Hiking With All My Senses

The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

Nan Shepherd, Canongate Canons, 2014, 160 pages.

(With a foreword by John Macfarlane and an afterword by Jeanette Winterson)

John Ruskin, the famous 20th century, British art critic, writer and philosopher, is known to have told his art students, “Now remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see.”

Having recently been learning to sketch, I fully understand what Ruskin was saying. So did John Macfarlane, another famous, though more contemporary, British author who wrote a long preface to The Living Mountain. In his book, The Art of Travel, Macfarlane wrote, “Ten minutes of concentration at least are needed to draw a tree; the prettiest tree rarely stops passersby for longer than a minute.”

Nan Shepherd, who was born and lived her entire life in Scotland near her beloved Cairngorm mountains, would have made Ruskin proud. The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s, but not published until 1977, is a lesson in the power of observation. For Shepherd – as should all nature writers – observes with all five of her senses. Her favourites being sight and touch.

She writes, “Dried mud flats, sun-warmed, have a delicious touch, cushioned and smooth; so has long grass at morning, hot in the sun, but still cool and wet when the foot sinks into it like food melting in a new flavour in your mouth. And a flower caught by the stalk between the toes is a small enchantment.”

Born in 1893, Shepherd never married. She wrote poetry, essays and is the author of three novels, published in the 1930s. She studied the Cairngorms until, as the book’s title suggests, they came to life for her. She was fascinated not by “bagging” their peaks, but by what was inside. She writes, “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Separated into 12 short chapters that describe what she senses about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain made me yearn to know and love my landscape with equal passion and intimacy. I also crave being able to express my knowledge and love with similar elegance. And maybe with work, I could improve. Shepherd writes, “I have been the instrument of my own discovering…Thus the senses must be trained and disciplined, the eye to look, the ear to listen, the body must be trained to move with the right harmonies. I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain.”

But I have some way to go. Shepherd writes, “No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.” She adds – and I wholly relate to this, “For falling asleep on the mountain has the delicious corollary of awaking.”

The book is rich in language. She writes of burns (large streams or small rivers), corries (floods), spate, spars, smother and aiguilles, not all of which I was able to translate. And her descriptions are as colourful as they are apt. She writes of the odd collection of people who share her “bug of mountain feyness attacks” (those who also love the mountains), “…from a gaunt scion of the ancient Kings (or so he looked), with eagle beak and bony knees…kilt and highland cloak flapping in the rain, to a red-headed greaser, an old mole-catcher, and an errand boy from Glasgow.”

Shepherd’s book made me want my body to think. She writes, “Here then may be lived a life of the sun so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time...”

After writing this small gem, she never wrote another. Perhaps she believed she had nothing left to give, nothing more to say. She writes, “So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” 

I believe Shepherd is proof of her fellow countryman, John Muir's famous quote: "I only went out of a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."