Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) lived in Aberdeenshire and spent a lot of time walking in the Cairngorms. She came to know the range intimately and wrote The Living Mountain during the Second World War. Part memoir, part ode to the place she loved, part a personal attempt to explore and articulate their appeal, the manuscript lay in a drawer for more than thirty years before finally being published four years prior to her death. 

For lovers of the hills this is a wonderful book. Anyone who has walked in the mountains will identify with it. I empathise so deeply with Nan’s affinity for the mountains, and her poetic yet utterly succinct prose is simply magical.

“That [this book] was a traffic of love is sufficiently clear; but love pursued with fervour is one of the roads to knowledge.” (Foreword)

“love pursued with fervour is one of the roads to knowledge” – I love the elegant simplicity with which Shepherd can state a truism.

On the beauty of the landscape

“Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity.”

“When the mist turns to rain, there may be beauty there too. Like shifting mists, driving rain has a beauty of shape and movement. But there is a kind of rain without beauty, when air and ground are sodden, sullen black rain that invades body and soul alike… Then the desolation of these empty stretches of land strikes at one’s heart. The mountain becomes a monstrous place.”

“October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August.”

“Water so clear cannot be imagined, but must be seen. One must go back, and back again, to look at it, for in the interval memory refuses to re-create its brightness. This is one of the reasons why the high plateau where these streams begin … like a work of art is perpetually new when one returns to it. The mind cannot carry away all that it has to give, nor does it always believe possible what it has carried away.”

On the wildlife

“Imagination is haunted by the swiftness of the creatures that live on the mountain – eagle and peregrine falcon, red deer and mountain hare. The reason for their swiftness is severely practical: food is so scarce up here that only those who can move swiftly over vast stretches of ground may hope to survive. The speed, the whorls and torrents of movement, are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity.”

On the experience of walking in the hills

“However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.”

On walking without a set route, nor with the goal of climbing a summit:

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

“To feel heather under the feet after long abstinence is one of the dearest joys I know.”

“I have walked all day, and seen no one… Man might be a thousand years away.”

“No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.”

“Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think.”

The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd. First published 1977. This edition 2011 by Canongate Books (ISBN 978 0 85786 183 2). The image for this post is a photo of the book’s cover.

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