To commemorate the 130th anniversary of the birth of Nan Shepherd, Scottish novelist and nature writer, this exhibition of paintings by Rose Strang illustrate the new Folio edition of The Living Mountain. First published in 1977, Shepherd’s timeless, classic memoir describes the wild, wondrous beauty of the Cairngorm mountains, said to be ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain.’
This book of twelve poetic essays, such as Water, Frost and Snow, Air and Light, and simply, Being, capture her emotional and spiritual sense of time and place, comparing the experience to a Buddhist’s pilgrimage. ‘So there I lie on the plateau… over me, blue air and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow – the total mountain. Slowly I have found my way in.’ – Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain.
To appreciate the literary topography of these land lines, Rose Strang set off to follow in Shepherd’s footsteps: ‘I climbed Càrn Bàn Mòr so I could have that freshness of experience to feed into the process. Nan herself is like an artist. The prose is so vivid and I used that as a starting point’.
The paintings are inspired by selected literary extracts: ‘One cannot know the rivers till one has seen them at their sources. One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable. There are awakened also in oneself by the contact elementals that are as ungovernable as wind or snow.’ – Nan Shepherd
The bleak emptiness of the Highland environment in Among Elementals (see top) has such a dreamlike perspective fading into the distant mist. White sheets of snow drip down the mountain-side like a melting glacier, while thick smudges of grey cloud swirl across the sky. The streaked, scratched, layered effect of thick oil paint on wood deftly evoke the textured terrain of hard rock and scree across this frozen glen.
‘But as I grew older, I began to discover the mountain in itself. Everything became good to me, its contours, its colours, its waters and rock, flowers and birds. Knowing another is endless. The thing to be known grows with the knowing.’ – Nan Shepherd
There’s a distinctive sense of being outside in the raw, frosty air in Everything became good to me, standing in this rugged land, a carpet of purple heather and trees bent over in the wind. Looming above is the craggy rock face of sparkling ice in a glow of sunlight. Just as Shepherd documented what she saw, heard and felt in words, Strang portrays the atmospheric spirit of the scene with such detailed, dramatic vision.
But it is the August-blooming ling that covers the hills with amethyst. Now they look gracious and benign. For many, many miles there is nothing but this soft radiance. Walk over it in a hot sun – ‘I like the un-path best’ one of my friends said – and the scent rises in a heady cloud.’ – Nan Shepherd.
‘I like the unpath best’ is such an imaginative phrase – the idea of going off the beaten track to escape and find a place of solitude in a lost glen. In this meadow of pink, purple, red and yellow wild flowers, imagine a waft of sweet fragrance and warm sun on this August day.
‘Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity. So on a clear day one looks without any sense of strain from out past Ben Nevis to Morar. At midsummer, I have had to be persuaded I was not seeing further even than that.’ – Nan Shepherd
A translucent sheen bathes the view of mountain and loch in It is luminous without being fierce, the soft wash of pale pastels and impressionistic sketchy technique create a fluidity of light, air and water. A reflective mood of stillness is captured in this tranquil composition – delicate yet majestic at the same time. Shepherd encouraged the reader to not simply walk up a mountain, but rather to ‘walk into it.’ Likewise, Rose Strang immerses the viewer close up and personal within this surreal landscape.
They say that a picture paints a thousand words. ‘Dreaming a Response’ to this meditative, soulful memoir, Rose Strang’s lyrical landscapes translate the prose with such ice-cool clarity: enriching, enchanting, painterly poems in tribute to Nan’s beloved mountains.
An accompanying video of artwork and photography features musical soundtrack by Atzi Muramatzu. The new illustrated edition of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is published The Folio Society.
The Living Mountain: Dreaming a Response is on show at The Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh until 31st March this year, where a small archive of letters, poetry and photographs gives more background to Nan Shepherd’s life and work. It will move on to The Heriot Gallery, 20a Dundas Street, Edinburgh (in collaboration with The Limetree Gallery, Bristol), 17th – 23rd April.
With grateful thanks to Vivien Devlin for this review.