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As featured in 'The Living Mountain’: A Cairngorms Journey, a BBC Four TV programme exploring Nan Shepherd’s work and landscapes, by Robert Macfarlane.
The 80th anniversary of first publication.
In the Cairngorms
by Nan Shepherd
Foreword by Robert Macfarlane
Nan Shepherd was born near Aberdeen in 1893 and died there in 1981.
Her first novel, The Quarry Wood, was published in 1928, and two more novels followed in the early 1930s; all three are set in small communities in the north-east of Scotland. Shortly afterwards, came this collection of poetry, In the Cairngorms, which was published in a small edition by the Moray Press of Edinburgh in 1934. Then came The Living Mountain, (recently re-published by Canongate Books), a work of poetic prose exploring Shepherd’s close relationship with the hills, which was written in the 1940s, but not published until 1977. It has recently become a great success, helped partly by its place in Robert Macfarlane’s bestseller, The Old Ways, but also because her work – with its passion for mountains, for landscape beauty, and for 'living all the way through', as she put it – is resonating with the many people drawn to wild places in their imaginations or in actuality.
In The Cairngorms was the book of which Shepherd was the most proud. According to Robert Macfarlane: “Shepherd had a clear genre hierarchy in her mind, and poetry was at its pinnacle. 'Poetry' she wrote to the novelist Neil Gunn … holds 'in intensest being the very heart of all experience', and offers glimpses of 'that burning heart of life.'” Indeed, the poems that form the first and main section of the book show a fierce and often eerie lyricism at work, part-Romantic and part-modern. All are born from Shepherd’s life-long acquaintance with the Cairngorm mountains.
The final section consists of a sequence of love sonnets, written, according to Shepherd, for a man whose identity is never disclosed (Shepherd never married). This is a volume that speaks eloquently both to lovers of poetry and lovers of nature. It will be enjoyed by a modern audience not only for the beauty of its mountain context but also for the sheer strength of the verse.
Here is one of the longer poems from the book:
THE HILL BURNS
So without sediment
Run the clear burns of my country,
Transparent as light
Gathered into its own unity,
Lucent and without colour;
Like clear deeps of air,
Light massed upon itself,
Like the green pinions,
Cleaving the trouble of approaching night,
Shining in their own lucency,
Of the great angels that guarded the Mountain;
Or amber so clear
It might have oozed from the crystal trunk
Of the tree Paradisal,
Symbol of life,
That grows in the presence of God eternally.
And these pure waters
Leap from the adamantine rocks,
The granites and schists
Of my dark and stubborn country.
From gaunt heights they tumble,
Harsh and desolate lands,
The plateau of Braeriach
Where even in July
The cataracts of wind
Crash in the corries with the boom of seas in anger;
And Corrie Etchachan
Down whose precipitous
Thunder the fragments of rock
Broken by winter storms
From their aboriginal place;
And Muich Dhui’s summit,
Rock defiant against frost and the old grinding of ice,
Wet with the cold fury of blinding cloud,
Through which the snow-fields loom up, like ghosts from
a world of eternal annihilation,
And far below, where the dark waters of Etchachan are
wont to glint,
An unfathomable void.
Out of these mountains,
Out of the defiant torment of Plutonic rock,
Out of fire, terror, blackness and upheaval,
Leap the clear burns,
Like some pure essence of being,
Invisible in itself,
Seen only by its movement.