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.
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.”
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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04tqk1n All photographs courtesy of Michael Pappas, BBC