Adventurer to follow in footsteps of trailblazing nature writer Nan Shepherd

She is a woman with altitude, following in the footsteps of the Scots writer and hillwalker whose evocative paean to one of the country’s great mountain ranges is now considered a masterpiece of nature writing.

Elise Wortley on her 2018 adventure following in Alexandra David-Nel's footsteps. She will set off tomorrow for the Cairngorms, the mountain range beloved by Nan Shepherd.
Elise Wortley on her 2018 adventure following in Alexandra David-Nel's footsteps. She will set off tomorrow for the Cairngorms, the mountain range beloved by Nan Shepherd.

Nearly eighty years after Nan Shepherd wrote her seminal and sensual exploration of the Cairngorms, a young adventurer will tomorrow begin to retrace her steps, using the same piecemeal provisions the author relied on.

Shepherd, a modernist writer and poet who spent the majority of her working life as a teacher, wrote The Living Mountain in 1945, only to keep the manuscript hidden away in a drawer for more than three decades.

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However, thanks to its publication by Canongate, the poetic, almost metaphysical meditation on her beloved Cairngorms is nowadays regarded as a cult classic.

Nearly forty years after her death, Shepherd, a self-professed “peerer into nooks and crannies,” is regarded as one of Scotland’s most important women writers - not least because of her foray into a genre traditionally dominated by men - and nowadays has pride of place on one of Royal Bank of Scotland's £5 banknotes.

For Elise Wortley, the discovery of Shepherd’s trailblazing journeys through the Cairngorms came at an opportune time in her life.

Last year, the 29-year-old recreated part of Alexandra David-Néel's celebrated trek into India, an endeavour which saw her journey through the Himalayas for a month using no modern equipment.

Kicking her heels over how to emulate the feat and shine a light on the neglected legacies of other empowering female adventurers, her mother recommended she read The Living Mountain to find some inspiration.

Now, she is steeling herself to follow where Shepherd once travelled, and scale the six highest peaks of the Cairngorms in five days, before spending a further 12 days “just living in the mountains as Nan would have.”

The aim, she says, is to raise awareness and celebrate a “groundbreaking woman” who never formed part of her lessons at school. In turn, she will raise money for Scottish Women’s Aid, and hopes her adventure will inspire a new generation in the way Shepherd has motivated her.

Ms Wortley, from London, told The Scotsman that when she first picked up a copy of The Living Mountain, she was spellbound and “transported into Nan’s world.”

“It wasn’t what I was expecting. It’s like one long poem, and the way she describes elements like water and a mountain’s plateau are just beautiful,” she recalled.

“She was writing at a time when eastern religions were starting to have an influence in western life, and you can sense that otherworldly nature to it.”

“I hope that by really immersing myself in the Cairngorms the way she did, I can understand what she was writing about a deeper level.”

True to Shepherd’s era, Ms Wortley will forego her smartphone and all other modern day comforts, and instead make do with a wooden backpack containing tweed clothing, war rations, and a canvas tent. It will, she hopes, be a transformative experience.

“You get such an amazing sense of the place reading the book, but it’s important I think to be there with no distractions and try and unravel what it was she was feeling when she wrote it, and why she put it in a drawer for 40 years,” she explained.

“She’s someone who was overshadowed by her counterparts at the time, and so I’m really excited to go where she did and celebrate her achievements.”