The year 2016 was disastrous for Indian currency notes, but good for Scotland. For the first time in its history the Royal Bank of Scotland chose to feature women on its £5 and £10 notes. A tenner will get you the 19th-century astronomer, mathematician and women’s rights campaigner Mary Somerville, after whom the famous Oxford college was named.
But not many people would recognise the fey-looking lady, her loose braids held back by a circlet, like some Celtic wood nymph, gazing off to one side of the fiver.
Nan Shepherd never aspired to Oxbridge. She lived a modest life, teaching English literature at Aberdeen College of Education, writing poetry and walking. In the 1930s, she wrote a book, a memoir of sorts, more like an extended love letter to and about the Cairngorms. The Living Mountain lay unpublished for 40 years, and has recently been reissued, with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane, who proclaims it “a masterpiece”.
Shepherd declares herself a mountain person: she puts her love of the hills down to her body, the way she was made: “At first I thought that this lightness of body was a universal reaction to rarer air. It surprised me to discover that some people suffered malaise at altitudes that released me, but were happy in low valleys where I felt extinguished.” This profound connection between body and mind, between nature and self, rings like a bell — or sounds like a clarion horn — through this slim but altogether glorious little book.
Her descriptions of the natural world — the plants, the birds and wildlife, the weather, the rocks and insects and trees — are almost surgically precise. Of the waters of Ryvorn Loch, she writes: “The greenness of the water varies according to the light, now aquamarine, now verdigris, but it is always pure green, metallic rather than vegetable.” She sees things with an artist’s eye — uncluttered by assumption. And the writing is correspondingly direct, uncluttered by cliché. She names species with a scientist’s precision, which only adds to rather than detracts from her delight in their poetry: “[The mountain’s] growth is moss and lichen and sedge, and in June the clumps of Silence — moss campion — flower in brilliant pink. Dotterel and ptarmigan nest upon it and springs ooze from its rock.”
Macfarlane’s surprise hit of 2015, a lexicography of nature words entitled Landmarks, pays tribute to Shepherd: one of his chapters takes its title from her book, and his love of the particular, the vernacular, the local is matched by hers every step of the way. Shepherd’s book is generously peppered with Scottish words and phrases: the song thrush is a ‘mavis’, magpies ‘pyets’; ‘yowies’ are pine cones, and storm clouds wonderfully onomatopoeic ‘roarie-bummlers’. I love that I now know that moss campion is also called ‘Silence’.
Like Walt Whitman, Shepherd sings the body electric. Reading her book is like sticking your finger in a socket: it flashes and sparks, and leaves you rattled and changed. Like Mary Oliver, like Alice Oswald, Shepherd’s poetry reconnects us to our senses at a time when we are increasingly losing touch: “We are love’s body, or we are undone,” she writes.
Nan Shepherd kept The Living Mountain filed away for 40 years, only consenting to its publication in 1977, four years before she died, aged 88. The new edition, published in 2011, pronounces it a ‘classic’ — and so it is, having stood the test of time. Now, her face adorns a fiver: I wonder how she would feel about that. ‘Hard cash’, as it is sometimes called, as if to protest (a little too much, perhaps) its real-ness, has never seemed less real. It is a symbol par excellence, and has never been more insubstantial, invisible than in today’s world: rendered worthless by the wave of a Prime Minister’s hand.
We experience nature through remote sensing webcams and watch snow leopards cuff their cubs on HD TV. The world comes Snapchatted and WhatsApped, side-swiped on touchscreens. Sometimes, it feels that the only sane response to the machinations of electronic modernity is to hitch up your kilt (or lungi) and “head for the hills”. Shepherd’s literary forefather, and fellow-Scot, John Muir wrote in 1897: “I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” It was Muir who also came up with the best argument for getting out into nature: “for going out, I found, was really going in.”
It’s elementary, my dear. Shepherd’s words are also disarmingly simple, yet she puts her finger on the great mysteries of life, as well as the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness itself. Standing at the source of the River Dee, she writes, “Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me. It wells from the rock, and flows away. For unnumbered years it has welled from the rock, and flowed away. It does nothing, absolutely nothing, but be itself.”
The upsurge of popularity for nature writers like Shepherd and Macfarlane speaks of a longing to return — not just a nostalgic swoon for some pastoral yesteryear, but a return to the senses, to the embodied self. As the divorce proceedings between the life of the mind and that of the body gather pace, we fight our fragmentation into bits and bytes by going out, to go in, reconnecting with the elements, and each other, ironically by books such as these.