Wild Geese: A Collection Of Nan Shepherd's Writing

Edited by Charlotte Peacock

Galileo, £14.99

Reviewed by Susan Flockhart

Nan Shepherd didn't become a familiar household name – or rather a well-kent face – until almost four decades after her death, when her photograph was published on Royal Bank of Scotland banknotes in 2016. This probably wouldn't have troubled the Aberdeenshire writer, who even after producing three acclaimed novels and a poetry collection, remained endearingly modest about her literary powers.

When her book about her beloved Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, was rejected by a publisher in 1945, she humbly consigned the manuscript to a drawer, where it remained for three decades.

On its eventual publication in 1977, just four years before Shepherd died aged 88, the book was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece of nature writing. Yet it was not the only one of her works to have languished for decades in obscurity. Despite once telling an interviewer that she'd stopped writing because, Shepherd had actually produced a significant body of poetry, prose and fiction during that supposed fallow period.

Several of those pieces have been gathered together in Wild Geese: A Collection Of Nan Shepherd's Writing, which also includes some earlier works. In the 1915 essay On Noises In The Night, the then 22-year-old's fascination with raw nature is already apparent. Motor sirens, train engines and other “man-made” sounds are, she writes, “false Florimels” compared with the nocturnal wind's moaning, whistling, rattling ability to “strip us naked to our elemental superstitious selves”.

The Colours Of Deeside examines Shepherd's home landscape through the moss-greens of its woods, the “ghostly whites” of its mists and the deep gentian shadows of its corries. Yet she admits she struggles to name the hue of its open spaces and for all Shepherd's dexterous command of Scots and English, she occasionally holds up her hands and admits that earth's beauty is perhaps better experienced than described.

Long passages of “nature writing” can after all be hard to digest, but where such descriptions occur in Shepherd's fiction, they succeed brilliantly in illuminating her characters' inner lives. In her wonderful short story Descent From The Cross, a First World War veteran rouses himself from his sickbed to encounter a fresh April morning. “Lovely beyond all his remembering” with its wet birch trees, exultant blackbirds and faint green mists, those clean, verdant surroundings make him realise he's been trapped in a mental prison.

Tommy is an aspiring author struggling to write the great book his wife Elizabeth expects of him. Years previously, while being tortured as a prisoner of war, he'd experienced an epiphany during which “the truth of things” was revealed to him “with superhuman clarity”. What he'd intuited, he told Elizabeth, was “something pretty fundamental”. It could be “the basis of a whole philosophy of living”. It could save humankind … if only he could remember what it was.

Urged by the idealistic Elizabeth to channel this profound experience into literature, he's since been toiling away at the work he hopes will make his name and rescue him from the ignominy of living off his wife's earnings.

But the novel flounders as the nature of that briefly-glimpsed truth continues to elude its author. When Elizabeth's widowed mother comes to stay, Tommy's humiliation is complete as she fusses and cleans around him, perpetually asking after the book that's to “make all our fortunes”.

Unable to bear her probing questions he decides to take any work that will get him out of the house.

But this is 1930, the streets are full of hungry, hopeless, disillusioned men and he finally secures a post selling stockings from door to door, only to be repeatedly shamed by “the small discourtesies and meannesses that quite decent people will mete out to the unsuccessful”.

It's a powerful evocation of the soul-crushing conditions that prevailed during the Great Depression and Tommy's despair over his book's failure to materialise is viscerally authentic, suggesting Shepherd herself may have been no stranger to the writer's block that perhaps descended when, as she told that interviewer, “it just didn't come to [her] any more”.

Perhaps, though, Shepherd's dry pen didn't actually trouble her too much. She appears to have drawn immense satisfaction from working as an English lecturer at Aberdeen College of Education and despite her outstanding literary talent she didn't see the writer's craft as existing on an elevated plane to teaching, pulling a plough or selling stockings.

There is plenty to savour in this enjoyable collection, including three pieces on 20th-century Scottish poets Hugh MacDiarmid, Charles Murray and Marion Angus – all of whom, like Shepherd, wrote in Scots. Most engagingly, she describes Marion Angus's poetic genius for depicting “folk [who] have their feet firmly set on the soil of the North-East”.

Unhappy and unrequited love, we learn, are “dominant” in Angus's verse and in her insightful introduction Charlotte Peacock asks some probing questions about Shepherd's own poems, several of which are published here for the first time. “Ah, love, surrender could not be more complete!” writes Shepherd portentously in Union. “She never married,” Peacock tells us. “Nor did she ever reveal the name of the man for whom” her love-themed poems were written, although there has been much speculation.

Wild Geese concludes with an amusing series of ruminations titled Things I Shall Never Know. Likewise, we may never learn the secrets of Nan Shepherd's heart. But her love of the Deeside landscape, and its people, positively sings through this book.