‘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.