The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd

Canongate, £14.99

Everyone in Scotland knows what Nan Shepherd looks like. Her face, complete with bejewelled bandanna, stares out from the Scottish five-pound note. Yet how people many have read her books?

For a long time in Scottish arts and letters she was known only as a minor writer of the early 20th century Scottish Renaissance. Between 1928 and 1935 she published three modernist novels – The Quarry Wood being superlative – and one book of poetry. From then until her death in 1981, she published only one more, The Living Mountain. It was written during the latter years of the World War Two but, following advice of novelist Neil Gunn, left in a drawer. No publisher would take a punt on such an unusual book, he argued.

In 1977, it was unearthed and Aberdeen University Press published it. This prose-poem about the Cairngorms quickly became a cult classic among wanderers and mountaineers, as important as anything written by WH Murray. Reading it has become a rite of passage for anyone wishing to understand the Scottish mountains, the literary equivalent of a hillwalker spending the night under the Shelter Stone at the head of Loch Avon.

Both pursuits are likely to keep you up all night. From its first sentence – "Summer on the high plateau can be delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge" – The Living Mountain draws you in with the feyness of its vision, the lucidity of its prose and Shepherd’s refreshing philosophy that mountains are more than peaks to be scaled. In writing the book, her aim was to uncover the "essential nature" of the mountains, and understand her place in them.

As you might have guessed, Shepherd was a wayward type. She was an English teacher for many years in Aberdeen. Her job, as she understood it, was to prevent students from conforming to the "approved pattern’ of life". She followed this herself and was itinerant by nature. In her lifetime, she travelled to North Africa, Greece, and Italy, but never moved permanently away from the village of West Cults, Deeside. She was drawn to the "forceful and gnarled personalities, bred of the bone of the mountain" that lived around The Cairngorms, like the "granite boss" of the region, Maggie, who would find a place to sleep for any lost late-night rambler or weary climber.

Nature writing these days is as much about the person as the place. Refreshingly, Shepherd – like JA Baker in his book The Peregrine – is not there as a personality, rather a human presence in the landscape, complete with roving eye and senses wide open. She understood nature’s ultimate indifference (it doesn’t care who you are), yet also how much she was a part of it. She had a keen sense of ecology, an understanding that to "deeply" know a place was to know something of the whole world. Her chapters, for example, move through every element of the mountains, from water to earth, on to golden eagles and down to the tiniest mountain flowers, like the genista or birdsfoot trefoil. Robert McFarlane has argued that is why she is a truly universal writer.

For Shepherd, sleeping on the mountain was one way to "know" the mountain completely. On the edge of sleep, "one neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world." It is at this point that personality disappears and "perception alone remains." Like Neil Gunn, Shepherd was schooled in Buddhist philosophy (a good book to compare it to would be Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard), which is where sentences like these come from: "I have walked out of the body and into the mountain. I am a manifestation of its total life, as is the starry saxifrage or the white-winged ptarmigan." This aspect of her writing can be tricky to navigate, but you’ll be rewarded for your perseverance.

This hardback edition of The Living Mountain includes McFarlane’s 2011 introduction, which elucidates many of Shepherd’s more philosophical passages and gives a handy overview of her life. The new cover is beautifully designed, although a puzzling and platitudinous new afterword by Jeanette Winterson seems out of place, until you realise this repackaged edition is essentially a marketing exercise by Canongate to publicise their rather odd nature writing competition, "The Nan Shepherd Prize for Underrepresented Writers", which seems to be aimed at rewarding writers for who they are as much as what they write.

Still, if it means Shepherd’s work reaches a few more readers, then it will have been worth it. In keeping with Shepherd’s waywardness, I’m even tempted to go wayward myself and say that even if you’ve spent your entire life exploring The Cairngorms, you’ve never really been there until you’ve read The Living Mountain.