At the current moment, thanks to the wonders of Google, the most popular post on this blog is It’s a grand thing to get leave to live, a post influenced by the appearance of Nan Shepherd and her line ‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live’ on the Royal Bank of Scotland five pound note. Nan Shepherd’s best-known work is The Living Mountain, published late in her life after being put in a drawer for thirty years. It is a wonderous book and I’ve read it a good few times now, most recently a couple months ago. Should I ever be consigned to a desert island, and I don’t think Kirsty Young has any plans to do so, it would be the book I would take. Never mind the discs, the book’s picked out. I have never actually been to the Cairngorms but this book about the experience of being in the mountains resonates in so many ways. Nan Shepherd was a skilled writer as well as mountaineer and there are a few incredibly well-crafted phrases in The Living Mountain. My favourite is from the preface, written in 1977, about the validity of the tale itself:
‘That it was a traffic of love is sufficiently clear; but love pursued with fervour is one of the roads to knowledge’.
That was just a throwaway line at the end of a preface talking about the changes to the Cairngorms over three decades and about the delay in the book’s publication. It is the best line and one that sums up human experience in just a few short words.
One of the best parts of life I find is discovering other people with shared passions. Niche interests are great, those that are a secret to most folk, of no interest to most, probably, but I like it when things I like become popular. Nan Shepherd was mentioned twice in the recent feminist essay collection Nasty Women (published by 404 Ink), once in an essay about foraging by Alice Tarbuck and the other by Chitra Ramaswamy about pregnancy. The latter point was a very intriguing one about how the female experience and pregnancy in particular should be written about in a ‘sensual, aimless’ way, much as Nan Shepherd did about walking in the Cairngorms. Alice Tarbuck’s essay about foraging talks about how Nan Shepherd wrote about going into the mountains rather than simply going up them, as many male writers do, writing more about the self rather than about the landscape around them. As much as this book broadened my perspective about the world generally, it also gave me a greater sense of Nan Shepherd and her effect and influence on other people and in areas beyond what she wrote about.
I am greatly looking forward to reading Charlotte Peacock’s biography Into The Mountain: A Life Of Nan Shepherd, published recently by Galileo Publishers, which the critic Alan Taylor notes has offered ‘a portrait of an enigmatic and elusive woman’. There were quite a few Scottish female authors working in the middle of the 20th century who are now obscure, shamefully, and we need to bring these writers into greater focus, including Jessie Kesson. Nan Shepherd said it best, as so often, when she talked about the hills, ‘Yet to listen is better than to speak’.
A bit of blog business before I go. In a few weeks time, I will be posting here for the 400th time. To celebrate that, like with the 300th, I’m opening it up to suggestions. The 300th was about library carpets and the scarcity of public toilets, incidentally. Feel free to put a comment below or send an email.