Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain (1977)

Spellbinding descriptions of walking the hills of the Cairngorms

Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain (1977)

March 2024 • Non-fiction

During the pandemic I discovered the joys of reading great nature writing. With the world in lockdown, books by Robert Macfarlane and Peter Matthiessen helped me travel to faraway destinations — places that, come to think of it, I wouldn’t dare visit even if I could.

I’ve kept reading similar books since, and I’ve now learned that most writers in the genre must in one way or another have been inspired by, and are certainly indebted to, the hundred or so pages Nan Shepherd wrote in 1944.

Born in 1893, she wrote three novels, a selection of essays, a bundle of poetry, and this slim volume of masterful non-fiction — its manuscript initially rejected, then untouched for over three decades, and finally published in 1977.

Shepherd walked the hills of the Cairngorms, a mountain range in Scotland, and the way she describes these walks is spellbinding. I’ve read the book once, and as I flicked through its pages once more to jog my memory, I noticed I kept discovering things I couldn’t quite remember seeing on my first pass, as if I myself traversed a landscape that was ever-changing.

She writes of things as enormous as the sky and the landscape, and as tiny as a hare’s tracks in snow, describing how finding tracks gives winter hill walking “a distinctive pleasure”. “One is companioned, though not in time”, she writes, immediately making you feel at one with the nature she shows you.

She describes plants I’ve never heard of (and want to find) and trees I thought I was familiar with (and clearly am not): “Birch, the other tree that grows on the lower mountain slopes, needs rain to release its odour. It is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day, one can be as good as drunk with it.”

Her sensory descriptions — of seeing, hearing, smelling and touching nature — are so vivid, so sensual. Sun-warmed dried mud flats have a “delicious touch, cushioned and smooth”; “a flower caught by the stalk between the toes is a small enchantment”.

The book’s pages, oozing with beauty, find themselves bookended by an introduction written by Robert Macfarlane, and an afterword penned by Jeanette Winterson (added to the 2011 and 2019 editions), both so expertly crafted they make the purchase worth your while in their own right. 

As Winterson puts it:

“Reading it seems to me to explain why reading is so important. And odd. And necessary. And not like anything else. There is no substitute for reading.


“I am not a mountain climber or even a hillwalker. I know nothing about the Cairngorms. The book was sent to me and because books and doors both need to be opened, I opened it. A book is a door; on the other side is somewhere else.”

The somewhere else you find on the other side of this door is, truly, a sight to behold.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
Originally published by Aberdeen University Press in 1977
Re-published by Canongate Books in 2011

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Book #14 • March 2024