Just four days now to the exhibition launch of The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response, at The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.
The panel discussion on the 17th February has now sold out, but the exhibition continues until the 31st March, before going on exhibition at The Heriot Gallery Dundas Street, Edinburgh. All details Here
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.
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
Erleand and I had 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.
In December 2020, with the prospect of an indefinite lockdown stretching ahead, I received an uplifting email …
Sheri Gee, Artistic Director of The Folio Society, emailed to ask if I’d be interested in creating a series of paintings to accompany their publication of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. They were not yet decided she explained, but simply wanted to get a sense of my interest in the project. My first panicked thought was; ‘If they’re asking other artists right now I’d better respond to let them know!’ and immediately rang Sheri’s phone number.
Picking up on my enthusiasm, Sheri confirmed the panel’s decision after a few days by email; ‘It’s a big fat Yes!’ she wrote. My partner Adam reached in to the fridge which contained an unopened bottle of Cava, and poured two celebratory glasses.
This commission meant a lot to me – far more meaningful than any artist’s painting award. When I first read The Living Mountain (in 2014, a year before Nan Shepherd’s portrait appeared on the Scottish £5) I remember feeling a thrill of recognition – her way of seeing felt somehow familiar to me. I expect many creative-minded people feel similarly when reading The Living Mountain.
Almost every page has vividly-written descriptions that blossom in the reader’s imagination. It became obvious to me, as I read the book, that Nan observed like an artist – that she spent a lot of time looking. Sometimes pragmatically – to assess terrain for example, but more often she gazed at length to observe the effect of the mountain on her mind and senses. Nan immersed herself wholly in the experience of the Cairngorms. Perhaps this is why the book has become so iconic. It’s obviously more than a description of mountain climbing. The holistic nature of her exploration seems to chime particularly with our times. I’m sure it would have equally in her own time, had people paid more attention.
I’d been inspired by Nan’s book in 2014, and I’d thought then of walking the Cairngorms to create a series of paintings, but life had thrown up other plans and projects. On receiving the news in 2020 that I was to be commissioned by the Folio Society I knew that somehow, despite lockdown restrictions, I had to get to the Cairngorms. I also wanted to explore Nan’s life more deeply; what mattered to Nan, creatively – what might she have chosen if she’d sought an artist for her book?
It was around this time that Sheri Gee contacted me to ask if I’d like to meet Erlend Clouston (the Literary Executor of Nan Shepherd’s Estate). As it happened Erlend also lived in Edinburgh. I replied of course I’d love to meet him. Erlend and I arranged to meet up and it proved to be more than informative; I gained a real sense of the sort of person Nan was, given that she part-raised Erlend in a sense. More than that, I felt my approach as an artist was affirmed by him, or in other words – I got the go-ahead to do my thing!
Coming up:Part Two: Erlend Clouston on his friendship with Nan Shepherd.