Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd (1893-1981): Scottish Modernist writer and poet, academic

Anna ‘Nan’ Shepherd (1893-1981): Scottish Modernist writer and poet, academic

She was born on 11 February 1893 in East Peterculter, a village on the North East coast of Aberdeen as the second child of John Shepherd, a civil engineer and Jane, known as Jeannie, who came from an established middle-class Aberdeen family. Anna’s older brother Francis, known as Frank, was born in 1890. The family moved to Cults not long after she was born and Nan despite travelling widely in Europe and to South Africa lived in the same house until the end of her life.  It was here that her love of the mountains took root and was encouraged by her father who was a keen hill-walker. The hills of her native Deeside became her natural playground where much of her time outside school was spent outdoors. There is an early photograph of her sitting on her mother’s knee as a toddler.

Nan was an avid reader and at age fourteen she started what she called her “medleys” exercise books into which she would copy quotes and citations from her literary, religious and philosophical reading. She attended Aberdeen High School for Girls and studied at Aberdeen University graduating with an M.A in 1915. She then taught English Literature at the Aberdeen Training Centre for Teachers, later the College of Education, and remained there until her retirement in 1956 having become known as an aspiring teacher with a feminist slant to her work. She wryly described her role as “the heaven-appointed task of trying to prevent a few of the students who pass through our institution from conforming altogether to the approved pattern”. After retirement she continued her involvement with the literary community by editing the Aberdeen University Review 1957-1963. In 1964 the University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate. She is featured in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 and in other academic and literary reference volumes.

Novels, sonnets and poetry

                       In 1933 Nan Shepherd confessed “I don’t like writing, really. In fact I very rarely write, No. I never do short stories or articles. I only write when I feel there’s something that simply must be written”. Much of what she considered “simply must be written” was condensed into a frenetic five-year period between 1928 and 1933. During this time she published three of her novels The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse and A Pass in the Grampians. All three are Modernist in style and have been compared to the writing of Virginia Woolf. She drew inspiration from the places and people she knew well, setting her stories in the North East of Scotland with a focus on fictional communities and the harsh way of life imposed by the landscape.

From when she first ventured into the Cairngorm Mountains in June 1928 at the age of thirty-five it was the start of a passion that came to define both her life and her writing. Described as being enigmatic and elusive she is documented and chronicled as a nature lover who would often walk alone but occasionally was accompanied by friends and fellow walkers from the Deeside Field Club or by students from the University. The goal was never the summit of the mountain that excited her but more the “clambering down” discovering all the hidden parts of the mountain that only an attentive walker would notice. She saw it as part of a living and life experience while also fraught with seasonal risks and dangers. Her deep relation with the natural elements remained her sustained drive for nature exploration.  In the 1930s she was hailed as a writer of genius, member of the Scottish Modernist Movement. As novelist, poet and essayist she was acclaimed by her friends and fellow renowned authors as one of Scotland’s best known literati. Yet by 1970 she had been almost forgotten. She never married and spent her later life taking care of her elderly ailing mother.

More recently her contributions to Scottish literature are commemorated with a number of honours that include public plaques and monuments to her name including a two yearly Anne Shepherd Prize for Literature that was established in 2017 as an open competition to writers of a nature based work judged worthy to receive the award. First held in 2019 amongst other recognition the Prize provides a financial contribution as assistance to the chosen laureates towards seeking to acquire a publishing contract.

On 11th February 2016 the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a Five Pounds sterling note with a portrait of Nan Shepherd 1893-1981. She was photographed wearing a band on her forehead said to be a piece of photographic film with a decorative brooch placed in the middle. She has long flowing hair and is attractive. She is said to have wanted to look like a Wagnerian princess. The bank note carries the words … It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.  Its date of issue 11 February marks the anniversary of her birth.

Ita Marguet, March 2024

Note: This text is prepared to mark International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March 2024. Since the early 1900s it is celebrated as a global event to promote the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.  Acknowledgement is given to the encyclopaedic and other sources used in its preparation.  It follows a visit to family in Scotland and the discovery of the bank note on my travels to Glasgow from 28 December 2023 to 12 January 2024.