The Living Mountain

The Living Mountain
by Nan Stepherd
Series: The Grampian Quartet #4
Publication Date: August 17, 1977
Pages: 157
Rating: ★★★★½

The Living Mountain is a lyrical testament in praise of the Cairngorms. It is a work deeply rooted in Nan Shepherd's knowledge of the natural world, and a poetic and philosophical meditation on our longing for high and holy places. Drawing on different perspectives of the mountain environment, Shepherd makes the familiar strange and the strange awe-inspiring. Her sensitivity and powers of observation put her into the front rank of nature writing.

I’m still reading Crewe Train by Rose Macauley but haven’t made any progress whatsoever because I have been either busy or just wanted to watch things on the TV. Why is it that work is always more stressful just before one takes some time off?

Anyway, I interrupted Crewe Train for a very good little interlude: Inspired by my read last year of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, I had hoped to spend a little more time in the Cairngorms National Part this year. Of course, this planning all started b.A. (“before Andy”). Still I managed to book a little wooden pod in a campsite in Braemar, which is as far into to park as the roads will take me from my direction.

And that is where we spent a couple of days this last weekend. Our first “camping” trip. I know, there was no tent and we did have a kettle and a microwave, but still it was enough on the “camping” side for me to qualify.

Andy did better than I thought he might, but he didn’t love it. Too many things going on in a strange environment. The thunderstorm in the middle of the night was the last straw for him. In the morning I got a look of disapproval, pleading to go home.

We also didn’t manage to do the walks that I had planned on. When we arrived, the temperatures were far too hot and the sun relentless. On our second day, the rain storm had cooled the air but also meant that the clouds were hanging low impeding any possible views. Also, the hot and humid air meant that the midges – the Scottish answer to piranhas – and other beasties were out in masses. And they were out for blood. By the time I got home I counted 16 bites on my face and neck alone – and that is despite using insect repellent. Thank goodness for antihistamines!

Anyway, during our day waiting for the heat to recede, I had the chance to re-read Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. It’s a book of poetically put-together vignettes of stories and thoughts about her own walks in the Cairngorm mountains, which start just across the river from where we were. Shepherd finished writing the book in 1947, but could not find a publisher, so the book lay unpublished for a few more decades. When I read it last year and again this weekend, I loved it. One of the issues I have with books about mountaineering is that they rarely tell why the climbers and walkers do what they do, what makes them love going up mountains.

Shepherd was very upfront about it. She felt she belonged there. She felt claustrophobic on level ground, and going walking in the mountains gave her time to think and discover who she was a person.

“One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable. There are awakened also in oneself by the contact elementals that are as unpredictable as wind or snow. This may suggest that to reach the high plateau of the Cairngorms is difficult. But no, no such thing. Given clear air, and the unending daylight of a Northern summer, there is not one of the summits but can be reached by a moderately strong walker without distress. A strong walker will take a couple of summits. Circus walkers will plant flags on all six summits in a matter of fourteen hours. This may be fun, but is sterile. To pit oneself against the mountain is necessary for every climber: to pit oneself merely against other players, and make a race of it, is to reduce to the level of a game what is essentially an experience. Yet what a race-course for these boys to choose!”

Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain (The Grampian Quartet) (pp. 36-37). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

“Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge. To those who love the place, both are good, since both are part of its essential nature. And it is to know its essential nature that I am seeking here. To know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living. This is not done easily nor in an hour. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age, not of immediate enough import for its desperate problems. Yet it has its own rare value. It is, for one thing, a corrective of glib assessment: one never quite knows the mountain, nor oneself in relation to it. However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them.”

Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain (The Grampian Quartet) (p. 34). Canongate Books. Kindle Edition.

I say that the book inspired me, and that is true. I will never be a serious hillwalker or climber. I’ll stick to trails that can be managed in half a day at most – including picnic breaks. (What’s the point in walking if there is no picnic?!) However, there are a couple of trails that start in Braemar that I really want to do someday. Both are trails that ascend Morrone, from where you can see into the higher ground of the mountians across the river and can also see Ben Macdui, Britain second highest mountain. I’m not sure why I have a fascination for Ben Macdui but I do. Shepherd also walked up Morrone and mentions the views from this hill over to the Cairngorms a couple of times.

Here is a fun little video I found to give you an idea:

Unfortunately, this trip will have to wait for another day. The weather and wildlife was against us this time, so I took Andy to another spot relatively close by that has a lovely little trail along the River Lui and some cascades at another nearby river, and is the gateway to the higher mountains of the Cairngorm range.

Andy loved it.