Play aims to unravel mystery of poet Nan Shepherd’s masterwork

<span>Nan Shepherd in a photo used to illustrate her for the Scottish £5 note.</span><span>Photograph: Estate of Nan Shepherd</span>
Nan Shepherd in a photo used to illustrate her for the Scottish £5 note.Photograph: Estate of Nan Shepherd

Nan Shepherd, the Scottish poet and nature writer whose vivid reflections on her treks through the Cairngorms have brought posthumous acclaim, is celebrated in a new play that aims to unravel the mystery of why her masterwork remained unpublished in a drawer for 30 years.

Shepherd is recognisable to many from her striking pose on the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £5 note after preceding Jane Austen by a year to become the first female writer on British paper currency. While she enjoyed bursts of public recognition in her lifetime, it is since her death in 1981, and the 2011 republication of her seminal meditation on the Cairngorm range, The Living Mountain, that she has reached a global audience.

“It’s a rollercoaster from complete celebrity to utter neglect,” said Dr Kerri Andrews, who edited Shepherd’s correspondence for publication last year and worked on the play, Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed, which is directed by Richard Baron, and co-produced by Pitlochry Festival theatre and Firebrand Theatre Company.

Shepherd, who was born in the village of West Cults, near Aberdeen, in 1893, had established her literary reputation by her early 30s with a trio of modernist novels, exploring women’s shifting roles in rural communities, that drew comparisons with Virginia Woolf.

Then followed a collection of poetry, In the Cairngorms, and The Living Mountain, completed during the second world war, which “went into a drawer” – as she later described it – for more than three decades after a publisher’s rejection.

“She had huge early success in the 20s and 30s with her poetry and novels, with people reading and writing about her. Then it’s like she drops off the face of the Earth,” said Andrews.

“But of course she doesn’t. She writes to the poet Hugh MacDiarmid that she had “gone dumb”, but she had other things in her life – her teaching and lectures, her support for younger writers, like Jessie Kesson. She had a lifelong commitment to Scottish literature.”

Charting significant episodes and relationships in Shepherd’s life, the play endeavours to reflect all these facets of the author, teacher, hillwalker, friend and lover.

There are contradictions, too, said Baron. She travelled widely and read deeply, from Marx to Buddhism, but only ever lived in the same village. “She had a rebellious nature, going out on her own into the hills, and also engaged in a love triangle with her best friend’s husband. She was doing things outside of what you might expect from a middle-class teacher.”

There is still a mystery as to why the manuscript languished for so long, and what prompted Shepherd to resurrect it in 1977, when it was quietly published by the University of Aberdeen, where she is remembered for giving theatrical lectures on literature well into her 80s.

One theory is that she was irritated by a headline on a final interview she gave to a local newspaper, labelling her as “the genius who gave up”. Others suggest that Shepherd, an intensely private woman who found fulsome praise discomfiting, rather relished her retreat from the spotlight and arm’s-length role of mentor.

But her decision to finally publish The Living Mountain cemented her legacy. Shepherd was also a writer of unfettered sensuality – luxuriating in the senses and detailing physical pleasure at a time when women were not encouraged to share such experiences so candidly. In The Living Mountain she describes “dried mud flats, sun-warmed, have a delicious touch, cushioned and smooth; so has long grass at morning, hot in the sun, but still cool and wet when the foot sinks into it, like food melting to a new flavour in the mouth”.

She also suggests “a much more humble, equitable and gentle way of interacting with nature”, said Andrews, “that is not macho or about climbing the highest peaks”.

As Shepherd herself put it: “To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain.”