“ONE never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it,” wrote Nan Shepherd. Yet her book The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s, published in 1977, and re-issued in 2014 to widespread acclaim, chronicles her attempt to do just that in a lifetime of walking in the Cairngorms.
Into The Mountain, Glenfeshie, Cairngorms ****
Shepherd’s knowledge of the mountains was intimate and engaged. Rather than conquering summits, she chose to observe in detail, using all her senses. Reading it today, her book feels ahead of its time, both in its direct, observational style and in its sensitivity to the holistic ecology of the landscape.
Dance piece Into The Mountain is the result of artist and choreographer Simone Kenyon’s long-held ambition to make a piece of work inspired by Shepherd’s book, commissioned by the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden with co-commissioners Cairngorms National Park Authority, City Moves Dance Agency, Dance North Scotland and Tramway.
Small groups of audience members (capacity is just 30 for each of the four performances) are guided into the Cairngorms on a walk of at least two hours (there are three routes, of varying height and difficulty). The 30-minute performance is staged in a secluded area above the treeline with five dancers and a choir, a group of local women led by Lucy Duncombe, who perform an abstract a cappella score by the artist Hanna Tuulikki.
Shepherd was never deterred by bad weather, and neither were we as we hiked up through the glen in intensifying drizzle. Safi, our facilitator, encouraged us with short readings from The Living Mountain, while Sue, our mountain guide, explained details of the landscape we walked through. Gradually, we began to absorb Shepherd’s quiet, focused enthusiasm, noticing more and more about our surroundings.
A snatch of music, almost like a bird call, signalled the start of the performance. Soon, the five dancers were bounding down the heather slopes towards us, their trousers and jumpers like those Shepherd herself would have worn, their hair braided as hers is in the now famous photograph used for the Scottish five pound note. For a moment, we were transported back to the days when she roamed these hills with similar energy and enthusiasm.
While Tuulikki’s score turned from rhythmic to haunting, seeming to mingle with the sound of the rain, the dancers engaged more and more deeply with the landscape, studying it, walking barefoot on it and finally falling into it, becoming, as far as is possible, one with the mountain.
While such a delicate intervention can’t really encompass all the preparation – months of interviews, walking and exploring – which have informed it, Kenyon’s ethos was clear: deep collaboration with fellow artists, with women who have a relationship with the Cairngorms today, and with Shepherd herself, and a deep respect for and understanding of this place.
Taken as a whole, Into The Mountain opens up ways of engaging with place which are less about pitting one’s strength and skills against the mountain and more about observing, absorbing, appreciating.
Did it capture the essence of the mountain? That, as Shepherd herself acknowledged, would be too great a feat. The essence of Nan Shepherd, however, was surely present, both at the performance and along the way.
Until 2 June