Above – Silver Walk, Ardnamurchan. Oil on 34 by 24 inch wood. Rose Strang 2022.
This painting is the first in a series I’m creating for an exhibition which launches 12th June at the Resipole Gallery in Ardnamurchan. The show will feature work by myself and landscape artist Jim Wright.
It’s such a pleasure to create a series for the Resipole as it means I get the chance to travel up to Ardnamurchan for inspiration. It’s a beautuful part of Scotland, quite remote and unspoiled, though these days there are more visitors than when I first came, in 1992.
I was entranced by the ancient forest of birch and oak growing all the way down to the sea, and of course Castle Tioram, which featured in my Planet Narnia paintings inspired by the book Planet Narnia, and the cosmos as understood in the Medieval imagination.
I wrote about the forests of Ardnamurch in 2018, exploring the idea of a community of trees and the discovery by scientist Suzanne Simmard that trees ‘talk’ or communicate as an eco-system, through mycelium – a complex root system of fungus that sends ‘signals’ from tree to tree.
Wandering through the forests of Ardnamurchan, you really feel the alive-ness of the forests here, many of which have been left untouched for hundreds of years. In the case of Ariundel oak forest in east Ardnamurchan, thousands of years!
So in this new series, I’m tackling a subject I’ve long wanted to paint – the Silver Walk near Castle Tioram. We went there a couple of weeks ago in early May, a time at which the forest is at its most vibrant I think. It was shimmeringly beautiful, luminous in fresh green leaves and the seas reflecting cerulean blue skies. Sometimes when I’m in a place like this I feel almost overwhelmed – my mind, emotions and senses being flooded with luminous colour. It felt idyllic too that it was warm enough to sit there in a T-shirt and paint some sketches!
I think my painting above is a good start, I want to keep it loose and light in feel to express the feeling of Ardnamurchan in May.
I’ll be posting the paintings as they’re created every couple of days. In the meantime, here are a few photos of us in Ardnamurchan this May! ..
Above – Chancelot Mill, oil on 33×23 inch wood panel.
A change of scene from landscape in today’s painting of Chancelot Mill. Well, it’s urban landscape I suppose. The frustrating thing about photographing blues and greens is that my basic camera can’t pick up the subtleties – the colours don’t balance. I may have this photographed by someone with a better camera and colour recognition software (namely my partner Adam!) Anyway, I wanted to paint that infinite velvety sky and the way the building enhances it. I found that simplifying the buildings helped the composition and brought the sky out more.
Chancelot Mill is a flour mill in Leith. Its predecesor was Chancelot Roller Mill which (if you’re from Edinburgh and find this interesting) used to be near Gosford Place. I’ll be doing a series of three paintings of Leith’s industrial landscape over the next week.
Chancelot Mill (view from the other side)
I’m also excited about my new exhibition coming up in June, for which I’ll be painting a series inspired by the landscape of Ardnamurchan and the west coast of Scotland. The exhibition launches on the 12th June this year at the excellent Resipole Gallery. I’ll be showing as part of a two-artist exhibition with landscape artist Jim Wright. I’m hugely looking forward to a painting trip to Ardnamurchan at the start of May this year!
This series is inspired by a trip to the islands of Iona and Staffa last year. Although I’ve been visiting Iona since about 1991, I’d never been to Staffa – surely one of the wonders of the world with its astonishing hexagonal basaltic columns and sea caves surging with green water.
Iona to Staffa 1. Oil on 12 x 12 inch linen. Rose Strang 2022
Iona to Staffa 2. Oil on 12 x 12 inch linen. Rose Strang 2022
Iona to Staffa 3. Oil on 12 x 12 inch wood Rose Strang 2022
Iona to Staffa 4. Oil on 12 x 12 inch linen. Rose Strang 2022
At first I wanted to capture something of the feel of the journey, which was in fact quite wild – in a small boat on a tumultuous sea in dazzling sunshine – we even saw dolphins! It was the underlying sense of myth that stayed with me though.
Iona’s spiritual history is well-known – St Columba, an Irish prince said to be exiled because of a violent dispute, travelled to Iona and began a life of spiritual contemplation with a group of monks back in the 6th century. His journeys around Scotland are remembered in history, also in tales of miracles. He was no doubt a complicated human being who’d lived a violent life in Ireland, who changed during his time on Iona – devoting his life to religion.
The island itself was said to have a druidic past. This is part speculation as those times weren’t recorded in written language in the same way as Christian history was. Place names around the island do suggest this pre-Christian history though. It’s suggested that the Book of Kells was written by monks on Iona some time in the 9th century, but the book is now at Trinity College Dublin. Some believe the book was created in Kells, Ireland, but if you consider the fact that part of north-east Ireland and the west coast of Scotland were essentially one nation at the time, called Dalriada or Dál Riata, then it could make sense that the book might be written in the peace of Iona and taken to Kells when Iona was later attacked by Vikings.
Monks were drawn to such places at this time in the past, in the spirit of the ‘Desert Fathers and Mothers’ – a tradition inspired by Jesus’s contemplation in the desert. Basically, anywhere remote and removed from society was seen as ‘desert’ – a place to contemplate God.
Staffa, which is about 7 miles from Iona, has a mythical history stretching far back into the mists of time! It’s other name is Fingal’s Cave – inspired the myth of Fingal (Fin means light and forms part of the name of the port on Mull from where you travel to Iona – Fionphort) from ancient celtic stories. This can be a confusing subject because there was in fact a series of poems called ‘Ossian’s Tale’, created by author James MacPherson, about Fingal, but this series of poems was discovered to be ‘fake’ – not the work of a real person called Fingal from the ancient Celtic past. The stories were gathered from ancient Celtic poems though, and so it is a fascinating work.
I won’t get too detailed here about the confusion of myth, and translations from original Scottish Gaelic myths and stories by McPherson – Ossian’s Tale does mention numerous place names that still exist, and which made up Dalriada in Scotland and north-east Ireland in the third century. The myths probably refer to an ancient warrior, said to be a giant, who created Staffa as a stepping stone from Ireland to Scotland. This refers to ‘The Giant’s Causeway’ on the coast of northern Ireland which shares the same hexagonal basaltic stone features as Staffa.
Well, that’s a lot of info, which may give an idea of why I wanted to capture a sense of myth from my trip to Staffa from Iona! It doesn’t really explain the way I feel about such an experience though. Suffice to say, it stimulates my imagination and despite the numerous tourists that throng the islands these days, I still feel the spiritual pull of these places.
I used to visualise lying in a wooden boat in the crystal clear green water of the Sound of Iona, rocking gently on the waves in the sun. Where Iona feels gentle, Staffa feels almost overwhelmingly dramatic – you feel you’ve taken part in a real life myth when you travel there.
