The takeover of Nan Shepherd (1893-1981)

It is a truism used by current scholars and marketers of Nan Shepherd’s work alike that she was unjustly ‘forgotten’ and ‘overlooked’ as a poet and writer of the natural world, the Scottish mountains and the wilderness, her masterpiece The Living Mountain remaining in dusty abeyance in a drawer for the last thirty years of her life. Its eventual publication in 1977 by AUP led to a brief resurgence of interest in her work. The book was warmly reviewed by fellow poet Iain Crichton Smith in Books in Scotland at the time, but what is particularly revealing about the review is the number of times Crichton Smith refers to it as a ‘small’ or ‘little’ book.

Of course, as a creative Scottish woman, Shepherd was subject during her long life to what editor of Chapman, Joy Hendry has diagnosed as a ‘double knot’ in the pinny – meaning that she was underestimated and side-lined by her own society because she was a woman during a famously vociferously ‘male’ time for poets (the Scottish Renaissance, spearheaded by Hugh MacDiarmid and his acolytes). However, Shepherd was additionally pushed to the periphery of UK letters because she happened to also be Scottish – thus the ‘double knot’.

But there is more to it than the social or even national neglect Shepherd and her Scottish female peers suffered. Scholars of (and those with a commercial interest in) Nan Shepherd’s work try to make out that she was utterly forgotten, had fallen completely off the radar of literary awareness until, miraculously, she was single-handedly plucked from total obscurity by travel writer and psycho-geographer Robert Macfarlane. This is far from the full story, yet even scrupulously written and fascinating studies of her life and work, such as Charlotte Peacock’s Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd still nonetheless seem to owe and pay a large debt to Macfarlane’s Shepherd trouvaille-and-renaissance story.

The crux of my issue with the Nan Shepherd phenomenon is this – I love her work and I am thrilled that it is getting the praise and readers it so richly deserves but her ongoing connection to Macfarlane is what I find off-putting and misleading. And the idea that there was some sort of nation-wide collective amnesia about Shepherd’s work during and immediately after her life, leading to it being completely forgotten is nonsense. Her poetry was published in magazines and anthologies from the 1930s through to the 1970s. The difference is that Shepherd did not live in a time of incessant internet-based self-promotion and the pressure to publish all the time.

Macfarlane is far from the sole pioneer in ‘rediscovering’ her work. In Peacock’s excellent study of Shepherd there are references to Macfarlane, but only two footnotes relating to Roderick Watson, a retired professor of English Studies from the University of Stirling. Besides the Aberdeen connection between Shepherd and Watson, it was Watson who managed, as part of the ‘Canongate Classics’ series in the 1980s, to reprint and introduce all three of Shepherd’s novels (out of print and unobtainable since the 1930s) as well as The Living Mountain as The Grampian Quartet. In Watson’s criticism of Shepherd’s work he was also quick to acknowledge the usefulness of another early champion of Shepherd’s work Vivienne Forrest, who published articles on her work in the 1980s.

Watson, for me, has acted like a quiet aider and abettor of Shepherd’s oeuvre and as such has been given very little credit. Macfarlane, however, seems to have an almost proprietorial freehold on her work, like some sort of New Age hierophant through which her writing must be filtered so that we can understand and enjoy it.

I have been in this dilemma myself, when I helped Alistair Peebles to put together a selection of Joan Ure’s poetry in 2018. In my view the editor must try and make their work as unobtrusive as possible – it is the writing and the author that needs to take centre stage. If the writer is dead then middle-people are unfortunately necessary, but where does sympathetic republication end and colonisation and cultural appropriation begin? We know that it is a fallacy to say ‘the best work will out’ because many outstanding writers, for factors perhaps not apparent to them at the time and beyond their control, still vanish into obscurity. This is why writers, particularly dead writers, need their supporters, but their motive should always be to serve the writer, not themselves.

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