Tag Archives: The Living Mountain

Into the Mountain by Charlotte Peacock

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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The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About half a century ago I went skiing during the school holidays in the newly opened resort of Aviemore in the Cairngorms in the highlands of Scotland. I was with a group of young friends and my brother heroically drove our Bedford van the whole way from South Wales. I chiefly remember the bitter cold in the newly erected dormitories. Was there any heating in that building? And relentless damp fog. And the nightlife, which was boozy and fun. Of the Cairngorms I saw almost nothing. I have never been skiing again.

I have learned more about the Cairngorms from Nan Shepherd’s short book, The Living Mountain, than I did on that visit long ago. She writes about the fog, the mist, and the cold. And she writes about discovering the mountains at other times of year and in other weathers. And in other ways. She loved them.

The Living Mountainby Nan Shepherd

Like many people I was made aware of the existence of this book when I read Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. I wanted to read it from that moment and now the time has arrived. My good friend Jane gave me a copy for my birthday, and my book group will discuss Nan Shepherd’s biography by Charlotte Peacock (Into the Mountain) in a few weeks.

The substance ofThe Living Mountain is twelve chapters each exploring an aspect of the Cairngorms: the plateau, water, mist, sleep, life, the senses and so on. I am amazed that a writer can so fully convey the sense of a place. The writing digs deeply into her love of the Cairngorms and her extensive experience of exploring them. She offers us more than a version of what she knows of the place. She also explains how she came to experience the mountains, how she has learned to be in the living mountain.

The title reveals her sense of the connectedness of all aspects of the mountain. It is a living thing; not just a series of summits to be conquered, not just a host for the fauna, flora and humankind. But also the geology, the topography, the weather and the deep history of the granite range. She was describing an ecosystem before the phrase was coined.

As I have indicated, her precious gift to the reader is that she teaches us that there are other ways to enjoy the mountains than to rush to the summits, or make heroic climbs. Rather, people can perceive the mountains through all their senses, and especially by sleeping and awakening in them.

Respect for the natural world, approaching it with humility and openheartedness, learning to use all the senses, sometimes just being quiet, this is what Nan Shepherd teaches us.

Once, on a night of such clear cold silence, long past midnight, lying awake outside the tent, my eyes on the plateau where an afterwash of light was lingering. I heard in the stillness a soft, an almost imperceptible thud. It was enough to make me turn my head. There on the tent pole a tawny owl stare down at me. I could just discern his shape against the sky. I stared back. He turned his head about, now one eye upon me, now the other, then melted down into the air so silently that had I not been watching him I could not have known he was gone. To have heard the movement of the midnight owl – that was rare, it was a minor triumph. (96-7)

Her writing in this book has a particular quality: it is often in the use of a very sensual and unexpected adjective in her descriptions. ‘clear, cold silence’ and ‘melted down into the air’ in the previous extract. Also::

tang of height (9) a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped (12), water is speaking (22), whips of wind (37), the thin silver singing among the last trees that tell me the tits are there (68).

And it is her philosophical approach that may of her readers find great pleasure. Here is her final paragraph.

I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self that takes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain. (108)

This classic study of the mountains was written at the end of the Second World War but it seems that Nan Shepherd did not believe there was a market for such a book so it was not published until much later – 1977.

Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) was a feminist, who lived all her life in North Deeside, and never married. She did adopt a child. Her life was unconventional. Having graduated from the University of Aberdeen, she taught English Literature at a teacher training college. And she wrote three novels, all based in her home area.

There is a long and very helpful introduction by Robert Macfarlane in the Canongate edition.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherdfirst published in 1977. I used the edition from Canongate with an introduction by Robert Macfarlane. 114pp

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