I doubt many scheduled radio programmes have bleeped quite so insistently on my mental radar than Robert Macfarlane's journey high into the Cairngorms in the company of Nan Shepherd's book The Living Mountain, and broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday afternoon. This is the book I had read as we drove through the Cairngorms en route to Orkney after all, but how often do I plan to listen to something, find myself distracted and then never quite get around to Listen Again before the week is up. Not so this time, planned my whole day around it, pot of tea and cake at the ready, settled down to listen, with my book and my bowl of stones for added atmosphere...
...when in marched Bookhound with some important news about my camera guarantee. His walk backwards out of the room with his arms in the air an indication of either the menace of my glance, or just how many cowboy films he'd watched as a child.
The good news is that the camera, which came with three years insurance, can now be returned for its sluggish lens and clicky sound during videos to be assessed.
So I did listen to The Living Mountain, and you can too if you missed it. You will find the programme here, and should the book appeal it was still here in the Canongate sale for £4 post free rather than £10 the last time I checked.
It wasn't hard to imagine myself walking 4000 ft up into the Cairngorms as I listened; Britain's Arctic where snow can fall in every month and the winds will top 170mph with ease.
I still nurse this idea that my knees are only twenty years-old, though the reality would be that I'd probably be done in by about 200 feet, but that's fine because Nan Shepherd urges us all to abandon any notions of the summit and just walk 'into the mountains' instead. We can all dream of being a 'peerer into nooks and crannies' and acquiring that 'patience born of life-long acquaintance,' can't we.... and then go and do it somewhere at our own pace.
Equally as sparkling as Robert Macfarlane's gentle commentary were the background and often foreground sound effects, rippling streams and howling winds, even hearing the silence on the radio held as much visual meaning as Robert's paddle in the steely-still waters of Coire an Lochain. It sounds magical, the loch that
'cannot be seen until one stands almost on its lip...'
I discovered a panoramic earth 360 deg virtual tour of Coire an Lochain here... well it saves us all the bother doesn't it.
The 'zither of the ptarmigan' in the Cairngorms fused with the sound of roosting pheasants outside my Book Room window, (the pheasants make one heck of a racket at about 4.15pm,) so I may be none the wiser should I trip over one, but it was easy to visualise the Milky Way 'sploshed across the sky' as Robert sat watching the stars multiply rapidly across the Scottish sky because, with no light pollution, we see it regularly here too.
Any mention of stars appearing and I always think of Alice Oswald's poem from Woods etc...
A star here and a star there
the first whisper of stars is that faint thing
that candle sound too far away to read by...
As expected this was an inspiring programme and one that made me want to know much more about Nan Shepherd.
Who was this seemingly formidable woman who had spent much of her life walking in these mountains, taking this journey into being, as she described it,, and eventually writing and publishing this wonderful meditation on her relationship with the world that surrounded her...
I was delighted to find an article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (usually accessible with a library card number) and equally delighted to discover more about Nan Shepherd's novels and her poetry. Interesting too that The Living Mountain was written during the Second World War, though, following initial rejection by a publisher not in print until 1977, sadly just four years before Nan Shepherd's death at the age of eighty-eight. Writing the book seems to have been an act of solace for her during a time of great uncertainty, and Nan Shepherd, 'likeably stubborn...with eyes that are determined yet unsure,' clearly a woman of great depth and talent.