Week 518: From ‘The Living Mountain’, by Nan Shepherd

This week I want to put a word in for a work in prose that I find, in the good sense, very poetic. (I am sadly aware, of course, that for most people these days ‘poetic’ has come to be more or less synonymous with ‘obscure, pretentious and artificial’, but I would like to reclaim it for ‘precise, observant, vivid and not too far removed from the idiom and rhythms of common speech’).

The work in question is ‘The Living Mountain’ by Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) and is about her lifelong relationship with the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland. Written towards the end of the Second World War, it lay for years unpublished and assumedly unpublishable in the writer’s drawer, as if waiting till the times were ready for it, and finally appeared to a steadily growing acclaim in the nineteen-seventies.

It is a work hard to characterise, that has a transcendent visionary quality but at the same time is firmly rooted in the tangible, in rock and water, bird and flower, the nuances of changing light and weather, and is suffused throughout with a fierce physical joy in both the writer’s own body and the body of the mountain. The Gaels have a word ‘dùthchas’ (pronounced something like ‘doo-khas’) that is not easily translated: it can simply mean ‘one’s country, the place of one’s birth’, but it can mean more than that: an intense feeling of belonging to a particular landscape, ‘a sense of landscape, geography and history combined into one formal order of experience’. Nan Shepherd’s book seems to me a perfect exemplar of dùthchas. It also brings to mind the words that Walter de la Mare used of Edward Thomas: ‘Long-looking, long-desiring, long-loving – these win at last to the inmost being of a thing.’ They certainly allowed Nan Shepherd to win to the heart of her beloved Cairngorms.

I have chosen just a few almost random extracts to give some idea of the book’s style and substance, but really every page has some luminous phrase, some celebratory flash of observation. Just don’t expect a plot, or any help with peak-bagging. This is not a guide to conquering mountains. It is a guide to being part of them.

‘Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating immense distances with an effortless intensity. So on a clear day one looks without any sense of strain from Morven in Caithness to the Lammermuirs, and out past Ben Nevis to Morar. At midsummer, I have had to be persuaded I was not seeing further even than that. I could have sworn I saw a shape, distinct and blue, very clear and small, further off than any hill the chart recorded. The chart was against me, my companions were against me, I never saw it again. On a day like that, height goes to one’s head. Perhaps it was the lost Atlantis focused for a moment out of time’.


‘To walk out through the top of a cloud is good. Once or twice I have had the luck to stand on a tip of ground and see a pearled and lustrous plain stretch out to the horizons. Far off, another peak lifts like a small island from the smother. It is like the morning of creation.’


‘The Cairngorm water is all clear. Flowing from granite, with no peat to darken it, it never has the golden amber, the ‘horse-back brown’ so often praised in Highlands burns. When it has any colour at all, it is green, as in the Quoich near its linn. It is a green like the green of winter skies, but lucent, clear like aquamarines, without the vivid brilliance of glacier water.’


‘Of plants that carry their fragrance in their leaves, bog myrtle is the mountain example. This grey-green shrub fill the boggy hollows, neighboured by cotton-grass and sundew, bog asphodel and the spotted orchis, and the minute scarlet cups of the lichens. Its fragrance is cool and clean, and like the wild thyme it gives it most strongly when crushed. The other shrub, juniper, is secretive with its scent. It has an odd habit of dying in patches, and when a dead branch is snapped, a spicy odour comes from it. I have carried a piece of juniper wood for months, breaking it afresh now and then to renew the spice. This dead wood has a grey silk skin, impervious to rain. In the wettest season, when every fir branch in the woods is sodden, the juniper is crackling dry and burns with a clear heat.’


‘Once the snow has fallen, and the gullies are choked and ice is in the burns, green is the most characteristic colour in sky and water. Burns and river alike have a green glint when seen between snowy banks, and the smoke from a woodman’s fire looks greenish against the snow. The shadows on snow are of course blue, but where snow is blown into ripples, the shadowed undercut portion can look quite green. A snowy sky is often pure green, not only at sunrise or sunset, but all day; and a snow-green sky looks greener in reflection, either in water or from windows, than it seems in reality. Against such a sky, a snow-covered hill may look purplish, as though washed in blaeberry. On the other hand, before a fresh snowfall, whole lengths of snowy hill may appear a golden green. One small hill stands out from this greenness: it is veiled by a wide-spaced fringe of fir trees, and behind them the whole snowy surface of the hill is burning with a vivid electric blue.’


