Nan Shepherd.
Nan Shepherd.

Nan Shepherd: The pioneering explorer whose writing brought the Cairngorms to life

Theatre director Richard Baron has spent a lot of time uncovering the incredible life of Nan Shepherd. He shares her story with us ahead of his new play which depicts the Scottish writer’s incredible life. Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed premieres at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in May. 


During the Covid lockdown in 2021 I saw Nan Shepherd’s striking image on a £5 note and decided to find out more about her by purchasing her masterpiece and so-called love letter to the Cairngorm mountains, The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd’s fame was almost entirely posthumous. The Living Mountain, although written during the Second World War, was kept unpublished in a drawer until 1977 and Nan herself died in 1981, long-before the book achieved its worldwide success and its translation into (at last count) 16 languages. 

Nan’s photographic portrait didn’t appear on the Royal Bank of Scotland bank note until 2016 and even then the famous Viking princess image of her younger self wasn’t typical; apparently she’d dressed up like that to amuse the photographer by improvising a jewelled headband out of a reel of old film. 

Richard Baron, Director of Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed.

Further research revealed that Nan had been briefly famous in the early 1930s, mainly for a trilogy of modernist novels set in her native Aberdeenshire. When we found out that she was known for a time as the ‘Scottish Virginia Woolf’ but had then abruptly given up writing in the mid-1930s, the story became ever-more intriguing. 

‘She had a passion for walking alone in the Cairngorms’

We set about reading the novels, The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse and A Pass in The Grampians, and Nan’s one collection of poetry, In the Cairngorms, and realised that there was a mystery at the heart of her biography. How and why did she come to write The Living Mountain, after a long silence, and why did she never share it or have it published until she was in her eighties? Nan compounded the mystery by either burning or censoring her more personal letters, many of which were from the great Scottish writers and philosophers of her day.

We then realised that the first novel of this extraordinary trilogy, the semi-autobiographical The Quarry Wood (1928), pre-dated Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s famous Sunset Song by four years, and despite being set in the same time and place, received nothing like the same recognition. 

Our research discovered that part of the reason was that it was a male-dominated, London-centric literary scene (Nan tried 13 publishers before her first book was accepted) but also that Grassic Gibbon had written a particularly scathing review of Nan’s work, after which, coincidentally, she never wrote another novel.

Nan in her 30s.

In many ways her books and wide reading reflect her reactions to all these subjects and her rebellious streak, demonstrated in her passion for walking alone in the Cairngorms, also included her rejection of formal religion at some point in the 1920s, her vocation as an unconventional teacher and her decision not to marry which would have meant her giving up her beloved teaching job. 

‘She regularly visited the Edinburgh Festival from 1946’

Instead, she realised she had an independence and freedom to live and write in a manner denied many women in her period. It is thought that Nan participated romantically in John Macmurray’s open marriage and favoured, or was very much open to, what was ‘new’ artistically. 

Evidence of her adventurous taste is found in her enthusiasm for regularly visiting the Edinburgh Festival from its inception in 1946.

Apart from her love of walking in the hills, Nan was extremely well-read (her bookshelves included Das Kapital by Karl Marx and Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler), passionate about Scottish literature ancient and modern but also very inclusive and eclectic in her tastes. 

She championed the controversial, often highly-intellectual (and perhaps at times indecipherable) poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, for his visionary insights, while also writing to her artistic soul-mate, the great Highland novelist Neil Gunn, ‘the art that matters is as much a part of living as eating one’s porridge and loving one’s sweetheart and getting excited over one’s holiday.’

Nan was a passionately engaged college lecturer for over thirty years, believing that teaching was a communal activity and therefore, Miss Jean Brodie-like, often being unconventional in her approach. Full-marks would be granted not for passing a written exam but for attending class regularly and actively contributing to lessons. These lessons might involve communal singing, poetry reading or hikes in the Cairngorms. The subject of an essay might not be an academic topic but to write about yourself.

‘The public is keen to know more about Nan and her life’

The stage production has taken about a year to develop as more and more is written about Nan and new discoveries about her life and career and influence are made. 

As the drama is at times set in a classroom, with the audience becoming Nan Shepherd’s students, the play won’t come fully alive until the actors can interact with their Pitlochry Festival Theatre audience. It will only be on the opening night of the 24 May that we know whether the story of Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed is being told clearly and entertainingly, so that will be a hugely exciting litmus test for Firebrand as a writing, directing and acting team. We are told that ticket sales for the run are already doing well so that acts as an extra spur for us to do the subject justice, as we know that the public is keen to know more about Nan and her life and influences through experiencing a good night at the theatre.

Audiences can expect a lively and moving theatrical journey, spiced with humour, romance, poetry and song that will hopefully engage all the senses. We hope that those who make the journey to beautiful Pitlochry, situated on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, will be richly entertained by meeting the extraordinary Nan Shepherd ‘in person’ and will leave the show keen to read her fiction and poetry as well as being inspired to journey into the mountain, perhaps in more ways than one.


Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed, which premieres at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre 24th May – 6 July 2024. Phone bookings at 01796 484626 or visit

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