Today marks the 128th birthday of Nan Shepherd, one of Scotland’s most celebrated but also most elusive writers. For this feature we were delighted to interview writer and poet Charlotte Peacock, author of Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd, as well as Wild Geese: A Collection of Nan Shepherd’s Writings.
As Charlotte explains in this interview, Shepherd was one of the best-known writers of 1930s Scotland, then faded into literary obscurity. Then, in 1977, came the work for which she is most famous, The Living Mountain – a short but powerful reflection of Shepherd’s experiences walking in the Cairngorms.
With increasing interest in her work over the last few years, and even with her image appearing on the £5 banknote, Charlotte tells us how the world has finally caught up with the wonderful life and legacy of Nan Shepherd.
What first sparked your interest in Nan Shepherd?
It was Robert Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways, which I read in 2014. Until then, I’d never heard of Nan Shepherd or The Living Mountain. Intrigued by Macfarlane’s descriptions of her book, I promptly went out and bought it. Then I read it and re-read it.
Because it’s the kind of book that bears re-reading. Every time you open it, you find something surprising, a new insight, or shift in perspective. But I also found myself growing more and more curious about its author.
Who was this woman, wandering around the Cairngorms, often alone, in the late 1920s and 30s? This woman who turned herself upside down to see the earth as it must see itself, who bathed naked in tarns, walked barefoot on heather and slept out on the plateau on summer nights?
I did some digging, but biographical information about Shepherd was scant. What little I did find, raised more questions than it answered.
In the 1930s Shepherd was one of Scotland’s best-known writers. Between 1928 and 1934 she published three novels and a volume of poetry. Hailed as a writer of genius, she was declared Scotland’s answer to Virginia Woolf.
And then? Nothing. Shepherd didn’t produce another major work until The Living Mountain in 1977. In the meantime, her books went out of print and she appeared to have slipped into literary obscurity.
Why the forty-year literary silence, I wondered. And, why did the manuscript of The Living Mountain lie unpublished in a drawer for over three decades?
There were mysteries, too, in Shepherd’s personal life. Who, for example, was the subject of the sonnets in her poetry collection, In the Cairngorms? Shepherd never said. But as I soon discovered, Nan Shepherd was as reticent about herself as she was about her writing.
There seems to have been a revival of interest in The Living Mountain over the last few years. Why now?
Back in the 1940s when Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain, the only person who read the manuscript was her friend, the novelist Neil Gunn. ‘And that he should like it was not strange,’ she says in her foreword to the book ‘because our minds met in just such experiences as I was striving to describe’.
Both writers were aware that their work was ahead of its time. ‘I can see, Nan, that the world doesn’t want the well-water,’ Gunn wrote to Shepherd in 1946. ‘It doesn’t know that it needs it’.
When The Living Mountain did eventually appear in print in 1977, it was moderately successful. But many simply didn’t get it.
So why now? I think it’s simple really. The world has finally caught up. It knows it needs the well-water.
Nan Shepherd is often associated with the Scottish Literary Renaissance. Did Shepherd think of herself as being part of a cultural movement?
She was definitely engaged with the issues concerning the Scottish literary revivalists. You only have to read her correspondence with Agnes Mure Mackenzie, Helen Cruickshank and Hugh MacDiarmid to see that.
Also, given the timing, and that she said she only wrote when she felt there was ‘something that simply must be written’, you could read her novels as a response to the literary renaissance movement. Certainly, all three of them show characteristics associated with it. Not least, her experimental, narrative technique.
But I don’t think Shepherd would care to be categorised. She hated the idea of movements, rules, and schools being applied to art.
‘All categories are absurd where art is concerned,’ she said in an interview in 1931. ‘Mental inertia makes one flick a book into a category and then suppose that is all there is to it. Whereas what there is to it is an individual mind, a mode of experience, a whole universe, one unique vision of truth. Or should be’.
Shepherd is best known for The Living Mountain, but could you also tell us a little about her fiction? What would you recommend to readers?
If you’ve read The Living Mountain and you’re looking for more of Shepherd’s lyricism, her novels won’t disappoint. Her fiction is as sensory as her non-fiction. Her imagery, rooted in the Scottish landscape, can be as condensed and compact as poetry. And like The Living Mountain, The Weatherhouse, in particular, offers endlessly shifting perspectives.
