To Know Being, the Final Grace

Cameron McNeish examines the lessons he has learned from Nan Shepherd’s writings

NAN SHEPHERD, the woman-on-the-five-pound-note, was a reasonably successful novelist and poet but her work as a ‘geopoet’, if I may use such a term, has been widely acclaimed by literature experts and academics alike, as well as by those of us who love the hills. The focus of that work, a slim volume called The Living Mountain has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, championed by respected writers like Robert MacFarlane and others.

Now I’m not an expert in literature and I’m certainly not an academic, but I am a writer and a mountaineer, in the broadest sense of the word, so I’d like to examine some aspects of this poetic treatise on the Cairngorms, aspects that perhaps offer food for thought for those of us who climb hills.

Nan Shepherd on the £5 note – image: Royal Bank of Scotland PR

Rob MacFarlane identified two seminal ideas in Nan’s writing on mountains: ‘We don’t walk up a mountain, but into it’, and secondly: ‘we must abandon the summit as the organising principle of mountains.’

Interestingly Nan Shepherd eventually reaches the conclusion that the ‘living mountain’ lives because of our conscious engagement with it…. ‘as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate more deeply into my own…I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am.’

There are strong resonances of eastern religious thinking here, and that doesn’t surprise me. Buddhists, for example, have a far great awareness of our relationship with nature than any other philosophy or religion, and that was recognised by another great Scottish writer, WH Murray, whose books, Mountaineering in Scotland and Undiscovered Scotland, have hugely inspired so many of my generation. I’ll come back to WH Murray later if I may.

There’s possibly another explanation for Nan’s line of thinking because by the very nature of the glaciated, sculpted shapes of the Cairngorms there is often a sense of ‘going in’ as opposed to ‘walking over.’ Consider the cathedral-like An Garbh Coire, or Coire Etchachan or the great basins that holds Loch Avon and Loch Einich.

Inspired by this concept of ‘going in’ to the mountain, I once made a girdle traverse of Braeriach, a long mid-height journey around and ‘in’ through the ten great corries of Braeriach. The journey, over a couple of very long days, was a wonderful experience that gave me a different perspective on the hill. I felt I had truly explored it, and I had slept on its flanks too, the ultimate connection.

That particular journey taught me something else. You don’t necessarily have to reach the summit of a hill to connect with it.

“To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.” Nan Shepherd asserts. “We must abandon the summit as the organising principle of mountains. The talking tribe, I find, want sensation from the mountain – not in Keat’s sense. Beginners, not unnaturally, do the same – I did myself. They want the startling view, the horrid pinnacle – sips of beer and tea instead of milk. Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

Before you all start throwing your Munros Tables at me it’s worth recalling that Nan Shepherd wrote The Living Mountain in the thirties, although the book wasn’t actually published until 1972. The Munro-bagging phenomenon didn’t really begin until much later and while folk did ‘collect’ summits in those early days there was a much greater emphasis on exploration, as Nan Shepherd’s exploits in The Living Mountain suggest.

In her works of fiction, The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse and a Pass in the Cairngorms, Nan portrays the possibilities of freedom for her characters, especially the female characters, and in a sense she does the same in The Living Mountain, but this time not for fictional characters, but for herself.

At the very end of the book she wrote:

 “I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own. For an hour I am beyond desire. It is not ecstasy, that leap out of the self, that makes man like a god. I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am. To know Being, this is the final grace accorded from the mountain.”

Early on in my career I was invited to give an after-dinner speech to Scottish Natural Heritage. I quickly realised that a large part of my audience, the more scientific, objective types, appeared to look a bit vague as I enthusiastically rhapsodised about the more poetic and philosophical side of the Scottish hills and wild places.

One or two well known naturalists actually became quite rude and dismissive of my efforts but the criticism didn’t put me off. I knew that scientific objectivity and assessment was very important in the work of naturalists and ecologists, but I was also very aware of the more ‘spiritual’ side of my own relationship with hills and mountains, an aspect of wild places that has been recorded and discussed for generations of writers, including the Scots-born environmentalist John Muir.

The Wilderness Prophet, as he was often described, was often reprimanded by his peers for being too spiritual in his writing. Indeed, some of his papers, where he clearly tried to appeal to the scientific community of the time, were quite dull in comparison to the usual colourful and enthusiastic nature of his popular writing.

John Muir photographed in 1902

Another writer who was criticised for sounding too spiritual was Scotland’s finest writer on mountain matters, WH Murray.

Bill Murray was one of Scotland’s best climbers in the thirties, so would be a contemporary of Nan Shepherd. He was captured by Rommel’s troops in North Africa and taken to a prisoner of war camp in Czechoslovakia where he met a young British officer by the name of Herbert Buck who introduced him to the concepts of a work called Perennial Philosophy.

Wikipedia describes this as: ‘a perspective within the philosophy of religion which views each of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, universal truth on which foundation all religious knowledge and doctrine has grown.’

Perennial Philosophy hugely influenced Bill Murray’s writings, and indeed his way of life, so much so that he spent some time training to be a monk at Buckfast Abbey in Devon. We tend to think that Eastern philosophical influences on the west occurred in the heady, hippy days of the Sixties, but it’s quite clear that this kind of thinking deeply influenced the likes of Bill Murray and Nan Shepherd much earlier in the thirties and forties.

Rob MacFarlane, whose grandparents incidentally lived in Tomintoul, described the Living Mountain as a sensual exploration of the range and suggested that it had quite altered his own view of the Cairngorms, an area that he knew fairly intimately. Indeed, one factor that stands out for me throughout The Living Mountain, is Nan Shepherd’s preference for the journey, rather than her eventual destination. What was important for her was simply to be there.  Like Muir and Murray and many, many others, simply being amongst mountains was the main appeal – to know Being, the final grace accorded from the mountain.

“Here then may be lived a life of the senses 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 to live all the way through.”

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