I’ll end this post with some of my photos of Staffa …
I’m delighted to see that my large painting ‘Through Kintail 2’ (above) has sold in the latest Limetree Gallery exhibition From the Mountains to the Sea. I think it looks considerably better in real life than from a photo, so I was very pleased to see it exhibited ‘in real life’ since most exhibitions during lockdown have been online.
Two of my paintings remain in the exhibition; ‘Through Kintail 3’ and ‘Through Kintail 4’, images below. You can browse these, and the other beautiful works in the exhibition on the gallery website Here
‘Through Kintail 4’. Oil on 19×19″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
‘Through Kintail 3’ Oil on 14×11″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
This series was created as part of a wonderful journey to Ardban in Applecross. Getting there takes you through the mountains of Kintail which looked so classicly Highland-y in their autumn colours and misty weather. I love road paintings which always give the sense of a journey.
This year I’ll be exhibiting in an exciting new two-person exhibition at the Resipole Gallery in Ardnamurchan, more details to follow! …
‘But did I dream that roe? The Living Mountain Series’. Oil on on on 37x27x2 cm antique pine. Rose Strang 2021
The world of mystery, or the spiritual, is subtly touched on by Nan. With But did I dream that roe? I explored a more mystic experience of Nan’s Living Mountain. This image, and title quote, came from the chapter entitled ‘Sleep’.
A few of my paintings were on rough wood which Adam had cut up after removing some shelves from a kitchen cupboard. The wood was ideal – textured and roughened with age, from the Victorian era when our tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Leith area was built. When painting it I allowed the grainy wood texture to show through. I used oils directly on to wood, with a swathe of solvent diluted Mars black. It has a density in comparison to Lamp Black oil paint and, unlike acrylic black, it dries to a lovely matt surface. Given a day or so to dry, you can scratch through to the wood or surface below which gives a good sharp calligraphic edge to the drawing, similar to line-making in the etching process.
The swathe of black oil paint with a large brush had created three peaks suggesting exaggerated mountain peaks. With the end of a plastic vitamin pill container dipped in white oil paint I created a simple moon. After dripping small droplets of purply lilac onto the black, I suggested the fire-lit smoke of a smouldering fire to the bottom right corner, then etched in the outline of a roe deer. I left it at that, knowing the image should be as simple as possible. I hoped it would say a little about the feeling of the Highlands on a moonlit night. Scotland’s culture is rich with otherworldly stories and myths. The symbology of deer, more often stags, has a central place or role in our mythical past, going far back into pre-history.
Recently I visited Kilmartin Glen, on the west coast of Scotland thirty miles south of the town of Oban. Kilmartin Glen has more pre-historic man-made marks than any other place in Scotland. There are numerous standing stones and remains of ancient burial cairns or ‘cists’ are they’re called. Even more intriguing are the mysterious ‘cup and ring’ marks that date from around five thousand years ago. No one knows what they were for, though there are literally hundreds of theories. Seen in real life, these marks are utterly strange. We sat and gazed on the cup and ring marks at Ormaig for an hour or so. I sprinkled purple flowers into them, poured water into them, photographed them and filmed them. I’d filled them with flowers and water to enhance the patterns and while this did enhance their strange beauty I was of course none the wiser as to their purpose!
Cup and Ring marks at Ormaig, Kilmartin (photo Rose Strang 2021)
Earlier this year about spring 2021, an amateur archaeologist called Hamish Fenton climbed into one of the burial cairns at Dunchraigaig in Kilmartin and shined his torch on to the underside of the slab that covered the cist. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the outline of an antlered deer. While these are still being investigated, it’s believed that these stag drawings, if as old as they’re believed to be, are in fact the earliest known pre-historic drawings in Scotland. Link
Professional archaeologists believe them to be about four to five thousand years old and, while there are other similar depictions of deer, none are as anatomically accurate and detailed as those discovered by Hamish Fenton. Celtic myths describe ordinary people falling asleep then waking in the land of Tír na nÓg – a land of the ever young, inhabited by faeries, or otherworldly folk who can turn into deer at will. The very dreamlike passage of Nan’s hazy memory of seeing a roe deer while half asleep suggests those myths:
My one October night without a roof was bland as silk, with a late moon rising in the small hours and the mountains fluid as loch water under a silken dawn: a night of the purest witchery, to make one credit all the tales of glamourie that Scotland tries so hard to refute and cannot.
It’s a subject she explores in her works of fiction with subtlety, enchanting the reader with descriptions that can only come from someone immersed in a landscape familiar to her.
The toughest painting of this commission was the final one. I was so moved by the final passages of The Living Mountain where Nan describes the way landscape has been changed by her experience; ‘… everything became good to me’.
I chose that as the title of my last work for the book, though I felt I’d need another year to experiment with ways to depict it. In the end, I took a painting I’d started, which I felt ‘said’ something about the unknown or ungraspable aspects of the mountain and added small details which added to a sense of scale.
‘Everything became good to me. The Living Mountain Series.’ Acrylic and oil on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021
I partly had in mind Nan’s description of falling in love with the Cairngorms while on holiday as a girl, which she describes in the final chapter; ‘Being’:
So I have found what I set out to find. I set out on my journey in pure love. it began in childhood, when the stormy violet of a gully on the back of Sgoran Dubh, at which I used to gaze from a shoulder of the Monadhliaths, haunted my dreams. That gully, with its floating, it’s almost tangible ultramarine, thirled me for life to the mountain.
There are two other suggestions of a living creature in the painting that I’ll let viewers discover for themselves – they’re subtle but intentional. Having sent off the series to Sheri Gee, I was none the wiser as to how they perceived the paintings. It’s a strange fact that someone’s response can completely change my feeling about a painting I’ve created. I must be easily influenced sometimes, as there are paintings I’ve created which don’t please me at all, until someone comes along and says ‘I love this!’ On the other hand, there are paintings I’ve created that I think capture the essence of something I’ve struggled with for years – but then those paintings get almost zero reaction!
I knew that the Folio Society couldn’t wax lyrical about the paintings even if they did like them, since they had to be perused and approved of by a panel. As it happened, the panel included Robert MacFarlane, who was to write the introduction to the book (as he has for previous publications of the Living Mountain).
Sheri, who had been wonderfully supportive of the creative process, was kind enough to send me a preview of the part of Robert MacFarlane’s introduction that described his response to my paintings, and I was very touched by his words. In fact to be truthful I was awe-inspired by his capacity to read exactly into the intentions I’d had for several of the paintings; namely and in particular Flowing from granite and I like the unpath best.
Needless to say it was a boost to my artistic confidence about the series, which I’d found a challenge – The Living Mountain being a book for which I had profound respect.
It inspired me to immediately order a copy of Robert’s latest book; Underland. I had some years earlier read The Wild Places, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also had a beautiful hardback copy of The Lost Spells, written by MacFarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris’s magical watercolours, which I’d received as a gift from my cousin Christine who knew I’d enjoy Robert’s work as much as she had. Apart from these though, I felt remiss in knowledge of his more recent work.
