‘It’s a grand thing to get leave to live’, perhaps the most famous line Nan Shepherd wrote, is carved in the slate paving of the Writers’ Museum’s Close in Edinburgh. But many who read it, either there or on the new Scottish £5 note, will be surprised to learn that it is not actually taken from The Living Mountain, the work that brought Shepherd posthumous fame beyond her native Scotland.
Published in 1977, just four years before its author’s death, this book about the Cairngorms — part spiritual memoir, part nature writing — was written decades earlier, in the 1940s, but failed to find a publisher. Even then, however, it was to be Shepherd’s last book, though she would compose occasional pieces in the decades of literary and educational activity that followed. Had The Living Mountain never appeared, she would be remembered, if at all, for this cultural ‘civic’ activity, and for the three novels and a poetry collection that she published between 1928 and 1934.
The novel in which this famous line does appear is her debut, The Quarry Wood, and it’s spoken by a farmer just after the killing of a chicken. Both character and context are typical of Shepherd’s writing: all four of these books were set in the Aberdeenshire countryside she knew well. But this isn’t to suggest that Shepherd was some wild child of nature, artlessly recording the world around her. Quite the opposite. An educated young woman, who studied at the University of Aberdeen in the first decades after women were allowed to do so, she was active from the outset in what would become known as the Scottish literary renaissance. A student contributor to periodicals, she was involved in debates about the use of Doric in literature, and was an early advocate of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poetry using his own enlarged version of Scots dialect.
Nor did this commitment to a highly local model of national literature fall away through her life. Though excluded by gender from any university appointment, Shepherd was for decades a highly influential teacher of literature at the city’s teacher training college, and on her retirement became the editor of the Aberdeen University Review. She also participated energetically in the newly founded Scottish PEN and other Scottish revivalist activities and, in old age, was honoured with a DLitt. Hers was a worthy, hardworking life, into which the fact that she remained single, like so many women of the generation who came of age during and after the first world war (Nan was born in 1893), dissolves as just one of many shaping circumstances.
Though she did fall unhappily in love, it wasn’t her unmarried status that made Nan Shepherd fear that her life had been wasted. Like other pioneers of the Scottish renaissance — many of them, like Neil Gunn, her friends — her initially influential writing was soon considered to be merely fertile soil for the ‘genius’ of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The London-centric star system contributed to this, but the pseudonymous Gibbon — who went to London to seek his literary fortune: he wrote his famous Sunset Song in Welwyn Garden City — was not above giving it a helping hand. His 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.’
Charlotte Peacock’s Into the Mountain rightly responds to this excoriation by launching a forensic examination of whether Gibbon actually read Shepherd’s book (it’s likely he did not). A similar thoroughness characterises Peacock’s biography throughout; she’s found much additional material to flesh out the frankly not very numerous events of Shepherd’s life.
Yet, quietly lived or not, Nan’s personal story is an important one: it continues to compel because The Living Mountain is the kind of book readers take as a personal vade mecum. It is also a forceful reminder that what happens to writers’ work is often down to chance. It seems there’s nothing automatic about the canon after all. But as for whether Nan Shepherd herself, eking out private ecstasy on solitary hill walks, got ‘leave to live’, I’m just not sure.