‘No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the tangible world. These moments of quiescent perceptiveness before sleep are among the most rewarding of the day. I am emptied of preoccupation, there is nothing between me and the earth and sky. In midsummer the north glows with light long after midnight is past. As I watch, the light comes pouring round the edges of the shapes that stand against the sky, sharpening them till the more slender have a sort of glowing insubstantiality, as though they themselves were nothing but light.’

Week 517: The Joy Of Living, by Ewan MacColl

I had a friend and work colleague, a woman who loved life and was interested in everything that came along, and who died far too young of cancer in her early forties. By her request this poignant farewell to life by the folk-singer Ewan MacColl was played at her humanist funeral. Certainly for me it expressed far more of her spirit than any hymn could have done. Her ashes were indeed taken to ‘some high place of heather, rock and ling’ and scattered to the wind. I cannot now hear the song without thinking of her.

Notes: Glyder Fach is a mountain in Wales; Cùl Beag is a mountain in the northwest highlands of Scotland;Scafell is a mountain in the Lake District, England; Suilven is a mountain in Scotland; Bleaklow is a peat-covered moorland in Derbyshire, England.

The sleeve notes add the following:

‘Ewan’s love of life, his involvement in politics, his passionate attachment to the traditional music and to theatre never abated, even with the onset of ill health and old age. Although not the last song he wrote, this was meant as a farewell to the world and to the people he loved’

Ewan MacColl (1915-1989) was a seminal figure in the British folk revival of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. One is grateful for all the pioneering work he did in this area, such as the early radio ballads, and in collecting folk songs: he was the first, for example, to rescue the haunting ‘Scarborough Fair’ from obscurity. I admit, though, that I find him a rather problematic character. Apparently his virtues did not include tolerance for other people’s opinions, and his passionate identification with the cause of the working man led him to a lifelong veneration for Joseph Stalin that some may consider questionable: he left the Communist Party in the nineteen-eighties because he felt it had become too moderate, but perhaps in the light of recent events would by now have rejoined it. My feelings, therefore, are uneasily split between admiration and dissent. Yet he could write with love, as he does here, and he could speak for the love in others, as he did for my friend, and those are things that should, I think, weigh something in the balance of a life.

The Joy Of Living

Farewell, you northern hills, you mountains all goodbye,
Moorland and stony ridges, crags and peaks, goodbye.
Glyder Fach farewell, Cùl Beag, Scafell, cloud-bearing Suilven,
Sun-warmed rock and the cold of Bleaklow’s frozen sea,
The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains,
Days in the sun and the tempered wind and the air like wine
And you drink and you drink till you’re drunk on the joy of living.

Farewell to you, my love, my time is almost done,
Lie in my arms once more until the darkness comes.
You filled all my days, held the night at bay, dearest companion,
Years pass by and they’re gone with the speed of birds in flight
Our lives like the verse of a song heard in the mountains.
Give me your hand and love and join your voice with mine
We’ll sing of the hurt and pain and the joy of living.

Farewell to you, my chicks, soon you must fly alone
Flesh of my flesh, my future life, bone of my bone.
May your wings be strong, may your days be long, safe be your journey
Each of you bears inside of you the gift of love,
May it bring you light and warmth and the pleasure of giving.
Eagerly savour each new day and the taste of its mouth.
Never lose sight of the thrill and the joy of living

Take me to some high place of heather, rock and ling,
Scatter my dust and ashes, feed me to the wind,
So that I may be part of all you see, the air you are breathing.
I’ll be part of the curlew’s cry and the soaring hawk,
The blue milkwort and the sundew hung with diamonds,
I’ll be riding the gentle wind that blows through your hair
Reminding you how we shared in the joy of living.