By this time, the Living Mountain commission had been completed for at least a month. It was now a case of simply waiting for the October publication. I was tackling a new painting commission about the landscape surrounding Sutton Hoo in Suffolk and MacFarlane’s Underland played into my imagination as I attempted to capture the atmosphere of that landscape. The book’s observations on what we choose to bury, and why, played into my understanding of the treasure buried at Sutton Hoo. Or more accurately the beliefs and emotions that may have led them to bury their dead and their belongings in the way they did. Reading Underland, it was also very clear that Robert MacFarlane’s entire approach to life is intensely observed – he’d merely turned his X-ray mind towards my paintings!
It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.
The quote above is from Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood. Geordie, a farmer, and father of the novel’s heroine Martha, remarks after killing a hen; ‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live’, refering also to the times in which the novel was set – during WW2.
Painting this series was a blessing for me during lockdown, I felt privileged to have a meaningful project to throw myself into when so many others had their lives turned upside down – an experience that left many people demotivated, isolated or depressed, not to mention worried about income. I wondered at times how Nan Shepherd might have dealt with a pandemic. I’m pretty sure she’d have been out in the mountains, checking on folks like ‘Big Mary’, offering help.
The Folio Society kindly sent me several copies of the complete book. Seeing my own paintings in this beautiful publication of The Living Mountain is a moment to savour indeed. From my fascination as a child with the illustrations of Charles Folkyard in The Princes and The Goblin by George MacDonald, to illustrating Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Both authors grew up up in the countryside of Aberdeenshire, for both authors landscape plays a profoundly meaningful role in their world view.
When I place Flowing from granite side by side next to Folkyard’s illustration of Irene and Curdie in the mountains, I do get the feel of something similar, albeit in very different styles!
Working on these paintings has been wonderful, and I’m grateful to Sheri Gee and all at the Folio Society for choosing my work and presenting it perfectly, to Erlend Clouston for his friendly support and everything I learned about Nan, and to Robert MacFarlane for his insightful words about the paintings; all sincere in their dedication to the legacy and inspiration of Nan Shepherd. It’s an honour to be part of that.
Rose Strang December 2021
Waterfall, Glen Feshie. (Photo Rose Strang 2021)
Left; illustration by Charles Folkyard from George MacDonald’s ‘The Princess and the Goblin’. Right: painting by Rose Strang for ‘The Living Mountain’. (photo Rose Strang 2021)
One of the most compelling descriptions the reader first encounters, in the first chapter of The Living Mountain, is when Nan describes wading into Loch Avon. Like many of her descriptions, it’s utterly arresting – you want to read and re-read the passage to fully imagine what she describes.
In reality, I’d have to be a mountain climber of Nan’s calibre to experience that description. I researched various images of lochs and transparent water, finally resolving to paint a certain view I’d discovered, but altered and with a lot of working and re-working of the surface to add a sense of atmosphere and energy. This became We waded on into the brightness.
‘We waded on into the brightness. The Living Mountain Series’. Acrylic on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021
I re-read many passages from the book, seeking those which captured my imagination most. There were many descriptions I’d have loved to paint, such as Nan’s description of ‘Big Mary’ in the chapter titled ‘Man’. I’ have painted her in impasto craggy swathes with palette knife I think. Nan’s description of Big Mary’s character echoes the personalities she writes about so evocatively in her prior fiction novels. I had to consider how the paintings would work overall however, and I resolved to focus on what I paint most – an emotional and imaginative response to landscape.
I felt my first attempt – We waded on into the brightness – was almost storybook or illustrative and I wasn’t quite sure if this was what I’d wanted, but I felt a slightly more realist painting might be a good start for readers, followed by slightly more abstracted paintings as the book progressed. My next painting attempt was Flowing from granite and, as mentioned, I wanted this to echo something of the magic in Charles Folkyard’s illustrations from The Princess and the Goblin by Aberdeenshire author George MacDonald.
That image, of Curdie carrying Irene through the flooded mountain valleys, is highly illustrative, romantic and ‘storybook’, yet magical because of MacDonald’s descriptions of the sense of overwhelming water throughout the book.
A Japanese friend of mine, Atzi, once described to me his response to Scottish landscape; ‘Its wateriness is different from anywhere else in the world’ he said, it’s unique – water is everywhere, sometimes slightly scary even’. I was also thinking of Nan’s wonderment as she observes the element of water:
I love its flash and gleam, it’s music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength… I have seen its birth; and the more I gaze at that sure and unremitting surge of water at the very top of the mountain, the more I am baffled. We make it all so easy, any child in school can understand it – water rises in the hills, it flows and finds its own level, and man can’t live without it. But I don’t understand it. I cannot fathom its power.
I decided to create descending ‘slabs’ in black and burnt sienna acrylic paint as a base. Acrylic dries overnight whereas impasto layers of oil paint can take weeks. Once my ‘rock’ base had dried, I made a solution of solvent and titanium white then allowed it to cascade naturally over my rock slabs. This was an unusual approach for me, I paint a lot of water, in fact it’s the subject I’ve focussed on most over decades of art-making and painting, so I can depict the visual appearance of water convincingly. For this painting though, I wanted the element of liquid itself to do the work.
When I’d finished I felt it ‘had’ something, but as usual I began to fiddle and dab and before long I’d completely spoiled the essence or energy of the original painting. Lesson learned though; it looked better when more ‘raw’. I wiped off all the oil paint back to my acrylic base and started again. I repeated this over a few days until at last it had just the right amount of … whatever it is that makes a painting feel ‘finished’!
Nan describes it as ‘that strong white stuff’, and I’d added here and there the subtlest touches of blue/green/grey while leaving the white just as it was. As usual, serendipity, and recognising when that was working for the painting, helped the final result. For example in wiping white oil off one area of the rocks, I’d inadvertently given it that wet sheen of damp which rocks take on, or stone buildings, when they’ve been thoroughly wetted. There’s also an inadvertent dragon’s eye in the rocks, which, once spotted can’t be unseen!
‘Flowing from granite. The Living Mountain Series’. Acrylic and oil on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021
Strange and beautiful forms are evolved was a collaborative effort in some ways. I wanted to paint the sense of ice and freezing cold. The first version was of light playing through an icicle, the next was an experimental play of textured whites and blacks. At this point Sheri Gee (artistic director of the Folio Society) required a progress report as this was written into the contract. I sent the works so far and she felt that the icicle painting didn’t have the elemental quality she’d liked about my previous paintings. I agreed and it cemented my sense of what she was looking for in these paintings. I experimented further with the black and white abstracted painting until icicles appeared, then added salt, varnish and further light effects until it seemed to work.
