exactly what I will have to do. I have equipped myself with a pair of boots, booked a beginner’s course in mountaineering and then I’m off to the Cairngorms, the most treacherous mountain range in Britain. My only consolation is that for Shepherd, the goal was never the summit.