Ewan MacColl 

Week 516: The Makar, by William Soutar

From about the 1920s on, Scottish writers began to engage with questions of politics and national identity, as part of what is called the Scottish Renaissance, and one aspect of this was the forging of a new language for poetry which respected the rich heritage of the past, drawing on both the archaic and the vernacular, the vernacular in question being the lowland dialects of southern and central Scotland rather than those of the Highlands. (The very different Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language, had by that time already long been in retreat and its native speakers were to be found, as today, mainly but not exclusively in the Western Isles).

The effort was not without its detractors, who saw the result as artificial, a ‘plastic Scots’ whose grammatical structures owed too much to standard English, but this poem by William Soutar (1898-1943; see also weeks 61 and 109) does seem to me to express very eloquently what moved himself and others to attempt this forging: the sense of a genuine tradition deep buried but still full of a potential vitality, heard like a music in the blood, compelling one to a particular course of self-expression whatever doubts others, the ‘fremmit men’ estranged from this tradition, might voice.

makar: maker, poet (the fifteenth/sixteenth century Scots poet William Dunbar wrote a famous poem ‘Lament for the Makaris’)
wha: who
lawland: lowland
warsles: wrestles
thocht: thought
mair: more
sang: song
nor a’: than all
wrocht: wrought
ablow: below
wastrey: waste
thorter: frustration, thwarting
leal: loyal, but here more like ‘genuine, true to itself
ain: own: gangs his ain: goes his own i.e. his own desires are in accord with this leal music
gait: way
a’: all
fere: companion
fremmit: estranged
owre: over, too

The Makar

Nae man wha loves the lawland tongue
But warsles wi’ the thocht—
There are mair sangs that bide unsung
Nor a’ that hae been wrocht.

Ablow the wastrey o’ the years,
The thorter o’ himsel’,
Deep buried in his bluid he hears
A music that is leal.

And wi’ this lealness gangs his ain;
And there’s nae ither gait
Though a’ his feres were fremmit men
Wha cry: Owre late, owre late.

William Soutar

Week 515: Autumn, by Vernon Scannell

Maybe I am not the only one rather looking forward to the cool misty days of autumn after a summer far too hot for my taste. And this piece by Vernon Scannell (1922-200) captures the more urban aspects of that season as well as any I know. I like, of course, the fact that poetry quite properly addresses the great themes of our existence: love, loss, death, our place in the cosmos, but I like it too when poems such as this one find time to stitch humbler things into this word-woven fabric of ours: the smell of burnt porridge on the wind, the halo of mist round street-lamps, the mash of fallen leaves in a gutter.

Velutinous: velvety.


It is the football season once more
And the back pages of the Sunday papers
Again show the blurred anguish of goalkeepers.

In Maida Vale, Golders Green and Hampstead
Lamps ripen early in the surprising dusk;
They are furred like stale rinds with a fuzz of mist.

The pavements of Kensington are greasy,
The wind smells of burnt porridge in Bayswater
And the leaves are mashed to silence in the gutter.

The big hotel like an anchored liner
Rides near the park; lit windows hammer the sky.
Like the slow swish of surf the tyres of taxis sigh.

It is a time of year that’s to my taste,
Full of spiced rumours, sharp and velutinous flavours,
Dim with mist that softens the cruel surfaces,
Makes mirrors vague. It is the mist I most favour. 

Vernon Scannell

Week 514: In Hospital: Poona, by Alun Lewis

This week another from the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (see also weeks 48 and 258) who died aged twenty-eight while out in India in the Second World War, and again his subject is the pain of separation from home and loved ones that wartime entails. There are slight awkwardnesses about the poem, and still a few rags of rhetoric that he might have purged given time – I think in particular that the closing two lines are a bit forced – but for me any such flaws are far outweighed by the passion and precision of his remembrance.

In Hospital: Poona

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,
Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.

And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.
And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:

I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there,
And the great mountains, Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,

And also the small nameless mining valley
Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves –
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders –

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

Alun Lewis