Reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain
(Dr Garry Mackenzie & Dr Christina Alt)
Recently, I was invited by Dr Garry Mackenzie to sit in on a St Andrews reading group discussing Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Garry has developed a course offering ‘A Literary Tour Around Scotland’ as part of the St Andrews Open Association continuing education programme. Garry explained that while many members of the group are long-time participants in the programme, some were taking this course because of its particular focus on Scottish literature, and one participant, a keen hillwalker, had signed up for the course specifically because he had read The Living Mountain before and wanted an opportunity to talk about it, as well as other books with a focus on Scottish places.
I am a recent arrival in Scotland and a new but enthusiastic convert to Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. It was Shepherd’s playful yet purposeful subversion of conventional approaches to viewing and interacting with a landscape that first inspired my interest in her work. This subversion is perhaps best encapsulated in her suggestion:
Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become! From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity… Details are no longer part of a grouping in which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. (11)
Shepherd’s recommended stance offers a refreshing alternative to the traditional image of the climber upright upon a summit, and Shepherd’s departure from conventional poses encapsulates her wider effort to defamiliarise both the landscape around her and the conceptual frames through which we habitually view nature in order to make these newly and differently visible and interpretable.
I owe my own acquaintance with Shepherd’s writing to the recent resurgence of interest in her work encouraged by figures associated with the new nature writing such as Robert Macfarlane and to new work on Shepherd such as Charlotte Peacock’s biographical study Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd. I was therefore interested to hear how readers with a longer familiarity with both Shepherd’s writing and the landscape of the Cairngorms that she describes viewed her work.
Garry opened the group discussion with an account of Shepherd’s life, work, and reputation in relation to both early twentieth-century writers of the Scottish Renaissance such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Neil Gunn and the emerging ‘canon’ of twentieth-century nature writing including works such J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams.
As Garry observed, the new Scottish £5 note depicting Nan Shepherd nicely illustrates the recent rise in Shepherd’s reputation. It was notable, however, that several members of the reading group had known Shepherd’s The Living Mountain for a long time. One participant owned the original 1977 Aberdeen University Press edition of the book, she and her husband having bought it many years ago because of their interest in the Cairngorms. The book was part of her long-term acquaintance with the place. Another participant, the hillwalker mentioned above, had come across The Living Mountain through hill-walking word-of-mouth. He praised it as refreshingly different to other books about the Scottish hills: more vivid in its language and sensory richness and suggesting a motive for hillwalking other than the usual ‘Munro-bagging’ emphasis on reaching the summit.
Other members of the group with an interest in hillwalking though without a long familiarity with the Cairngorms also appreciated Shepherd’s approach to her surroundings. One participant said that reading The Living Mountain had changed the way she would look at the landscapes through which she walked. She felt that Shepherd’s intense interest in the minute details of her surroundings rather than the business of reaching a summit offered a new model for experience while walking. Another expressed a similar appreciation for Shepherd’s idea that being in the hills was a process of moving carefully and attentively through or into a landscape, rather than quickly and superficially over it. Participants appreciated The Living Mountain for the subjective nature of Shepherd’s narrative and its simultaneously egoless quality and noted the fusion of observation and philosophical reflection in her work.
Several members also noted the environmental awareness in Shepherd’s writing and her sense of nature as at once powerfully enduring and vulnerable to human activity. For some of the participants who had moved to Scotland fairly recently and had not read Shepherd before, The Living Mountain inspired them to visit the Cairngorms. One participant pointed out, however, that rather than presenting the Highlands as an unspoilt wilderness, as tourism promotions often do, The Living Mountain – like other books that Garry had chosen for the reading group (notably Susan Fletcher’s novel Witch Light, set in Glencoe) – stressed the interactions between the human and the non-human in Scottish landscapes. Shepherd’s discussion of crofting in the Cairngorms, for example, emphasised how even these remote parts of the Highlands had a long history of human habitation, and she drew attention to the fact that the economy of the red deer was only the most recent of a series of human economies to shape the Highlands. Garry also pointed out the interest that past methods of land use in the Highlands had from the point of view of sustainability.
It was clear from the group discussion that for readers long familiar with the Cairngorms as well as for those new to the landscape that Shepherd described, The Living Mountain suggested new and varied ways of seeing, moving through, and inhabiting a landscape.
by Dr Christina Alt and Dr Garry Mackenzie