Written on 07/01/15 by Elizabeth Oldham

The Living Mountain - Nan Shepherd

The Living Mountain

It is perhaps a little odd that a Lake District walking website reviews a book based amongst the mountains and glens of the Cairngorms, in Scotland but to ignore this little book though just for being outside our area would be a great shame.

The Living Mountain nearly didn't get published. It sat in a drawer for 40 years before it was published by the Aberdeen University Press in 1977. Nan Shepherd had published a number of novels and poetry works in the 1930s.

Cairngorm from the southern slopes of Cairn Lochan
Cairngorm from the southern slopes of Cairn Lochan

She wrote this book in the latter stages of the Second World War.

It starts straight into the heart of the matter...

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.

When I first visited the Cairngorm plateau I didn't really know much about the place. It was on a navigation course run by Glenmore Lodge, We took a minibus up to the car park at Choire Chais, and followed the path into Coire an t-Sneachda - the corrie of snow - which is a pretty impressive place in itself. After climbing the headwall by the goat track, and a final little scramble we came out onto the plateau. It is really an undulating expanse of granite, with summits that stick up, and great ice carved valleys, that don't drop much below 700m for many miles. Once visited, it becomes a special place you want to visit again.

Ben Macdui toposcope
The toposcope on Ben Macdui

Up on the plateau nothing has moved for a long time. I have walked all day, and seen no one. I have heard no living sound. Once, in a solitary corrie, the rattle of a falling stone betrayed the passage of a line of stags. But up here, no movement, no voice. Man might be a thousand years away.

Yet, as I look around me I am touched at many points by his presence. His presence is in the cairns, marking the summits, marking the paths, marking the spot where a man has died.

It does feel like a wild lonely place. Much, much more so than the any part of the Lakes, even on a fine day one June there were few people about other than on the summit of Cairn Gorm itself. The iconic, man-made, weather station nearby the usual focus of attention from the folk who have walked up from the Ptarmigan at the top of the funicular.

Lochan Uaine between Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine
Lochan Uaine barely visible high in its recess

But back to the book and another snippet:

At first mad to recover the tang of height, I made always for the summits, and would not take time to explore the recesses.

Ah yes. This is what I like about this book. It is not just about the summits, nor of conquering of the mountain, or "smashing" it like a foe to be subdued. She takes the reader into the mountains, to explore what it is like to be among them. These days it is a rare thing to find such a book describing the journey as a beautiful thing in itself.

And it's not just the mountains themselves, but even the most disconcerting of pleasures. One day she falls asleep near the summit Braeriach lying down looking over the edge of the crags into Coire Bhrochain. Awakening sometime later with a start, the first thing she see is the abyss of dark crags falling to the grazing deer 1000 feet below her. A heart stopping moment later remembering where she is.

It is a wonderful book to simply flick through before stopping to read a passage that takes your fancy. I really recommend it.

Tagged: books

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