There’s the idea of painting what’s ‘there’ what the eye can see, then there’s the idea of painting what’s ‘felt’. I’ve always wanted to capture that visceral sense of landscape and my sense of Scottish landscape, particularly mountainous landscape, is that fear (though it might be fear and exhilaration) is quite often an element of that experience. Where my first ice painting had showed the beauty of natural ice forms, it had no feeling of ice. I thought the second version gave more a sense of the icy grip of winter.
Strange and beautiful forms are evolved. The Living Mountain Series. Acrylic, salt and oil on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021
My next painting – For not getting lost is a matter of the mind – was maybe more of a conceptualised idea of the fear of getting lost in a blizzard. I used gridded paper as a base, messed up to give the sense of disorder, then painted over it to suggest snow and mist. Finally I took the image of a compass and placed in the top right corner, facing the wrong way. So far no-one has commented on this! But I wanted to reflect the fact that, especially in Nan’s day, handling a paper map in a freezing hurricane is no easy matter and is definitely ‘a matter of the mind’, or mind over matter since fear is very real in such circumstances.
‘For not getting lost is a matter of the mind. The Living Mountain Series’. Grid paper, and acrylic on on 37x27x2 cm antique pine. Rose Strang 2021
Having dealt with the ‘roaring scourge’ element of the Cairngorms, I now wanted a complete contrast, more ‘delectable as honey’ to quote Nan’s introductory words. Heather and honey go hand in hand in Scotland, plus I absolutely loved Nan’s description of the little girl’s reaction to her dad calling her to heel, responding ‘I like the unpath best’. I knew, as do Nan’s readers I’m sure, exactly what she meant! It’s always more satisfying to wander off the beaten track, where your feet can sink into squishy sphagnum moss, or on a hot day you can fling yourself onto a springy bed of heather to gaze up at the blue, blue sky filled with butterflies, or dazzling blue or green dragonflies.
If I were a realist painter I’d have painted these beautiful insects, but instead I tried to suggest their flight with scratches into the surface suggesting movement, amid watery hazes to suggest the warmth of sunshine ‘all around the blooming heather’ to quote the popular song. The mountains in summer can be delectable as honey indeed.
The wildest most remote areas of Scotland can have an almost fairy-tale atmosphere of primitive, Eden-like lushness and I wanted to capture something of those birthday-cake colours and mood in my painting, while keeping the style loose.
One of my favourite holidays as a girl was when my sister and I with our mum and her friends stayed at Craig Youth Hostel in the Torridon area. It was late June and I remember a huge metallic-green dragon fly flew on to my hand. I wanted to pick it up and it bit me then flew off! I could see the tiny serrations of skin on my hand and felt very sorry I’d upset it.
On the subject of dragonflies – many years later, I’d decided to work as an arts manager for the NHS (UK National Health Service). It was a choice made from some place in my mind that told me I had to choose a ‘sensible’ job. I’d already struggled through a year’s contract with one hospital – feeling very much a fish out of water – and now that contract was over it was time for me to find another job. I was interviewed for the position of arts manager by one of the UK’s largest hospitals and was genuinely surprised when they phoned to say I’d been successful.
I felt relieved, as you do if you worry about income, but also I knew something was missing. On the first day in the office I was shown to my desk. It was in a grim 70s building due to be demolished in the next few years. The office room was painted in peeling light blue paint, the lights were fluorescent (which had a tendency to give me a headache). I fought off a growing feeling of impending imprisonment as I sat at my desk. I remember that day I wore a grass-green wool dress to cheer me up – it’s a colour that brings the sense of nature into our lives and this building felt entirely unnatural. I looked out the windows on to a sea of cement.
At this moment an enormous metallic-green dragonfly somehow managed to fly in through the tiny slats at the top of the windows. I couldn’t believe my eyes – what would bring a green dragonfly into this enormous concrete jungle of a hospital site, never mind in to this tiny office space? I was reassured it was real though, by the ‘ooo’s’ and ‘wows!’ of my office colleagues. It flew in graceful acrobatics around the room, but clearly it was beginning to panic. I remarked on its obvious dilemma; ‘We have to let it out’. (In retrospect it’s one of the few requests I made during that job that was actually fulfilled!) Three of us managed to open the windows on their rusty hinges and at last the dragonfly flew off to freedom. Two years later I handed in my notice and within a year became a full-time painter. I think that dragonfly had a message for me.
‘I like the unpath best. The Living Mountain Series’. Acrylic on 30x21cm wood. Rose Strang 2021
I now had just two more paintings to complete. With these I wanted to reflect the final chapters of The Living Mountain, to reflect Nan’s deeper philisophical, or spiritual response to the mountain. This is subtly touched on by Nan and I hoped to suggest this sense equally subtly in the final paintings.
Cainrgorm Ridge from Loch Morlich. (Photo Rose Strang 2021).
It wasn’t until March 11th 2021 that Adam and I finally arrived the Cairngorms. There had been numerous setbacks with most places closed due to lockdown. We finally found and booked a self-catering hut at Glentruim Lodge on the south west side of the Cairngorms (off the road that runs north to Aviemore).
The roads from Edinburgh to Glentruim were almost empty, which made for easier driving, and luckily no snow. On arriving we explored the area – a river valley surrounded by low hills with a view of the snowy peaks beyond. Tall beech trees towered over our hut and a family of red squirrels darted around the trunks – disappearing as soon as a camera emerged. I found the grace of these beeches compelling and thought of including them in the painting series, though I’d heard they weren’t considered native to Scotland. Later though, I discovered that they are in fact most likely native to Britain, having naturally spread north to Scotland following the end of the last ice-age.
Glentruim Cabin, Cairngorms. (Photo Rose Strang 2021)
Perhaps it was the marked contrast to being confined to the city throughout most of lockdown, but these trees and the general atmosphere of the valley felt more exuberantly alive to me than usual. The beeches looked almost as if they were throwing their branches into the bright blue sky. My painting takes me all over Scotland, to places more remote than where we were staying in the Cairngorms – Ardnamurchan, Sutherland or Torridon for example are beautiful, remote places near the sea.
Maybe it was the sheer scale of the Cairngorms though – the sense of larger than life mountains, trees and weather. I was reminded again of passages from MacDonald’s or Lewis’s descriptions of nature – trees on the verge of dancing, squirrels on the verge of speaking.
It was also the sense of uninterrupted nature – a stark contrast to trees in the city, because however lovely individual city trees can be – they’re not an eco-system or a community of trees interacting with each other. In 2018 when I’d been painting my series in response to C.S. Lewis’s Narniad, I’d learned (through reading Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia) that Prince Caspian is inspired by the Medieval concept of Mars. Not just the God of War, as more commonly understood, but the concept of valour or courage – an ‘iron will’, and also ‘Mars Sylvanus’ – the vigorous energy of early spring. Mar-ch, with leaves shooting from the branches of trees. Birches in March become purplish-red just before they produce their first leaves, as Nan Shepherd observes in The Quarry Wood – their branches coloured like blood-veins.
