Nan Shepherd

Nan Shepherd (1893 - 1981)
Photograph of Nan Shepherd © The Estate of Nan Shepherd
Nan Shepherd © The Estate of Nan Shepherd

Biography

Summary

In the Cairngorms is both the title of Nan Shepherd's single book of poetry, and a useful shorthand for where the heart of this remarkable novelist, teacher and mountaineer lay. 

Full Biography

Anna Shepherd (known as Nan) was born on 11 February 1893 at East Peterculter, and died in Aberdeen on 27 February 1981. Her father, John Shepherd, was a civil engineer, and her mother came from a family well established in Aberdeen. The family moved to Cults soon after she was born, and Shepherd lived in the same house there for most of the rest of her life. She went to Aberdeen High School for Girls, and studied at Aberdeen University, graduating with an MA in 1915. She then joined the staff of Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers, (later the College of Education) and taught English literature there until her retirement in 1956 – by all accounts an inspiring teacher, with a feminist approach in her lectures which was ahead of her time.  After retirement, she edited the Aberdeen University Review from 1957 until 1963; in 1964 the University awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Shepherd’s first novel, The Quarry Wood, was published in 1928, with two more following in the 1930s. All three are set in the North-East with the country communities and harsh landscape as background. Her book The Living Mountain, a work of poetic prose exploring her close relationship with the hills, was written in the 1940s, though not published until 1977. Hill-walking was Shepherd’s great love; her single collection of poetry In the Cairngorms (1934) expresses an intensity of deep kinship with nature. They are poems written with the perception of one who has climbed the mountains and truly knows them. She had published several poems in the Aberdeen University student magazine in her youth, but little followed until the publication of the book. Although she used Scots in her novels, there are only three poems in Scots presented in In the Cairngorms, but they are the ones most often anthologised. The poetry has many religious notes – references to ‘the Light’ and ‘the Presence’ in the hills; though these references could seem Christian, they are perhaps expressions of a broader spirituality – Shepherd  herself likened her expeditions to the hills to a Buddhist’s pilgrimage to the mountain, the ‘journey into Being’. The final section in the book consists of love sonnets, written, according to the poet herself, for a man, but it is not known who he was, and she never married. 

Nan Shepherd was renowned for the enthusiasm with which she taught and helped students, colleagues, and other writers. Her generous attention was not confined to caring for her invalid mother and the family housekeeper; she devoted much energy to friendships with many writers, including the poets J.C. Milne and Charles Murray. She brought out John Milne’s Collected Poems after his death; organised a trust to benefit the family of Lewis Grassic Gibbon;  helped set up the Charles Murray Memorial Trust and arranged the publication of his last poems.  She was also a friend of Hugh MacDiarmid.

Nan Shepherd’s novels were re-published in the late 1980s. In the Cairngorms remains out of print, but she is represented in anthologies of Scottish women poets, and books of mountain poetry. She joined those Scottish writers already honoured in Edinburgh’s Makars’ Court when a stone dedicated to her was placed there in 2000.

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

In the Cairngorms  (Edinburgh: The Moray Press, 1934)

Selected Biography and Criticism

Vivienne Forrest, ‘In search of Nan Shepherd’, Leopard Magazine (Dec 1986–Jan 1987)

Mairi-Ann Cullen, 'Creating ourselves: the poetry of Nan Shepherd', Chapman, 74-75 (1993)

Ali Smith, 'Shepherd, Anna [Nan] (1893-1981), author and college teacher', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Other Useful Info

COPYRIGHT:
held by the literary executor - please contact the Scottish Poetry Library.

MANUSCRIPTS AND PAPERS:
National Library of Scotland 

Image of Nan Shepherd reproduced by permission of the Estate of Nan Shepherd.