The Living Mountain on the telly

Nan Shepherd, author of Cairngorms book The Living Moungtain

Nan Shepherd, author of the classic ‘The Living Mountain’

When it comes to classic books about the Cairngorms, Seton Gordon normally comes top of the list for his long out of print ‘The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland’. It is an excellent book too, as is the equally inspiring ‘Charm of the Hills’, which is also mainly concerned with the Cairngorms. But it’s always the quiet ones you have to look out for and, creeping unobtrusively into the light some 30 or so years after it was written was Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’, a small masterpiece which was a fraction of the size of Gordon’s book and so often talked in generalities where he wrote of specifics, yet which gives what I (and many others) feel is the truest and most inspiring picture of a very special range of mountains. Written during and just after World War Two, it wasn’t published until 1977. It has appeared sporadically since then (my own first copy was a 1984 Aberdeen University Press reprint)and more recently has appeared on Canongate Books, where it has at last started to receive the wider recognition it has so long deserved.

Programme presenter Robert Macfarlane in the Cairngorms

Robert Macfarlane in the Cairngorms during filming

Part of that recognition will come at 10 pm next Tuesday when BBC Two Scotland airs a half-hour documentary ‘The Living Mountain: A Cairngorms Journey’. Made over the past few months and presented by the writer Robert Macfarlane, it celebrates both the book and its author. According to Macfarlane it is “one of the finest books ever written on nature and landscape in Britain,” and has inspired him to retrace Nan Shepherd’s footsteps across the hills she loved. He describes the book as a love letter to the Cairngorms, which challenged his preconceptions about nature writing, eschewing the normal mountaineering literature’s focus on the summit in favour of “a poetic and philosophical journey into the mountain.”

Film crew making Cairngorms film about Nan Shepherd

Filming ‘The Living Mountain: A Cairngorms Journey’

We’ll see how Macfarlane treats his subject (while revelling in the scenery if nothing else!) but the important thing to remember about Nan Shepherd is that, besides having a philosophical and poetical turn of mind, she was also very firmly grounded in the realities of her mountains. She was no fey dilettante; she had walked the Cairngorms since childhood, in every season and every weather, day and night. In temperatures well below freezing she had not only observed the different colours, textures and clarities of ice, but had actually sat and watched burns in the process of freezing. She had listened to “gales crash into the Garbh Choire with the boom of angry seas,” and heard the air “shattering itself upon rock”. So when she appears to wax lyrical she’s not just being poetic for the sake of it, she’s describing with forensic accuracy and intimate understanding what is there for all to see and experience. Where Seton Gordon split his book into chapters each devoted to a different mountain,  Shepherd’s view of the Cairngorms begins by blurring the geographical distinctions and looking at the range as a whole – the plateau, the recesses – and talking about ‘water’ rather than specific burns or rivers, and about ‘air and light’ and ‘frost and snow’. It’s a different and, even after all these years, still refreshing way of looking at these mountains that expresses a deep love and understanding of them in a way no topographical study really can. It should be essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand these hills which lack the jagged summits that make so many western ranges so immediately dramatic and attractive, yet which maintain such a hold on the heart and imagination. Tuesday’s programme will bring the story of Nan Shepherd and her relatively obscure  work to a new audience, and hopes along the way to offer a moving and memorable tour of the Cairngorm mountains, seen afresh through the passion and poetry of her writing. Set some time aside and watch it at 10pm on Tuesday, 2nd December, or watch it online here after that date: All photographs courtesy of Michael Pappas, BBC

This entry was posted in History, Nature, People, Topography and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Living Mountain on the telly

  1. Fantastic news – thanks for pointing that out Neil! I can only agree with your assessment that the Living Mountain should be a set text for all who love the wild places.

  2. richdirector says:

    Reblogged this on Kitesurf Bike rambling and commented:
    I was cameraman for this show – beautiful mountain beautiful book …. can’t wait for the TX

  3. Jim Ford says:

    Thanks for the information about the TV programme. I love Robert MacFarlane’s work and intend to record the programme. If there’s any interest, I’ll put it in a cloud account for people that miss it to download. I have his other wonderful evocative TV broadcast ‘The Wild Places of Essex’, if anyones’ interested.

