November 24, 2019


Country Matters on Booksquawk

Potters’ and Planters’ Almanac, part two

The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd (160 pages, Canongate. Audio version read by Tilda Swinton)

Review by Pat Black

During her lifetime, Nan Shepherd achieved a degree of success thanks to her modernist novels. But her literary legacy has arguably been secured almost four decades after her death by a non-fiction book about her beloved mountains which she almost didn’t publish at all.

The Living Mountain has become a classic of its kind, a touchstone of modern nature writing. Since a modest first printing from Aberdeen University Press in 1977, it has acquired a quiet power and permanence which she would never have imagined when she wrote it, in the years after the second world war.

The Living Mountain refers to the Cairngorms, the type of mountain range in the Highlands of Scotland that demands to be placed on a postcard, or framed above a grandmother’s mantelpiece. As the title suggests, Shepherd sees the hills, peaks, lochs, wildlife and foliage as a constantly shifting, mutable thing, formed by the movement of glaciers during the Ice Age, and prone to the immense changes in geography and climate over time that render our lifetimes insignificant.

She speaks of the shifting colours with every season – the reds, browns and yellows of autumn, the stark white and black of the snowbound winters. And then there’s the sublime summers, when Scotland enjoys more light than many other places, edging towards the short Arctic nights when the sun plays up, refusing to go to bed, the skies dancing with the Northern Lights.

There’s plenty of rain, of course. You won’t read much about that on the Scottish tourism websites. Two good Scottish words for you learn, if you’re planning a trip there: drookit and dreich.

Water features prominently in this book; particularly how it forms the land and continues to have an effect on its topography, especially when transmuted into snow and ice. And she doesn’t half like swimming in it. When Nan Shepherd goes for a dip in the bitter waters of a remote loch, she reveals the sudden thrill, if that’s the right word, of seeing the rocky shelf at her feet drop away into untold depths. She might be a forebear of today’s wild swimmers, though she would have chuckled, as most of us do, at the sight of people in neoprene.

I am glad Robert Macfarlane picked up on the sensual thread that runs through The Living Mountain; I would have been a little bit embarrassed to talk about it here, otherwise. I’d say it runs beyond the sensual and edges into the erotic, at times. The thrill of cold water running over her body; the mention of companions alongside her, without ever identifying them in any way; even the bite of the wind, is all rendered in unmistakeably charged terms. Ekstasis is a good old Greek word to learn if you’re planning a trip through this book.  

There’s death on the living mountain. Shepherd details scary incidents involving mountain rescuers, who are sometimes sent out into appalling conditions with little hope of finding the lost. Sometimes the bodies are found within hours; sometimes you have to wait for the thaw. Shepherd highlights the case of two young lads, and their excited jottings in a communal logbook just before they set out to walk in snowy conditions. At time of writing, they had just hours to live. Confused and hypothermic, they got into trouble on the hills. Their bodies bore scrapes and abrasions which revealed they had been crawling on their hands and knees at one point. You could see their excited chatter as a ghastly joke from fate’s filthy mouth. I prefer to see it as a tribute to their destroyed, and yet curiously preserved innocence.

There is plenty of wreckage on the living mountain. During wartime, the Highlands were a training ground for air crews and commando units, and one plane crashed into the mountainside with no survivors. Shepherd details the work of the mountain rescuers in locating the wreck and retrieving the bodies. The work, the grim work, is often highlighted over the leisure by this author.

Shepherd has a bit of a sharp tongue for young people who arrive ill-prepared for the hills, or who subscribe to a more away-with-the-fairies view of this beautiful, but deadly place. She’s a tad unkind – surely Nan Shepherd used to be one of those young people, craving adventure and romance in remote, gorgeous places? This harkens back to a distinctly Presbyterian attitude we see in Scotland and Scottish writing which we struggle to throw off to this very day. In his afterword, Robert Macfarlane notes Shepherd’s references to the hard work involved in climbing the hills and the actual graft of people who earn a living off it.

It can be hard work at times, to be sure, but I would never relate the pleasure in climbing hills and mountains to anything as degrading as work. It’s been a while since I climbed any mountains, and I feel horror when I realise I might not climb another one. By the time my kids are old enough to take into the mountains, hillwalking might be the last thing I want to do.

Of course, Shepherd takes note of the creatures who scurry across the bleak hillsides - and the things that hunt them. There’s encounters with stags, with mountain hares whose whitewashed coats are life during the frigid months, but death should there be a mild winter or a sudden thaw. She has a keen eye for the birds of prey, in particular the awesome golden eagles. Shepherd is amused to note that some observers confuse these wheeling bringers of death up in the sky with planes and gliders. What’s my favourite animal? It’s got to be up there, Les. Top five answer for sure.

Where she is particularly strong is in describing the plants, trees and animals which thrive in seemingly inhospitable places. She notes that some of these flowers were proven to have actually survived the Ice Age.

Like JA Baker’s The Peregrine, this is a short book, but shot through with a profundity and a clarity that most books would kill for. Certainly it doesn’t hurt matters to have Tilda Swinton narrating the audiobook, a case of the poet and her figures being matched to lethal effect much as Odysseus might string his bow. Whether piped into your ears or sweeping across a page in your lap, this has become an essential book, and one you really have to experience if you’re a fan of nature writing. Or maybe just writing.

What of our author? She’s an enigma. I guess she liked it that way. Wikipedia tells us she was “unmarried”, which tells us nothing. If you go to that page, you’ll see an extraordinary photo of her, with a brooch fixed to what appears to be a bandanna wrapped around her head (it’s actually a length of photographic film – apparently she just took a notion). It’s an image the Royal Bank of Scotland saw fit to put on its £5 notes, which you might struggle to spend south of the border if you are faced with a particular kind of idiot behind a counter. She wouldn’t have taken kindly to that, I feel sure.

Considering her today, she looks like something from fantasy artwork and literature – not a figure of male lust from Frank Frazetta or Robert E Howard, but utterly formidable, someone not to mess with. A queen, or a mighty warrior. She was both of these things.

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