The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

I seem to be on something of a Scottish kick at the moment, what with “Lanark” and then the lovely Mary Stewart set on Skye! I picked up “The Living Mountain” quite a while back, following my reading of Robert MacFarlane’s “The Old Ways”. The latter was full of praise for Shepherd and her book, which made me very keen to read it.

Wikipedia says of Shepherd: Nan (Anna) Shepherd (11 February 1893 – 23 February 1981) was a Scottish novelist and poet. She was an early Scottish Modernist writer, who wrote three standalone novels set in small, fictional, communities in North Scotland. The Scottish landscape and weather played a major role in her novels and were the focus of her poetry. Shepherd also wrote one non-fiction book on hill walking, based on her experiences walking in the Cairngorms. Shepherd was a lecturer of English at the Aberdeen College of Education for most of her working life.


Published by the rather wonderful Edinburgh-based publisher Canongate, “The Living Mountain” is a slim volume of poetic beauty. Written shortly after WW2, Shepherd distills the essence of her experience on the Cairngorms into a beguiling book which wasn’t actually published until 1977. However, the prose had lost none of its beauty and we can only be thankful that Canongate actually put it out. Each chapter covers a particular facet of the mountains (Water, The Plants or Sleep, for example) and so by coming at her subject from a number of angles, Shepherd provides an unusual view of the landscape. This is a non-traditional approach – Shepherd is not concerned with conquering the mountain range, but instead in experiencing all its aspects.

Is this a particularly female approach? I don’t think so, though I can’t say I’ve read widely enough on mountains to be sure! But it’s very effective, bringing you to the heart of what it feels like to live alongside such a huge mountain range, experiencing them in all their different states, knowing them for better or worse. And this is a harsh world, where the climate can suddenly change and bring down deadly fog; or snow and ice can mislead the amateur climber. Truly, the Cairngorms are not for the feeble-hearted. Yet there is beauty here, particularly on the plateau to which Shepherd often returns, where the wildlife flourishes and beautiful hardy plants grow in impossible conditions.

Nan Shepherd - photo c. The Estate of Nan Shepherd

Nan Shepherd – photo c. The Estate of Nan Shepherd

Shepherd obviously had a deeply personal relationship with the landscape which colours her writing about it. Her thoughtful, meditative viewpoint encourages a different way of looking at the world, one I found myself in sympathy with; I remember as a child walking round the house looking into a mirror held under my chin, imagining the house was upside down. The changed perspective made the whole world look strange. Nan Shepherd’s prose has this effect, really makes you look at things deeply, and anew.

“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself when looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality. Then static things may be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. Lay the head down, or better still, face away from what you look at, and bend with straddled legs till you see your world upside down. How new it has become!”

“The Living Mountain” is a beautiful little tome; lyrical, descriptive and unlike any other nature book I’ve read. In fact, reflecting on the fact the Shepherd was a poet, this volume does seem more like a prose poem than anything else. If you want to be transported to the cold heights of the Scottish mountains in all their beauty and glory, this is definitely the book for you.