A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Nan Shepherd’s three novels – The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930 and A Pass in the Grampians (1933) – were reprinted by Canongate in the 1990s with her memoir of hill-walking, The Living Mountain (1977), as The Grampian Quartet. (The Grampians are the hills to the west of Aberdeen, foothills to the Cairngorm mountains.) She is one of the writers of the Scottish Renaissance, who wrote about the lives and deaths of Scottish country people and the working classes, as part of a resurgence in Scottish literary and artistic culture. The radical poet and politician Hugh McDiarmid is the Grand Old Man of that movement, so he gets the most column inches, but unless you have a birthright knowledge of hardcore Scots, or have studied the invented ‘Lallans’ that he wanted Scotland to use in place of English, he is unreadable. Turn instead to the legible and living prose of the less feted writers like Nan Shepherd.
She died at the age of 88 at Woodend Hospital, about a mile up the road from my house, the year I began my first degree at Aberdeen University. She was a graduate of the University too, and had been given an honorary doctorate from there in the year I was born. All those coincidences …. I cannot think why I’ve not read her novels before now. But yes, I can. If you’re looking for writing about farming in Scotland or about Aberdeenshire, there is only one Big Name (though there are plenty other writers: this is a very prolific county). Lewis Grassic Gibbon has been on the Scottish school curriculum since I don’t know when, and is a mainstay of Scottish literary education. His trilogy A Scots Quair is required reading at university level, and book one, A Sunset Song, has to be the prewar Scottish novel that most Scots have read (the postwar one is probably Trainspotting). Like McDiarmid, Gibbon uses Scots dialect without a safety-net, and his can be ferociously challenging, since the dialect of the east coast of Scotland is not much like those of the more familiar Central Belt. So we all had to read Grassic Gibbon at school, and many of us at university too, and that was enough, many thought, for a lifetime. Nan Shepherd, who was only just coming back into print when I was studying, was ignored. This is a great shame, because she is a major writer of the Scottish countryside and of farming, and is a gentler introduction to the rigours of the Doric. She interweaves dialect words more forgivingly with standard English, so the untutored reader will struggle less, and learn faster.
The Quarry Wood is about the life of Martha, an only child of a bookish disposition in a poor Aberdeenshire farming family in the early 20th century. She is also a step-sister to a series of foster children that her mother Jeannie collects to bring up at their ramshackle and messy cottage, partly for the weekly fee from their unmarried mothers, but partly because Jeannie loves babies. Jeannie has no idea about household management, and her husband, the silently affectionate ploughman Geordie, isn’t bothered about cleanliness or calm as long as the bairns are happy and there’s food on the table. You’d think this would be the basis for an idyllic childhood, but it’s torture for Martha. She longs to learn. She has to study at a filthy kitchen table in amongst the squabbles and wails of the younger children, because she’s desperate to earn a bursary to get her to the University. She saves her train fare to buy schoolbooks, and it’s only when she’s in danger of pleurisy that her mother realises that walking to school throughout the winter is not going to help Martha become her mother’s dream, a school teacher.
Martha’s story is a long coming-of-age narrative, taking her through university, enlarging her horizons beyond the family, the neighbours, the city and Latin. She has a supporter, her Aunt Josephine, who represents the ‘good’ family that Jeannie eloped from to marry Geordie, and whose standards and training give Martha the grounding for civilised living in which her mother has failed. The rift between what Martha thinks she wants, and reality, gets wider until disaster is almost upon her. Men cause her huge problems, because the dreams of university-educated poets don’t mix well with the expectations of country folk, who like nothing better than to spread gossip and assume the worst of folk at all times. Jeannie’s collection of babies continues while the older ones start producing illegitimate babies of their own. Martha is dreamily unaware of how her behaviour with Luke, the glorious doctor husband of her step-sister Dussie, is interpreted by the parish. She herself is courted by the rather dodgy Rob Foubister, just back from South Africa, but Martha doesn’t want to marry, she just wants to be loved. Unfortunately, before the First World War, this is not an option a poor woman from a farming family can take up.
I loved this novel. The descriptions of pre-First World War university life are powerfully evocative, since they overlie and often match the more modern experience. The farming and country settings simply ooze mud, icy winds and wild weather. The prim town houses of Aunt Josephine and the other maiden ladies of the parish are something like Aunt March’s house in Little Women, but less opulent, more canny. Nan Shepherd writes honestly and openly about old age, sickness, death and maternity in ways that show the very narrow path that Martha is walking as she daydreams too much through her life.
Nan Shepherd, The Grampian Quartet (1996, Canongate Classics), ISBN 978-0-86241-589-1, £16.00 (for four novels!)