I picked this up at the GoMA library simply because I remembered that it is one of Ali Smith’s favourites. It is hailed as ‘one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century nature writing’, a genre which I definitely want to read more of. In The Living Mountain, written during the Second World War and first published three decades later, ‘Shepherd describes her journeys into the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. There, she encounters a world that can be breathtakingly beautiful at times and shockingly harsh at others’.
Shepherd worked as an English lecturer, and lived three miles away from Aberdeen for the majority of her life. She spent most of her free time searching for the “essential nature” of the Cairngorms; the result was this ‘classic meditation on the magnificence of mountains, and on our imaginative relationship with the wild world around us’. Of writing her account during the war, Shepherd says, ‘In that disturbed and uncertain world it was my secret place of ease’.
The edition which I borrowed began with an introduction by celebrated nature writer Robert Macfarlane; a lovely touch, I felt. It is clear from the outset that he greatly respects Nan Shepherd and her account. He wonderfully sets both the scene and the tone of the piece. He writes, ‘The Cairngorms were once higher than today’s Alps, but over millions of years they have been eroded into a low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs. Born of fire, carved by ice, finessed with wind, water and snow, the massif is a terrain shaped by what Nan Shepherd in this slender masterpiece about the region calls “the elementals”‘.
Shepherd’s writing is beautifully poetic, and feels almost contemporary in places. She writes such carefully crafted sentences as follows: ‘… 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’, which demonstrate just how much of an effect the landscape had upon her. It is clear as to just how in awe of nature she is. Her descriptions are just breathtaking: ‘Once, on Lochnager, we had watched the dawn light strike the Cairngorms, like the blue bloom on plums’. Such emphasis is placed upon colour and light in this consequently visibly strong memoir.
The Living Mountain is a rich and lovely account, which has made me eager to explore. Shepherd’s book is a careful and caring rumination about the Scottish landscape; a perfect book to read whilst tucked inside during a day of Glasgow drizzle.