Irene Allan on playing author Nan Shepherd in a new play about her life

As she prepares to star in Richard Baron and Ellie Zeegen’s new play Nan Shepherd: Naked And Unashamed at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Irene Allan tells Mark Fisher how rehearsals have made her “obsessed” with the author’s work

Fame is fickle. Today, you can see the face of Nan Shepherd, set against a backdrop of Highland wilderness, on your Royal Bank of Scotland £5 notes. She and scientist Mary Somerville were the first women the bank had ever featured. During lockdown, The Living Mountain, her 80-page account of walking in the Cairngorms, attracted a new generation of readers. When so many of us felt a longing for the great outdoors, Shepherd’s poetic vision became a form of escape.

Yet in her lifetime, whether by accident or design, the author went from popularity to obscurity. Born in East Peterculter near Aberdeen in 1893, she was one of the first female graduates of the University of Aberdeen before becoming a lecturer in English at Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers (later Aberdeen College of Education).

Hide Ad

In the 1920s and 30s, she was acclaimed as a modernist writer, publishing three novels in quick succession, The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930) and A Pass In The Grampians (1933). She also published a poetry collection, In The Cairngorms (1934), and was seen as Scotland’s answer to Virginia Woolf.

Irene Allan and David Rankine PIC: Fraser BandIrene Allan and David Rankine PIC: Fraser Band
Irene Allan and David Rankine PIC: Fraser Band

For all that she was critically lauded, however, she was no less dedicated to her teaching work and would write creatively only when she felt she had something to say. Her real love was walking, first in the hills of Deeside and then in the Cairngorms. Often hiking alone, she would camp for days, forage for berries and swim naked in the lochs.

The Living Mountain was her reflection on these treks. She wrote it during the Second World War, but could not find a publisher. Not until 1977 did she dig out the manuscript and see it still had merit. Funded by her own money, it was finally published by Aberdeen University Press. Four years later, Shepherd died.

Even then, the book the Guardian would call the “finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain” made little impression. Today, thanks in no small part to a new edition released by Edinburgh publisher Canongate in 2011, with an introduction by the influential contemporary nature writer Robert Macfarlane, it has been translated into 16 languages and there is talk of a Hollywood biopic, but word was slow to get out.

Like many people, theatre director Richard Baron read The Living Mountain for the first time during the pandemic. He became fascinated by Shepherd’s life and, working with Firebrand theatre’s Ellie Zeegen, put together a three-part dramatised podcast called A Journey With Nan Shepherd. Now, Baron and Zeegan have adapted the material again for a stage play, Nan Shepherd: Naked And Unashamed, for the studio at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.

“Looking into Nan’s life, you realise there’s this huge hinterland that exists behind The Living Mountain and leading up to it,” says the director, who has worked closely with Dr Kerri Andrews, editor of Shepherd’s letters. “She wrote some fascinating novels that were precursors to the Sunset Song trilogy, set in the same time and place.”

Hide Ad

He continues: “The Living Mountain is a slim volume that is a meditation on walking in the landscape. It’s not really a guide book or a hill-climbing book, it’s more like a poetic love affair with the mountain. It’s not about scaling the heights but about realising you are part of the natural world.”

In the title role, which ranges in a non-linear way between the ages of 8 and 83, is Irene Allan, playing opposite a multitasking David Rankine who plays the many male parts. She too has become obsessed by Shepherd’s writing. “I didn’t know much about Nan Shepherd until I met Richard in a bar and he produced a £5 note and said, ‘This woman here – can you play her?’” she laughs. “I scurried away and read all her books.”

Hide Ad

As well as investigating the 30-year neglect of The Living Mountain, the play charts the life of a woman who was at the heart of Scotland’s inter-war literary renaissance as well as being an idiosyncratic thinker with progressive attitudes. “She was a fascinating character,” says Baron. “Very unconventional, although on the surface appearing like Miss Marple in a little village next to the vicar. She involved herself in a love triangle, read Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler and was a passionate teacher.”

He adds: “She was a feminist before her time. She burned her bra in 1914, gave up organised religion in the 1920s, read deeply in eastern philosophy and looked outward to Europe. She was always ahead of the clock.”

For Allan, Shepherd provided ideal material to share with her 88-year-old mother, for whom she was caring after a fall. “I read The Living Mountain to her,” she says. “I found myself in tears because she somehow manages to distil truth down to tiny fragments, like jewels. When truth presents itself at such a golden moment, it really hits you. It was perfect for my mother because we were confined to her small house – although I confess, she did fall asleep quite a lot!”

She says the play captures Shepherd’s belief that the world around us is something we all share. “Often we think we are outside of nature and we can control it, but actually we are nature,” says the actor who is also starring in The Secret Garden this summer. “We are inside it and a part of it. You and the land merge. That weaves right the way through the play. Her writing is quite stunning. If we can capture just a little bit of that magic in this production, I will be over the moon.”

Nan Shepherd: Naked And Unashamed, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 24 May until 6 July