While painting and researching Prince Caspian/Mars, I’d also learned something of the nature of a forest. A scientist called Suzanne Simard had discovered that trees send nutrients to each other, they are all interdependent. At the time of writing this journal, I’m also reading Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, which contains one chapter with an absolutely fascinating account of Simard’s discoveries of the complex root systems of forests.
The trees outside our cabin in the Cairngorms ‘felt’ exuberantly alive because they were exactly that – they communicated a sense of energy – not simply through the visual indicators of fresh air in the lichen that festooned the trees, the restless red squirrels, numerous birds or the scent of crystal clean air, it was the energy of uninterrupted growth and health.
Beech trees, Glentruim. (Photo Rose Strang 2021).
The next morning when we stepped out of our cabin to look at the weather we were greeted with a beautiful snow and frost covered landscape. Our ‘wows’ were quickly superseded by ‘oh sh*ts’ however, as this made it seem less likely we’d be able to get in to the mountains. On checking our phones we discovered that Emma (our mountain guide) had already contacted us to say ‘Looks like winter has returned!’ She seemed sure we’d find a way in though.
We’d already had the disappointing news that we’d not be able to enter the Cairngorms through the northerly route and areas Nan explored so often. This was because the ski road leading most of the way into the Cairngorms had been closed for the season. ‘The best ski-ing weather we’ve seen in years – and no-one can enjoy it!’ Liam and Emma had commented.
Emma’s advice was to walk up to the plateau from the southwest, from Glen Feshie up to Carn Ban Mor (from Gaelic, meaning ‘The big pale cairn’). Since Emma seemed optimistic we could still climb, we got in our little car and headed north along the motorway to meet Emma at Auchlean carpark. The carpark was off the motorway and a few miles into the mountain valley and we soon realised the snow-covered roads would be an issue.
I rang Emma, who asked; ‘Are you in a four-wheel drive?’. I managed not to snort as I explained ‘no it’s just an ordinary car’. We agreed to meet as far along the road as our un-Cairngormworthy car would take us. We spotted Emma at the road to the carpark and stopped. A quick discussion ensued; ‘Do you think you have Covid?’ ‘No’. ‘Well, it’s a short drive, just two minutes and I’ll keep the window open’.
Before leaving Emma’s car she quickly fitted us with crash helmets and ice picks; “Just in case we encounter slippy ice further up the paths” Emma explained cheerfully. I began to picture accounts I’d read of climbers hanging on to the edge of ice chasms on the slopes of Everest, hands immobilised by frostbite. Then I reassured myself with the thought that at least we wouldn’t run out of oxygen. That situation, described as the death zone, only happens at 8000 metres and Carn Ban Mor is only 1052 metres high! What were the crash helmets for? ‘There’s almost zero chance of an avalanche, it’s just a safety measure’ Emma replied reassuringly.
As we walked up the lower slopes through a forest of pines sparkling with fresh snow, I asked Emma about how she became a mountain guide. She explained that she’d grown up in the Cairngorms and that she’d always climbed, and that training really took that to a different level; ‘The difference is – you know and can say exactly where you at any moment, not just have the ability to get out of tricky situations or a sudden change in weather’. (Being able to give 100% accurate GPS coordinates would of course be the difference between life and death, if a climber breaks a leg on a mist-covered mountain).
Walking through trees. (Photo Adam Brewster 2021)
Walking through trees. (Photo Adam Brewster 2021)
This made sense in the light of the haunting descriptions I’d read in The Living Mountain (or heard about from friends or family) of the utterly disconcerting experience of navigating a way out of white mist in which you can’t see beyond a foot. In previous years, I’d climbed several mountains with an ex-partner, Tim. He’d learned how to navigate well, but wasn’t so foolhardy he’d walk into a blizzard given a choice. I remember one day we’d walked up into the Trossachs (a mountain region in Central Scotland) and were just about to climb onto the plateau towards the summit when a white-out blizzard descended. It was lucky we were standing next to a cliff. We simply stood there till it passed, then when the air cleared took the opportunity to walk quickly to the summit where we enjoyed blue skies and a view of Loch Katrine far below.
My mum (Gillian) had been the more intrepid mountain climber though. Her partner at the time, Des, was a geologist by training and had extensive mountain climbing experience. I’ll never forget her description of a sudden blizzard as they navigated via map and compass down to a bothy and safety. She said that all she could actually see was the front of her anorak, which became encrusted with a growing hillock of icy snow crystals. I can well imagine her relief on reaching the bothy, warmth and safety.
It’s in conditions such as these that Nan would doubtless have found herself on occasions. Alone too. I think her imaginative descriptions, visionary insights and musings might lead the inexperienced to imagine her as floating elf-like along the mountain paths in a continual reverie! It’s clear that as well as excellent navigation skills, she must have had muscles (and nerves) of steel!
Our guide Emma pointed out the tracks and marks left by various animals as we walked through the snowy wood. She wasn’t what I’d expected as guide (I suppose Adam and I had somehow imagined a tough militaristic sort) Emma looked quite arty, with a mane of light red hair and green eyes; very Scottish! We chatted about Nan, and she agreed that she must have been an incredibly experienced climber – absolutely in her element in this arctic landscape.
As Emma explained, the Cairngorms are in fact a micro-climate, a ‘mini – Arctic’ in effect, with all the temperatures, weather conditions, flora and fauna associated with the Arctic. We were by now emerging from the woodland and as the trees thinned out we were able to look back at the astonishing views behind us of the snow-covered Monadliath mountains to the west of the Cairngorms.
‘Among Elementals. Book cover. The Living Mountain Series. Oil on 60x42cm wood. Rose Strang 2020
My first painting attempt for the series was the book cover. Artists reading this journal can imagine how overwhelmed my mind was with possibilities. How was I going to paint Nan’s experience of the Cairngorms? Any decent landscape artist could paint a scene of the Cairngorms and, had someone got in touch with me to say; ‘Can I commission you to paint a view of the Cairngorms for my friend’s birthday?’ I’d know they were probably looking for an iconic and recognisable Cairngorms vista!
This was definitely not what Sheri Gee was looking for, nor was I. I knew what she was looking for because of the selection of paintings she sent me as examples of why she’d chosen my work. They were paintings I’d created over recent years that were mostly inspired by literature or music. None were commissions – they were all self-motivated experimental works from imagination, mostly taking the form of semi abstract landscape. I was intrigued by Sheri’s selection, because these were paintings I’d struggled over – to create something meaningful. The process had had no known outcome at the start of each painting. I wondered how I’d manage to keep this very loose experimental and intensive approach while also expressing something of Nan’s descriptions and vision; it felt like a bit of a creative tightrope to me.