    I like the image that shows MacFarlane carrying a pack. He’s leaning slightly forward, which makes it look convincing that he is actually balancing an actual load. Ray Mears always carries a large pack too easily, which to me suggests it’s just for show and has only got a couple of pillows in it!


    • scwiha says:

      Jim, if you did manage to record the programme, I’d be eternally grateful if you could make it (and “the Wild Places of Essex”) available somewhere for download. As a Scotsman living in remote Australia, I currently have no access to BBC iPlayer and can find nowhere to view this online. As a fan of Macfarlane’s, Shepherd’s (and J A Baker’s) work, it truly would make my day to see the ragged glory of the Cairngorms from the points of view of these exceptional writers.

      Also, a friend of mine from Edinburgh, Wounded Knee (Drew Wright), contributed music to the programme’s soundtrack. As a small token of thanks for at least reading this message if nothing else, below is the link to his “in the Shadow of the Good Shepherd” album, which was recorded in Banchory, east of the Cairngorms on the river Dee. It was inspired by “the Living Mountain”, Thomas A. Clark, Robert Macfarlane, John Muir and Kenneth White. I hope you enjoy it:

      • Jim Ford says:

        Here’s a link to a directory on a ‘cloud account’, for ‘scwiha’ (and anyone else that’s interested):

        As well as ‘The Living Mountain’ there’s also the equally excellent ‘Wild Places of Essex’. Also in the directory is ‘My Halcyon River’ which may interest some.

        Feel free to download any or all of them (though as at 1600 Hrs GMT 11th Dec they’re still uploading to my cloud account)


      • scwiha says:

        That’s my weekend viewing taken care of. I really appreciate your efforts here. Thanks, Jim.

      • Yup, thanks from me too Jim. I’m off to Glen Coe just now but when I get back I’ll move your link to the main blogpost to replace the out of date one.

  4. I really look forward to this. It is quite a book, evocative of my favourite hills. I read it in two sessions whilst wandering the Cairngorm’s one spring. A vital text in my Cairngorm education.

    McFarlane is the right person too. I attended a recording of Book Club for Radio 4 and we spoke briefly about Corrour. He’s the right man for this. Celebrated ‘new nature’ writer but also a skilled hillman.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  5. Thanks for the heads up Neil.
    It is a wonderful book and a very intimate insight into this magnificent mountain range.
    A talented lady who truly embraced the Cairngorms.

  6. andy says:

    Just watched it on the iPlayer. A really good programme, I thought. For once, no dumbing down, no sensationalism, no endless repeating of the same piece of information. Great stuff. Really liked the way McFarlane celebrated the book and the way of being in the mountains that some of us relish.
    One small gripe I suppose was that in the morning scene by the tent (nice product placement for MSR!) he said he could hear Ptarmigan all around him. Unless I’m much mistaken, the sound one could hear was actually the chuckling of grouse!

    • Can’t comment on the ornithology of it all, as Mrs Reid was speaking at the crucial moment – although if he was camped on Sron na Lairig I’d have thought it would be more likely to be ptarmigan there. Must have a replay and listen.
      You’re right though: a nice programme whose only real fault was that it was too short.

  7. Graham Gedge says:

    Thank you so much for the heads up Neil, just watched it on iPlayer down in The Shire. A reminder of how stunning a place the Cairngorm is. Off to get the book from the Play Store, the quotes in the programme resonated so much I want to read the rest. Cheers.

  8. AlS says:

    A super wee program and a delight to watch as an expat of the other side of the hill.

    Robert Macfarlane was quite superb and articulate .. (but Cairn ‘Towl’ rather than ‘Too-l’/’To-el’ .. ?);

  9. heavywhalley says:

    I really enjoyed it and the book i had read years ago is a gem of a wonderful area.

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