Thursday, April 23, 2015

In the Cairngorms

We spent last weekend at a remarkable wedding in the Cairngorms National Park. I'm not sure if I was technically 'in the Cairngorms', in the Nan Shepherd sense, as we didn't get to explore the mountains. However, as Robert Macfarlane has often pointed out, climbing to a summit was not for Shepherd the way to experience this landscape.  I've been reading her poems, originally published in 1934 and reprinted last year.  In the Cairngorms is a rather uneven collection: some poems shine out as brightly as when they were written, others are dulled with old-fashioned language (was hers the last generation to use 'thy' and 'thou'?)  Four are written in the Scots dialect Doric; for Robert Macfarlane these poems, which 'stud the book like garnets in granite', best exemplify her sense of the hills as both unsettling and enfolding.

In these poems the elements are never entirely stable.  They change places and touch each other, unifying everything that can be perceived and felt in the landscape.  Light is the substance of the mountains; a loch is 'bricht, an' bricht, an' bricht as air'; the shadows of rocks are like the smoke from a bonfire.  In one poem 'air is tinged with earth', in another it is hard to tell a distant, tremulous blue hill from a morning star, vanishing in the morning light.  At dawn, a flooded landscape is 'unsubstantial blue', 'uncertain, half like dew / and half like light withdrawn.'  After the rain, clouds 'plod to the slouch of the wind their drover', stars process across space, 'boats come in from the width of the ocean.'  Water resembles 'clear deeps of air, / light massed upon itself', and tumbles in 'cataracts of wind' that crash in the corries.   

Robert Macfarlane finds echoes of Nan Shepherd's poems in the prose of The Living Mountain.  Her chapter on water, for example, explains the transparency of the Cairngorms' burns, undarkened by peat, which the poems describe as 'fiercely pure' and flowing with a 'glass-white shiver'.  When the water has a colour at all it is 'a green like the green of winter skies, but lucent, clear like aquamarines, without the vivid brilliance of glacier water.  Sometimes the Quoich waterfalls have violet playing through the green, and the pouring water spouts and bubbles in a violet froth. ... In summer I have stood on the high buttress of Ben a' Bhuird above the Dubh Loch, with the sun striking straight downwards into its water, and seen from that height through the water the stones upon its floor.'

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