I started with the idea that Nan was inspired by Buddhism. She might have seen paintings by Chinese or Japanese artists expressing ideas of space and spirituality in landscape – a sense of being. The painting below was my first attempt at a book cover. I was quite pleased with it and the Folio Society were too in a sense, but the problem was that it didn’t say ‘Mountain’, and for the book cover at least there needed to be something to hint at the contents of the book!
Front Cover painting 1. Rose Strang 2020
I made the following attempts (below) but wasn’t satisfied with those either.
Front Cover painting 3. Rose Strang 2020
Front Cover painting 2. Rose Strang 2020
By this time I’d been feeling frustrated for days. I’d ended up with too much colour when what I’d dreamed of was a mystical elemental feel in monochrome. I looked at the two beautiful Turner sketches (below), which re-inspired me to start again with a black acrylic base, onto which I began paintings swathes of oil in various shades of pale grey.
December light in Scotland is horrible to paint in – I ended up chucking solvent at the painting just to break it up and deliberately make a mess. This helped me break away from indecisive dabbing, so I could stand back and see more objectively. Usually I’d look at the painting in a mirror at this stage for further objectivity, but I just felt grumpy and tired. Later on two of our neighbours, Andrew and Carly, dropped by and said ‘that’s great’. I hmphh-ed in response then realised they weren’t just being polite and said, ‘Thanks’.
The next day I worked a little more on the area of water. The oils had dried somewhat, and as often happens with oils, the colours had resolved into something subtle and interesting. I sent it off to Sheri Gee, alongside the other cover image painting. They liked it and though I still wasn’t satisfied, I felt it worked as a book cover.
Looking at it now, with a little more perspective, it actually does capture the feel of Cairngorms in the snow, especially the sense of ever-changing snowdrifts and subtle colour changes.
Part of my frustration was that, thanks to lockdown, I didn’t know if it was possible to visit the Cairngorms. There seemed to be nowhere open where we could stay. There was also the restriction on going further than five miles. Usually I’d have gone there immediately and stayed a few days to at least imbibe the atmosphere before painting, it felt utterly wrong not to be there. I began to scrutinise government guidelines for possibilities; how dangerous could it be to drive with Adam to the midst of a windswept remote mountain range? In terms of covid-risk surely almost zero – we’d seen almost no-one outside of close family and friends.
A peruse of the convoluted government guidelines revealed (five or so pages and several links in) that it was possible to travel for work-related purposes if the work couldn’t be carried out at home. I wanted Adam to come for photography reasons, to document our trip as well as the fact I wanted to share this experience with him. I take my own photos as occasional painting references, but I wanted to focus on that rather than documenting, plus it freed me up to focus on surroundings.
In terms of mountain climbing the Cairngorms in winter, the risk was real though. I hadn’t climbed a mountain for a few years and neither my nor Adam’s map and compass-reading skills were impressive – I’d always relied on someone else for those. Neither was our fitness level. I felt lockdown-softened and I knew I was no ‘Nan’ in terms of mountain adventure, I accepted that my role was artist not mountaineer! I decided to get in touch with Liam Irving of Cairngorm Adventure Guides, who recommended one of their guides – Emma Atkinson – to steer us up to the plateau.
To prepare, we embarked on a daily walking regime, starting with circuits of the peaks of Arthur’s Seat, then on to the biggest hills to hand near Edinburgh – the Pentlands. Conditions were ideal, with recent snowfalls the conditions were almost Cairngorm-esque we felt. All that remained was to upgrade our anoraks and wax our boots.
Coming up:Pt 4: In the Cairngorms
Cainrgorm Ridge from Loch Morlich. (Photo Rose Strang 2021).
Part Two: Erlend Clouston on his friendship with Nan Shepherd.
A few days before my meeting with Erlend I’d been at my friend Donald’s house where we’d chatted about Nan Shepherd. As Donald played guitar I began doodling/sketching on his blackboard. It was a picture of a valley with an overhanging rockface. As I stood back I thought the rock-face resembled a lion’s head, so I emphasised that then drew a quick sketch of Nan Shepherd resembling her iconic image with headband (as on the Scottish £5 note)
Later that evening, I began to look online for paintings of the Cairngorms by various artists. One stood out. It was a valley with an overhanging rock that looked like a lion’s head, which is in fact situated to the east of Braemar in the east of the Cairngorms. I found this slightly spooky, a bit eldritch to use one of Nan Shepherd’s words! Nan grew up in the village of Cults outside Aberdeen and it’s possible her first forays into the Cairngorms would have started from the valleys near Braemar.
The Lion’s Face, near Braemar. James William Giles. 1854
Lion’s Face Rock
My meeting with Erlend was coming up. (I wondered if he’d be the sort of person to whom one could divulge such information!) We’d loosely planned to take a wander around Arthur’s Seat, but on the day, given the noisy traffic around the hill and a gusty wind, it seemed more sensible to find somewhere quiet to sit. On our way to finding a café, we chatted about Nan’s interests. It turned out that Erlend’s mother had, in a sense, been informally adopted by Nan Shepherd.
Erlend’s grandfather (his mother’s father), a sea captain, ran off when his mother was very young, Erland explained:
“She [Erlend’s mother] and her mother naturally moved into the orbit of the grandparents who lived in Cults [the village in Aberdeenshire where Nan lived] and were close friends of the parents of a young teacher-training college lecturer, Anna Shepherd [Nan]. Child and adult developed a rapport that lasted all their lives. When my mother married and children came along we were absorbed unequivocally into Nan’s orbit. We were living in Shetland then. Every summer holiday, so far as I can remember, I spent with my mother in Nan’s house. She obviously became a close companion to us all. We would be taken for walks through local forests and along the local railway line – very thrilling experiences for residents of Shetland!”.
I wondered if this close friendship had carried on into adulthood for Erlend. Such family friendships might be left in childhood as life is taken up with work and new relationships. On the contrary, as Erlend described:
“Even when we grew up and moved away from home (by now in Banchory, on Deeside), Nan always remained an adjunct to our lives. Letters were regularly exchanged, visits regularly made. She took me on a walking holiday in Switzerland, and down to London to see Laurence Olivier in The Master Builder”.
This gave me the sense of a family friend who was more like an aunt to Erlend – someone who thought about experiences that would enhance his life, as a boy and adult, through landscape and culture. Was there a sense of Nan as a writer back then? Erlend’s reply suggested somewhat rueful hindsight:
“We were vaguely aware that she had been a writer, but she chose never to mention this, and we were too self-centred to inquire. So the discovery of the quality of The Living Mountain, a few years after she had died, was quite shocking, for all sorts of reasons”.
