Not many weeks ago I blogged about The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. This was a book I had wanted to read for sometime. Then our book group decided to read this biography of Nan Shepherd for our November meeting. I imagined she was an intrepid and relentless walker and explorer of hills before I read the story of her life. I was glad to find out that she was this and so much more.
Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock
She lived a long life: born in 1893 and dying in 1981. Her life was an interesting one, not least because she lived near Aberdeen all that time. She travelled and had friends in other places, especially in Scotland. By using bus and rail she ranged widely from her home in Cults. When her parents first moved there it was a village, but it is now a suburb of Aberdeen.
She was educated during the First World War at Aberdeen University, and went on to teach literature at the Teacher Training Centre. Her life was much involved with writing, and with Scottish writing in particular. She wrote three novels all set in northeast Scotland.
- The Quarry Wood (1928)
- The Weatherhouse (1930) and
- A Pass in the Grampians (1933)
She also wrote poetry, publishing a collection called In the Cairngorms in 1934. She corresponded and spent time with many Scottish literary figures, and was herself considered an influential modernist writer of the Scottish renaissance.
Towards the end of the Second World War she completed The Living Mountain, her description of her explorations of the Cairngorms. She sought advice, and approached one or two publishers, but it was not considered saleable, and it was not published until 1977 when the public mood had changed. Recent success has been attributed to Robert Macfarlane’s responses to the book in The Wild Places (2012).
Nan Shepherd was a feminist. She is known to have been the lover of the philosopher John Macmurray, who married one of her school friends. She lived with her parents until they died, and never married. She adopted a daughter, Sheila.
Writing the biography
This was a tough book to read. The subject and the impending Book Group discussion kept me at it. But it was hard.
In part the book was a prisoner of too much research. Every possible connection seems to have been traced. One can admire this, but would like a little discrimination in the use of the research. It also contained 1112 endnotes, and (a bit of a bugbear this) while some of them were simply references, others contained information such as the disputes about the resurrection of Scots language and dialect. There was no way to tell which was which from the body of the text, and no way I was going to check 1112 notes.
Even more, it lacked a good dose of hard editing. If Charlotte Peacock had been writing in my university class I would have written SO WHAT? frequently on her drafts. We were served up with lots of information, but the connection to Nan Shepherd was not always clear.
For example the opening paragraph of the chapter 1936-43 begins with an announcement of the abdication, and a recording a visit to Aberdeen by the new King where he left his duties to his brother in favour of meeting Mrs Wallis Simpson. The connection to Nan Shepherd is not made.
Another example: the opening chapter is called 1941. It concerns a meeting with another writer on a train. But why this episode was used as the introductory chapter is not clear.
And the lack of explanation was especially true of the many references to the many people in her life. It was hard to know the significance of the person unless reminded by the author.
And further, her personal life was hardly revealed by this long biography. Instead the writer has used the characters from her novels to presume Nan Shepherd’s reactions. Adopting a child, losing a brother, her attitude to the First and Second World Wars, none of this made its way into the text. She was indeed a private person, and perhaps this information is not available.
Despite all this the subject is important. She has been recognised in Scotland by her appearance on the £5 note.
And, according to Erland Clouston, who knew her when he was a child and is her literary executor, she teaches us to see what we haven’t noticed before. This is a valuable skill for a writer.
Into the Mountain: a life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock. Published in2017 by Galileo Publishers. 393pp
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