Ascent to greatness: the charmed afterlife of Nan Shepherd

Unassuming and largely unrecognised during her lifetime, Nan Shepherd is finally being acclaimed for her literary legacy '“ and her books are influencing a whole new generation of writers
Nan ShepherdNan Shepherd
Nan Shepherd

The summer of 1945. The Second World War is drawing to a close and in a village outside Aberdeen a teacher is finishing her first and last non-fiction book. An elegant prose-poem just 30,000 words long about, well, what exactly? The “total mountain”, according to Nan Shepherd, its quietly radical author, who has already published three modernist novels and a slim collection of poems. A “traffic of love” written in the midst of a war driven by hate. A deeply sensual and philosophical meditation on the Cairngorm massif, where Shepherd would spend a lifetime walking, looking, thinking, and occasionally sleeping.

What happens next? She sends the manuscript to her friend and fellow writer Neil Gunn who declares it “beautifully done” but warns that it will be difficult to get published. An attempt results in a rejection. And so The Living Mountain ends up in a drawer, unpublished for another three decades. Shepherd returns to teaching and walking. She never writes another book.

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“The Scottish literary renaissance was broadly driven by hard-drinking nationalists,” explains Erlend Clouston, Shepherd’s literary executor and close friend of the writer who died in 1981, four years after The Living Mountain was finally published. “Nan was a modest person and never said so herself, but she was excluded. She was allowed to drift over the horizon and by the Fifties she had put away her pen. If you go to Edinburgh’s Central Library there are books inches thick about modern Scottish writing that contain no mention of her. This is a woman who we are now comparing to Virginia Woolf. Yet she just vanished.”

Now, finally, Shepherd is emerging from the shadows and The Living Mountain is being recognised as a masterpiece, amongst the greatest works of nature writing to come out of Britain. In 2011 Canongate reissued the still obscure work as one of the 12 founding classics of its Canons series, and since then writers including Robert Macfarlane – who was the first writer to champion Shepherd and in 2014 made an acclaimed BBC documentary about The Living Mountain – Ali Smith, and Kathleen Jamie have lined up to sing her praises. At the same time, our appetite for fleet-footed and stubbornly unclassifiable nature writing, often written by women, continues to grow. Thirty-five years after her death, Shepherd finds herself in the previously unimaginable position of becoming a household name.

And the resurgence continues. Last October the Royal Bank of Scotland released its new Scottish five pound note featuring Shepherd against a backdrop of her beloved Cairngorms: the first woman writer to grace a Scottish banknote. The Quarry Wood, her debut novel, is now spoken of in the same breath as Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. Her publisher, Canongate, tells me The Living Mountain has sold in excess of 45,000 copies and rights in China have recently gone for the largest amount ever paid for one of her books. A biography is in the works, rumours about a film adaptation abound, and a blue plaque is planned for her home in West Cults, where she was born in 1893 and where she remained her entire life, sleeping in the same bedroom.

“I find it amazing that the Grampian novels came out at the same time as Virginia Woolf’s,” says Amy Liptrot, winner of the 2016 Wainwright Prize for The Outrun, who has written the introduction to a reissue of The Weatherhouse – Shepherd’s second novel, and widely considered her best. “She was working a long way from the literary establishment, yet these are vast modernist works, multi perspectival, exploratory and made in Aberdeenshire.”

First published in 1930, The Weatherhouse is set in the aftermath of the First World War. Suffering from shellshock, Garry Forbes returns from the Western Front to the fictional town of Fetter-Rothnie in north-east Scotland, and is slowly drawn into the community of mothers, daughters and widows living at the Weatherhouse, who, during the war years, have become accustomed to a life without men. As Liptrot points out in her introduction, the village described in the book “is a microcosm of the country at that time, pursuing a traditional way of life in a changed world,” and there is much to enjoy here, too, for readers who enjoyed The Living Mountain. Liptrot describes The Weatherhouse as “a sensory thing that would speak to anyone who has known the Scottish land.”

In Edinburgh I meet Clouston at his Georgian home, which doubles up as an elegant B&B and – if you look more closely – a rather idiosyncratic shrine to Shepherd. Guests are greeted by Shepherd’s grandfather clock in the hall. In the drawing room, her book collection lines an entire wall. There are framed photos of Shepherd in her beloved hills, a sampler she made when she was six, and Clouston’s most prized piece of “Shepherdania”: a postcard she once sent him with a doodle entitled “Nan climbing a hill at Braemar”.

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How did he know Shepherd? “In her twenties Nan formed an attachment with the one-year-old grand-daughter of her neighbours, which remained solid through her life,” Clouston explains. “That baby was Sheila Roger, my mother, and Nan ended up leaving her her house and copyright.”

Clouston recalls coming down from Shetland, where he grew up, to stay at Shepherd’s house during the holidays. He tells me about the mangle room, “which terrified us”, the creaky stairs, wood pannelling, and books everywhere, the home-brewed ginger beer and malt in the stone-flagged pantry and the conservatory at the back of the house where Shepherd would sit reading, surrounded by geraniums.

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“She was a fantastic woman to have as a friend. We used to spend hours on the rug in front of her fireplace making forts and she would be on her hands and knees with us. She took me for walks. We went down to London to see Laurence Olivier. We went to Switzerland on a walking holiday. She was part of the wallpaper of our lives. A wonderful spirit.”

The Living Mountain continues to influence contemporary writers. “It’s the deep knowledge, attentiveness and space given to things that might often be dismissed,” Liptrot tells me. “That’s what makes it a beautiful thing. I love to think of Nan out walking by herself or with her scientist and writer friends, getting to know the hills over many decades. She is a role model of how I would like my life to be.”

For Clouston, who jokes that he was probably the last person to be in bed with Shepherd (who never married) because she liked to read him Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories in bed, the recognition of her slender but extraordinary oeuvre is richly deserved, and long overdue. On a shelf in his study sits a crumpled RBS Shepherd fiver: the photograph of her, in which she wears a headband and heroic expression, was taken while she was student in Aberdeen. It is a remarkable image: disarming, timeless, and uber-cool. “She was not a vain person and never went to the hairdresser in her life,” Clouston laughs when I ask him about the story behind it. “But for some reason she went to get a portrait done at a local studio and there was a length of photographer’s film lying on a table. On a whim she picked it up, wrapped it around her head, and stuck a brooch on it. It was a kind of Wagnerian princess look. The one vanity project of her entire life is now her public image.”

What would Shepherd make of her newfound fame? “Part of her would be horrified at the thought of being traded for a pint in a Dundee pub,” Clouston says. “Another part of her would feel honoured, especially in the context of the invisibility she experienced in her lifetime. She has been erased from history for too long.”

*The Weatherhouse is now available as a Canongate Canon, with a new introduction by Amy Liptrot