Erlend and I discussed this; I could certainly relate to a sense of regret that in younger years we’re often so focussed on the compelling (sometimes overwhelming) events of life, that we may not explore another’s perspective as conscientiously as we do in later years. He also talked a little on the subject of Nan’s apparent lack of ego, expressing humorously that if he’d had her writing talent he’d have been constantly promoting and pushing for publication of his work! It’s well-known among Shepherd aficionados however, that although Nan had previously published three works of fiction, she approached just one publisher in the 1940s with the manuscript of The Living Mountain. When they refused it, she simply kept it in a drawer until its publication many years later, when she was in her 80s.
Erlend speculated about her experiences of being an author at a time when women were generally less encouraged to publish their work. This particular conversation included an anecdote about Nan Shepherd’s interactions with her contemporary, Lewis Grassic Gibson, (an author also living in Aberdeenshire) …
Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy (A Scot’s Quair) about his fictional heroine Chris Guthrie coming of age in rural Aberdeenshire: Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite is well-known as part of Scotland’s literary canon. I’d read this trilogy in my twenties, thoroughly enjoyed the first, less so the second and had just about tolerated the third – Grey Granite. Erlend smiled when I described my response to Grey Granite; “It was like a lump of granite going ..” – I brought my hand down on the table – thud!
Returning to Erlend’s anecdote; Nan had known Lewis Grassic Gibbon, he was at least an acquaintance of Nan’s. He was familiar with her three works of fiction; The Quarry Wood (published 1928, four years before Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song) The Weatherhouse and finally A Pass in the Grampians, which was published in 1933. All three focus mainly on the lives of young women growing up in rural Aberdeenshire. Erlend asked me; “What would you do if a friend of yours gave an insulting review of one of your exhibitions?”. I replied that I’d at the very least make a mental note to avoid that person – I’d be hurt and probably angry. Erlend went on to describe Grassic-Gibbon’s review of Shepherd’s A Pass in the Grampians; “When I read it I thought … ooof! It was harsh”.
‘”His [Grassic Gibbon’s] 1933 review of A Pass in the Grampians claimed:
‘Miss Nan Shepherd writes about … a Scots religion and Scots people
at three removes — gutted, castrated and genteely vulgarised’.’
Ooof. What also gave me pause for thought was Erlend’s conclusion to the tale; When Lewis Grassic Gibbon died, Nan Shepherd set up a trust fund to help support his widowed wife and their children.
Charlotte Peacock and Erlend Clouston both speculate on the fact that Nan’s literary career never reached the glittering heights of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s, perhaps because she was never accepted or lauded by the influential London literary establishment? Or was it partly a lack of ambition? Or her circumstances? Nan cared for her mother in later years, then for the family housekeeper, Mamie Lawson, who became ill in later life. Erlend and I discussed, or speculated on, whether it was possibly the fact that Nan explored Buddhist philosophy quite deeply; perhaps in later years this influence may have diluted the efforts of ego required to promote literary ambitions? Possibly all of these influences played a part.
Having read the works by Grassic Gibbon and Shepherd mentioned above, it’s clear to me (and many other far more academic literary commenters and readers) that the work of these two authors is on a par. It’s thanks in part to a feminist-influenced, or female-centric, readdressing of Scottish literature that Nan Shepherd’s literary talents have been reintroduced and brought to light, which has in turn encouraged readers to re-assess her influence, at the time, on writers such as Grassic Gibbon.
There’s no doubt, though, that Erlend Clouston’s dedicated role as literary executor to Nan’s estate, following her death in 1981, has been most instrumental in the protection and promotion of her legacy. The author Robert MacFarlane’s introductions to publications of the Living Mountain, including this recent Folio Society publication, have also brought the work of Nan Shepherd to the attention of wider readership beyond Scotland – particularly as a welcome addition to the landscape and nature writing genre for which MacFarlane is widely known and appreciated. (More on Robert MacFarlane later in this journal).
I decided, at the risk of sounding odd, to recount to Erlend my interesting experience of sketching a valley and Lion’s Face Rock, though I’d had no previous knowledge of this landscape. Did Erlend have any knowledge of Nan’s experience of this area of the Cairngorms? Could he tell me about her interests in literature? In spirituality, or religion? She’d lived only a few miles from Huntly, where the author George MacDonald grew up. I explained that George MacDonald (probably best known for The Princess and the Goblin, amongst his many works of literature) had been a source of inspiration in my life, as had C.S. Lewis. I briefly described to him my most recent project for which I’d created a series of paintings in response to the imagined landscapes of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and the fact that each book in the series was (as discovered by author Dr Michael Ward) influenced by the planets as they were understood in Medieval cosmology.
Landscape, alongside faith and spirituality, had been a powerful and central focus for all of these authors; Would Nan have been influenced by them, or read their works? My (somewhat disparate!) questions and descriptions elicited a thoughtful and fascinating response. Firstly, Erlend replied:
“‘Coincidences’ are always slightly unsettling. I have had two involving Nan. The first was in 1982 when the (London-based) literary editor of the Guardian called in at the Manchester office where I worked and handed over a couple of books for me to review. One of these was ‘The Living Mountain’. What are the odds on a son of the woman informally adopted by Nan half a century earlier being asked to give Nan’s book its first national review?!”.
Erlend described his response to reading Nan’s book. He remembered sometimes seeing a copy of The Living Mountain in Nan’s house when he was younger. At the time, he’d supposed it was simply an account of mountain climbing – nature notes perhaps, or routes. When the book arrived on his desk for review, about fifty years later while working for the Guardian in Manchester, he began reading and it quickly became apparent that this was much more than a dry account of mountain-climbing. He was fascinated and moved by the book, which was published after Nan’s death; ‘To my infinite regret, Nan was actually dead by the time I got round to reading/reviewing TLM”.
Responding to my question about the author George MacDonald, Erlend replied that in fact he’d discovered a book in Nan’s library that was signed by George MacDonald – “I’ll send you photos” he promised. He went on to describe the second “coincidence” regarding his, and Nan’s, literary interests;
“A few years ago, when I was pursuing a thematic link between Nan and Alice in Wonderland I was interested in the fact that Charles Dodgson [aka Lewis Carroll] had been encouraged to publish ‘Alice’ by Scottish mystic-cum-author, George MacDonald. I wondered if Nan might have had any books by said George, and wandered over to the shelves where I keep what remains of Nan’s library. The very first (decrepit) looking volume I pulled out was ‘Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character’ by E.B. Ramsay, Dean of Edinburgh….and the signature inside was…. George MacDonald’s (dated May 11, 1898)”.
Erlend revealed yet another literary link related to my questions;
“Very quickly after this I remembered that Nan had made my sister presents of some of George MacDonald’s very highly-regarded children’s books, viewed as the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, and influential on Tolkien. I still have the copy of ‘The Princess and The Goblin’, inscribed ‘DEIRDRE, with birthday love from NAN, 16th June, 1950’. Then there is the curious fact that Virginia Woolf, to whom Nan is often compared, created a time-travelling hero(ine), Orlando whose multi-century master-work, The Oak Tree, is finally published in 1928, the same year as Nan’s first novel, The Quarry Wood!”.
