Nan Shepherd lived on the outskirts of Aberdeen with a direct route to the mountains along the Deeside valley. She spent much of her free time outdoors, walking, sometimes with friends but also on her own. Nan became intimately acquainted with her favourite Cairngorms, loving their tiny details as much as their height and remoteness.
Immortalised on the Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note as a mystic, this atypical image fails to show the intellectual and practical woman she undoubtedly was.
Nan's first climbs in the Cairngorms, including an ascent of Ben Macdui, took place in 1928. Over the years, she developed a relationship with the mountains akin to a lasting friendship. 'The living mountain' reveals a sensitive and intimate knowledge of her beloved Cairngorms:
'Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature. And it is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here. To know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living. This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems. Yet it has its own rare value. It is, for one thing, a corrective of glib assessment: one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.'
Quote from 'The living mountain' by Nan Shepherd, 1977
Writing and legacy
Nan was a voracious reader who consumed poems, the works of friends, and philosophy with equal enjoyment. Her own musings and snippets of her climbing experiences were recorded in a series of notebooks.
Her first novel, 'The Quarry Wood', was published in 1928 and proved to be a success. Two further novels, 'The Weatherhouse' and 'A Pass in the Grampians', performed similarly well. Her most famous work, ,The living mountain,, was not published until 1977 and did not achieve mainstream success until it was re-issued decades after her death. Maybe because it was so personal to her, it was only towards the end of her life that Nan found a publisher for what is now regarded as her masterpiece. In the years since it was re-issued, ,The living mountain, has been translated into 11 languages.
Regarded as a seminal work of nature writing, 'The living mountain' presages contemporary ideas of mindfulness and wellbeing. For Nan, simply being in and with the mountains was enough.