Who would have thought that a curious glance at a bank note image of a Scots writer wearing Wonder Woman headgear would result in a powerful, utterly compelling new play?

Playwright-director Richard Baron explains how he came to be captivated by the woman on the Bank of Scotland note, who turned out to be Modernist writer and poet Nan Shepherd, and how serendipity played its part in the genesis of his theatre play.

“One day, I found myself looking at this image on the five pound note and wondering who this person was - and the very next day I was talking to a radio producer friend who asked me if I’d thought of telling the story of The Living Mountain for a radio programme.”

The theatre director was deeply intrigued. “At the time we were looking for a lockdown project and I began to learn more about Nan Shepherd, so I read her novels, which really compared to great modernist works by the likes of Virginia Wolff and Thomas Hardy.”

Baron, the co-creator of theatre company Firebrand, adds: “I learned that The Living Mountain (telling of Shepherd’s walking adventures in the Cairngorms) went on to be published in 16 different languages and is being launched in America next year, with a major film company linked to her story. But it lay in a locked drawer for 30 years.”


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Research into the life of Shepherd by Baron and co-writer Ellie Zeegan revealed a woman of quite astounding contrasts and contradictions. “Nan Shepherd slept in the same small bed in the same house in the same small village (Cults in Deeside) her entire life. She once taught as a college lecturer, and while she came across as a prim schoolteacher figure, she was also rather unconventional, rather like a Miss Jean Brodie.”

The writer adds, grinning: “On her bookshelves she had both Das Kapital by Marx - and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. She told students they simply had to turn up to pass exams. And she would tell her class, ‘We’re only going to read the dirty bits of DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy.’”

Richard Baron smiles as he colours in the life and unusual times of a quite remarkable woman. “She loved to strip naked and swim in lochs. She didn’t do housework and there was no heating in her house. And she practised free love.”

Shepherd was in an open relationship with married philosopher John Macmurray, which was far more redolent of the DH Lawrence/Virginia Woolf free love world in London. “But it looks like Nan had her fingers burned by her relationship, and she didn’t marry. Of course, another reason would be that female teachers had to give up work if they married.”

Shepherd, in one sense, was rather parochial, yet her mind, as her novels reveal, was as expansive as the Cairngorms. However, literary success was not delivered readily to her Deeside doorstep. “We discovered that Nan was up against London-based male publishers who didn’t really get the themes of her books, which were about women living in north eastern Scotland in small communities - and she used Doric quite a lot.”

The Herald: Nan Shepherd as a young womanNan Shepherd as a young woman (Image: free)

Although Sunset Song writer Grassic Gibbon “occupied the same ground” he turned out to be the enemy within, trashing Shepherd’s third novel. “He basically wrote a crit that said she gutted, castrated and vulgarised Scotland.” Richard Baron believes this to be the reason that Shepherd pulled the dust cover over her typewriter and took to walking in the woods. “Yet, it was rumoured that Grassic Gibbon hadn’t even read the book he trashed.”

Yet, having written the now acclaimed The Living Mountain during the Second World War, Baron discovered Nan Shepherd then kept it in a drawer. “Why had she stopped writing? Why lock her work away? And why self-publish when she was in her Eighties?”

Sadly, Nan Shepherd, who never married, died in 1981 before The Living Mountain really took off. “It’s an incredible story,” says the writer of this highly unusual woman. But what of the Wonder Woman image? Did she see herself as a superhero? “No,” says Baron, smiling. “I discovered the image came about when she was having fun in a photographer’s studio. She put a roll of film around her head and attached a broach to it for a joke. She never looked like that again, in fact being quite a scruffy lady.”

Yet her writing was beautiful. ‘You don’t walk up a mountain. You walk into it.’ And it’s perfectly fitting she is coming to be recognised for the major talent she was. “Nan was once a significant figure, but then forgotten about as an older woman,” says Baron. “Her novels didn’t survive but now there is this burgeoning interest, which is so deserved and really exciting.”

Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed, runs at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from May 24 – July 6, featuring Irene Allen and David Rankine.

Don’t Miss: James V: Katherine, Rona Munro’s latest in her awesome series of plays set during the reigns of Scotland’s generations of Stewart kings, this time staged in a more intimate setting. Featuring Sean Connor, Catriona Faint, Benjamin Osugo and Alyth Ross. The Tron Theatre, Glasgow, April 24 – 27.