Unsentimental portraits of rural communities, Shepherd’s novels are shot through with her trademark wry humour. But she’s not without compassion for her characters and has an acute grasp of the pleasure and toughness of rural life.
She’s deft at conjuring a character, too — sometimes in no more than a couple of brush strokes. There’s Bawbie Paterson ‘with her goat’s beard, her rough hairy tweed like the pelt of an animal’ in The Weatherhouse. And the brassy Bella Cassie in A Pass in the Grampians, with ‘her impudent copper hair puffed out in front’, carrying ‘her curves like a Queen’.
If you’re new to Shepherd’s fiction, I’d start with The Quarry Wood. It was her first book, published in 1928 and as well as being heavily autobiographical — as first novels often are —it’s also her most accessible.
Her best novel, I think, is The Weatherhouse. It’s my favourite of the three and perhaps the hardest to get into. But it’s all the more rewarding for it.
I’m also a big fan of Descent from the Cross. A long, short story at 10,000 words, you’ll find it in Wild Geese, along with a selection of Shepherd’s other prose writing and some previously unpublished poetry.
What does Shepherd’s fiction tell us about Scotland (or at least her corner of it) at the time – particularly about women’s lives?
All Shepherd’s novels are set in rural communities of Scotland’s North-East. It was a landscape and people Shepherd knew well. She lived in Aberdeenshire all her life, much of it in the same house. And, all of her novels explore women’s identity and position in early twentieth century society.
It was a period when opportunities for women were expanding after all, what with the right to vote and access to higher education and into the professions. Aberdonian society, however, was slow to change and in the 1920s it was still heavily patriarchal.
What’s more, societal expectations were not just down to male attitudes. As Shepherd’s novels reveal, paradoxically, it was often women who upheld these patriarchal prejudices. Women like the conservative Leggatt aunts, the epitome of middle-class, staid respectability, whom Shepherd so deliciously satirises in The Quarry Wood.
Shepherd’s heroines are all educated young women, living in tight-knit rural communities in the early decades of the twentieth-century. Realising there must be something more for them in life than the roles allocated to them, each one grapples with her social situation, trying to strike a balance between challenge and acquiescence. It was a struggle Shepherd understood; it mirrored her own.
Your biography paints a picture of an ‘elusive’ writer. Could you say a little more about this? Did anything about her life surprise you?
Enigmatic and elusive are the adjectives most used about Nan Shepherd. Time and again journalists remarked on how taciturn she was on the subject her writing. Of course, for an Aberdonian, ‘self-praise is nae recommendation. But it wasn’t just about her writing she was reticent.
Shepherd was an intensely private person. A listener, not a talker, she had a talent for ‘untroubling silences’. The day Jessie Kesson first met her on the train, for example, Kesson says they ‘tired the sun with talking’. Yet during their entire conversation, the only information Shepherd volunteered about herself was that she was off to walk in the hills.
She left no journals and much of her correspondence was pitched out. In some instances, the letters extant in her archives are carefully censored. Lines are scored through, pages snipped into and sometimes completely torn out. Even in her commonplace books, into which she copied extracts of writers’ work she admired, there is rarely any personal comment.
I think there was a very good reason for Shepherd’s reticence: fear of censure. A few months before she died in 1981, she wrote to a friend who’d apparently suggested she write her memoirs: ‘As for writing about my experiences,’ she said, ‘if I did that recognisably, I’d be for it’.
In 1920s bohemian London, the Bloomsbury crowd lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles. They made no secret of their unconventional attitudes. But prim and proper Aberdeen could not have been further from Bloomsbury in its outlook and relished gossip. If Aberdonians loved in triangles, they kept it to themselves.
Nan Shepherd could not afford a whiff of scandal. It would have affected her family as well as her career. It was vital she at least appeared to conform to the role of respectable, modest, middle-class woman foisted on her by society.
It took some unravelling, but when I finally worked out the identity of the man she was in love with for many years, I wasn’t surprised she had kept it secret. The only thing about Nan Shepherd that really surprised me, was that she never learned to drive.