I was intrigued by these coincidences, and delighted to hear the endorsement of MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin by Nan via Erlend! My sister and I were gifted this book by our mum in the 1970’s. Our edition dated from the 1950’s, with beautiful illustrations by Charles Folkyard (first editions were illustrated by Arthur Hughes).
The connection between Nan Shepherd and George MacDonald was meaningful to me for many reasons. Obviously they shared a love of Aberdeenshire landscape having grown up there (Nan in Cults, MacDonald in Huntly. It’s extremely doubtful their lives intersected in person at any point. Nan would have been a girl when MacDonald was in his last years (as an adult and until the end of his life he lived mainly in the south of England or abroad due to the poor condition of his lungs). Erlend continued on the theme of MacDonald:
“Nan was obviously very impressed by MacDonald’s qualities as a writer, and possibly as well by his qualities as a mystic. How did she come by the autographed book? I can’t think she got it from his hand when she was five. Maybe she sought it out in later life, perhaps at a library sale, or just struck lucky in a second-hand bookshop. Anyway, she clearly thought it was worth having!”
Had Nan sought to enhance Erlend’s imagination as a boy? I was intrigued with the sense of Nan as an influence in the young Erlend’s life. What interests might she have encouraged? As it turned out, Nan had in fact gifted Erlend with a copy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Erlend was:
“… quite sure that Nan was, in effect, signalling her world view when she presented me with a multi-volume hard-back version of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ years before it was celebrated. She had seen the damage that Modernity had inflicted on the world; Tolkien presents a graphic and gripping metaphor for civilisation’s predicament. Eden – the Shire – is under enormous threat from the machine-and-conquest obsessed forces of Mordor. The dilapidation that Nan records in the Cairngorms and her novels mirrors the dilapidation that Frodo and friends find in the Shire when they return: trees destroyed, people uprooted, misplaced faith in the machine. The fight against brutalisation is an endless one. It is easy to forget that the Lord of the Rings was written over the same morale-sapping period as ‘The Living Mountain’. In his wartime letters Tolkien refers to bombers – of both sides- as “Mordor gadgets.”
MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien; each of them had written evocatively and atmospherically about landscape. Their descriptions coloured my experience of landscape as I grew up; I saw and felt the magic in mossy pools, spring flowers or trees in the wind. As part of my exploration of ideas and inspiration around the Living Mountain commission, I’d recently been looking at my own copy of The Princess and the Goblin – re-reading MacDonald’s euphoric description of spring in the mountains, alongside Folkyard’s illustrations to the book of streams flooding mountain valleys, flowing over cliffs of pink-orange granite as Irene and Curdie struggle through the storm. I thought of Nan’s evocative, atmospheric descriptions of water; ‘flowing from granite’ in the Cairngorms.
Illustration by Charles Folkyard from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. (photo Rose Strang 2021)
Excerpt from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. (photo Rose Strang 2021)
Excerpt from The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald. (photo Rose Strang 2021)
This inspirational conversation with Erlend brought me back full-circle to my initial sense of Nan Shepherd. His observation about the impact of war on Nan and her contemporaries – this terrible threat to the people and the landscapes they loved was powerful.
Nan certainly felt a sense of magic and wonderment in response to landscape, so much so that she was moved to write four books about her understanding and deep respect for the natural world. Her works of fiction, like MacDonald’s, Tolkien’s, C.S. Lewis’s and Grassic Gibbon’s, deal with the effects of war on the human psyche and on nature. Like her fellow authors, it was no doubt because of the times she lived in that she was particularly motivated to communicate a more urgent sense of her spiritual, imaginative and emotional response to it. Not only to readers through her writing but to the people she knew and loved personally, including Erlend.
Erlend’s reminiscences are also a reminder of Nan’s lifetime occupation as a teacher (Nan was a lecturer at the Aberdeen College of Education for Teachers from 1919 until she retired in 1956 at the age of 63) and they amply illustrate the fact that she encouraged a love of literature in young people, in her work and her personal life. I’d wondered, as had many researching Nan’s life, about the fact she’d never married or had children. Had she felt it might restrict her freedom in any sense? Marriage could be particularly restricting for women in Nan’s time.
It wasn’t a subject I felt would impact my creative approach particularly, but I was curious about it. Erlend had obviously spent most of his time with Nan in boyhood, and wouldn’t have been particularly curious on the matter at that time! He speculates though, that:
“Charlotte Peacock’s biography makes a very persuasive case for Nan’s attachment to John Macmurray, the distinguished Christian philosopher and husband of her best friend. Macmurray’s name had occasionally come up in conversation at Dunvegan – Nan’s Cults home – but nothing beyond that. Charlotte reckons that the collection of intense poems grouped under the title ‘Fourteen Years’ alludes to the time-span of the relationship. When that petered out – Macmurray was transferred away, and anyway believed in open marriages – Nan would have been disinclined to sacrifice the freedom she had won for herself”.
Yes indeed. All of my conversations with Erlend painted a vivid picture of Nan. I understood that it was not only love of landscape she communicated, but the joy of life lived free of arbitrary or meaningless restrictions. A freedom she felt when wandering the Cairngorm Plateau, which enabled her to communicate her vision, or her ‘calling’, so effectively.
Erlend had mentioned to me that when he thought of Nan, the word ‘outlaw’ came to mind. Why was that, I asked?:
“Nan the outlaw? Well, I think the idea works, to a certain extent. She has the classic Zorro backstory: the well-respected member of a well-respected family, expected to conform to respectable principles. But no. She refuses to assemble conventional feminine skills, like sewing and cooking and ‘home-making’. She uses her brain. And then she uses this brain, in conjunction with her free time, to ‘gallop’ back into the same wilderness that her ancestors had managed to struggle out of. She communed with the hills rather than polite society. She was deeply attached to a married man, and when that relationship withered she did not weaken. She did not sink back into suburbia; her connection with the raw universe intensified. As someone said about Coleridge; “To enjoy unnecessary discomfort and insecurity we must first be bored with comfort.” No swords, but a sharp apprehension of realities”.
By December 2020, as lockdown continued Adam and I welcomed a change from home comforts and the Cairngorms beckoned. My last trip to the Cairngorms had been in 2016, while visiting my sister Catherine when she worked near Nethy Bridge temporarily. It had been autumnal weather and we hadn’t encountered any obstacles to our hill-walking. I knew this project, if it was to be inspired by Nan’s life, required something a little bit more challenging though. First though, there was a deadline to meet –the book cover painting had to be sent to the Folio Society by the end of winter.