Friday, September 22, 2017

The Living Mountain - Nan Shepherd

I bought this book back in April, partly inspired by the lovely (Scottish) £5 note that bears Shepherd's  face (the other side has a pair of mackerel, and I need to keep the next one I get). It's a short book that I thought I might read in an afternoon. I started it in August, and finished it today.

Generally speaking I haven't been reading a lot recently - I've been knitting instead, but even so that's a long time to get through 108 pages. One reason it's taken so long is that this has to be just about the most perfectly written thing I've ever read. It's perfect in the way that frost patterns and snowflakes are perfect. If I'd made a note of everything I wanted to keep as a quote I would have transcribed almost the whole book, and it's left me more than slightly obsessed with the work of Susie Leiper (specifically the calligraphy pieces).

'The Living Mountain' describes Shepherd's experience of, and love for, the Cairngorms. Somewhere she had a lifelong relationship with. I've never really understood the appeal of mountains before; Shetland is hilly, but not mountainous, Leicestershire is flat, when I lived in Aberdeen I was more inclined to look to the sea than the hills, and it will always be the shoreline that captures my imagination in the way that the Cairngorms captured Shepherd's, but even so she's hooked me in here.

Maybe it helps that the Cairngorms are the only mountains I've ever got really close too, and even if it was mostly via a funicular railway (which Shepherd would not have approved of) it only took a few minutes for what is essentially an arctic landscape to beguile me. It's such a harsh, uncompromising, environment  that I couldn't help but fall for it in the same way that I love the Sea. There's nothing easy about the place, the views are impressive if they're not covered by clouds, but there are others just as good. What makes it special is that you really have to look, to find the beauty in the place, and when you do, as Shepherd did, there's so much to see.

She describes walking in every sort of condition, and all the many rewards it brings, the moments of clarity, of joy, and of fear - of literally looking into the abyss. It's a remarkable book, one that demands to be read over and over - because like the mountains it's too much, too rich, to take in all at once.


  1. I'd like to read this, as a mountain lover, but I see that it is chaotically described (on Amazon US) as the fourth in a three-volume series, The Grampian Quartet. Have you read any of the others? Am I right in deducing that this one is perfectly good as a standalone? Thanks.

  2. It is a stand alone, and basically a prose poem dedicated specifically to the Cairngorms, which, if I have this right, are part of the Grampian range. i haven't read any of the others yet but I've packed one to take away with me next week so hopefully that'll change. This one was amazing and beautiful!