For the last few weeks, I have been keeping a particular £5 note back. It sits normally in my mobile phone’s case. I don’t plan to spend it, not because its serial number apparently means that it is worth £30 on eBay, as of this morning as I write this, but because of what’s on it. It doesn’t have an animal fat lining like the Bank of England polymer fivers either, though I am not massively keen on spending cash with Churchill’s coupon on it anyway. The Royal Bank of Scotland have many things wrong with them. It came out recently that they are the least prepared of the banks for another financial crash. They remain 73% owned by the taxpayer and do not seem bothered to inconvenience those same taxpayers by closing bank branches left, right and centre. But their £5 note is a thing of beauty, featuring two of my favourite writers, Nan Shepherd and Sorley MacLean, so I won’t be parting with it too quickly. Wonderfully, it features Nan Shepherd’s most famous quote, the same that also appears in Makar’s Court in Edinburgh, ‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live’. Hear, hear.
These words originally appear in Nan Shepherd’s first novel The Quarry Wood, originally published in 1928. Nan Shepherd combined writing with lecturing at the teaching college in Aberdeen. Her most famous work, The Living Mountain, a wonderful paean to the Cairngorms, was written in the 1940s and not published until thirty years later, not long before its author’s death at the age of 88. It was published first by Aberdeen University Press and then by Canongate, who have published at least three editions, including the most recent one with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
I first encountered Nan Shepherd quite a few years ago. I read about her in one of Robert Macfarlane’s books and when I was in one of the National Trust castles in Aberdeenshire, I bought a copy of her most famous work, The Living Mountain, and read it in one go later that night in my auntie’s conservatory in Aberdeen. Every so often, maybe twice a year, I read it again. I must have at least three copies, digital and paper, and one currently sits in my backpack. It is a beautiful book, bringing the Cairngorms entirely to life even when sitting far from them and never having experienced them. Nan Shepherd’s writing is filled with life and the keenest of eyes for the world around her and every time I read it, my own vision improves just marginally and I see the world just that bit better.
One of my life’s ambitions is to learn Gaelic before I die. I haven’t done much about it recently except watching BBC Alba occasionally for things I would watch anyway, like football and music. Nevertheless, I will try to make sure I know all three of Scotland’s languages, even while my fluency in English is very much tinged with Scots too. One of the reasons is because I want to read Sorley MacLean’s poetry in the original. He translated his poems into English and they are beautiful in translation (read ‘Hallaig‘) but I read once that they lost a fair bit of their power in the process. The new RBS £5 note features an excerpt from ‘The Choice’, in the original Gaelic. Its opening stanza sums up the succinct wonder of poetry, that it can convey a lot of meaning in not a lot of words:
‘I walked with my reason
out beside the sea.
We were together but it was
keeping a little distance from me.’
In researching this post, I learned that another of my favourite poets, Norman MacCaig, features on the new RBS £10 note, along with the scientist Mary Somerville. According to Birlinn, Somerville’s portrait is shown alongside an illustration of Burntisland Beach, one of the prettiest parts of Scotland, seen from the railway as it wends it way towards Kinghorn, Kirkcaldy and Dundee. As much as I don’t massively like RBS, I like their style. I’m glad I use my card more, if I have to keep banknotes as mementoes.
Thanks for reading. For more about Nan Shepherd on this blog, please see my recent post The Living Mountain, as well as Glasgow Women’s Library, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, Conversations and Scriveners. If you like the blog, please do read some more or even follow, should you wish.
This post was originally published in December 2016 and revised in January 2018.
Sources and further reading –
MacLean, Sorley, From Wood To Ridge, 1999, Manchester and Edinburgh: Carcanet and Birlinn
Peacock, Charlotte, Into The Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd, 2017, Cambridge: Galileo Publishers
Shepherd, Nan, The Living Mountain, 2011, Edinburgh: Canongate
‘Norman MacCaig and Sorley MacLean feature on new RBS bank notes’, Birlinn, https://www.birlinn.co.uk/news/52/Norman%20MacCaig%20and%20Sorley%20MacLean%20feature%20on%20new%20RBS%20bank%20notes