Ae dey a year we aa breenge oot fae oor hidden neuks, oor mooths aflame wi Burns’ Scots an oor bellies aflame wi strang hielan uisge-beatha. We haver on aboot the values o freedom an equality, resistance tae tyranny, an aa that Scotland stauns fir in this tapsalteerie warld.
Then the next-again dey sees us hingin up aa wir tartan duds, pittin wir Scots tongues back intae the press alang wi oor dirks an kilt soaks. Scotland an aa her Burns-inherited notions safely back in the box unner the bed fir anither year.
Burns is cairtin owre muckle a load fir ae single Ayrshire mannie. An a hail nation sae complex an modren as Scotland needs mair nor ae champion.
Scotland could dae wi a new poetic hero wha could gie voice tae oor new environmentalist impulse, tae the ambition thats mair common nor ever in Scotland tae heize up women tae truly equal status wi men, an tae appreciate the abundant beauties an discovery open tae us in oor hauf-toom glens.
A quine for the task
We already hae sic a hero. She’s caaed Nan Shepherd. Nan (Anna) Shepherd wis a gey important pairt o the Scottish Reneaissance o the 20th century. She wis a braw scriever in her ain richt, plus organiser an communicator an kyther o ideas an concepts. She wis an Aiberdeenshire quine, born intae a faimly fae Peterculter an raised at Cults, she wis aye at hame in the north-east, fae her deys studyin intae Aiberdeen University tae her lang career teachin English at the Aiberdeen College.
She’s aaready been singled-oot fir a bit o a re-launch. Her face appears on the fivers fae the Royal Bank o Scotland, an a new biography o her is oot tae. Unlike Burns, Shepherd redded oot maist o the dodgy stuff fae her diaries, editied her ain letters an even pit a wheen o documents tae the fire afore she deid. Unlike big Rabbie, then, we dinnae hae aa the interestin, incriminatin opinions o the figure tae chaw through an reinterpret. We’re left wi her wark. But thon’s plenty.
Sae this braw brankie new symbol o Scottish identity needs a new national nicht. Oor ain ane, no tae replace Burns but tae complement him. A nicht that shaws the warld whit we are aa aboot these deys an wad gie us leave tae stert oor ain traditions.
That’s how I propone Nan Shepherd Nicht.
Airt fae the earth
Explorin Shepherd wad be worthwhile as wad gie ilk new generation a chaunce tae read ane o the best, maist compellin an unique voices o the 20th century. She scrievit poems in baith Scots and English, novels that encompassed life in her north-east hame an celebrated the people, nature an leids that sae define the place, whilst aye haein ae ee on the bigger picture o humanity.
Exploring Shepherd wad gie us a chance tae meditate on oor relationship wi nature. Her maist celebratit wark the dey is The Living Mountain. The non-fiction twal-pairt essay chairts Shepherd’s slaw, revelatory experiences o merchin through the Cairngorms.
This slim buik isnae a chyave tae get through in ae sittin, yet like ane o the rambles Nan taks hersel on, ilk time ye pick it up an hae a read, ye tak new thochts awa, hae new ideas. Shepherd’s unco relationship wi nature braks oot o the auld dichotomy o Scottish literatur. Afore her, the Scots launscape was either a romantic harr-happit laun o bonnie stags an loupin saumon or a harsh, wind-bit wastelaun whaur oor ancestors aince scarted oot a livin afore bein torn fae their hames bi greedy lairds an cruel factors. Shepherd gies us a third wey, whaur ilk human can hae honest communication wi nature an form their ain relations, ootwith aa the fauseness o prejudiced interpretation.
The Shepherd alangside the Plouman Poet
Explorin Shepherd wad at lang last pit a female in the pantheon o Scottish greats. Burns, Scott, Stevenson, Grassic Gibbon, Gunn: they aa dae a job fir oor national identity. But they aa dae it fir ae gender. Burns Nichts are gey aften heavy on the male spikkers. Haein a Shepherd Nicht whaur maist spikkers were female wad balance this oot.
Finally, explorin Shepherd wad bring the north-east back intae the fauld o “national” Scotland. This airt has lang been the kist that stores some of Scotland’s richest treisures in terms o cultur, leid, an nature. The hail nation o Scotland could turn, through the wark o Shepherd, tae the north-east an fae its deep kist draw forth wirds hauf-forgot in the sooth, an mentalities that were tint lang-syne.
Shepherd aye brings us tae a transition; atween the taps o hills an the high blue lift, atween modernity an tradition, Scots an English, male an female, an she walks wi us roon it, examinin it, learnin fae it. She equips us tae deal wi change, an in the current dey, thats nae a bad skill tae hae.
Alistair Heather is a cultural engagement officer at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen. This piece first appeared in The Conversation