The half-light of these weary January days has just been lit up by the linguistic thrills of Burns Night. This international celebration of Robert Burns’ timeless poetry will see millions across the world raise a glass to Scotland’s bard on January 25.
Burns is used by Scots as a frame upon which to hang a tremendous amount of weighty national identity. Upon him they place responsibility as the source of their egalitarian spirit, and of their radicalism. Their socialist leanings too, they expect him to inhabit. Their fondness for a good drink is perhaps the easiest burden for his writing to bear.
As Scotland develops and alters, more and more weight is being borne by this one Ayrshire man. Even his ghost must be growing humpbacked under the strain. Academics and fanatics scratch annually through his letters and works, trying to pin him down as a good unionist, socialist, yes man, Tory. Others look to take him out by labelling him a sexual predator or aspirant slave-owner. This Burnsian battleground shows that Scottish identity can no longer be encompassed in one night nor expressed by one man.
Scotland needs a new symbol that can more easily take on the country’s emergent identities. Environmentalism is a huge new concern, as is a real effort to achieve equal status for women. Perhaps the most current debate is the attempt to redefine Scots’ relationship with the Highlands. These aggressively depopulated regions have inhabited an uncomfortable place in the Scottish psyche, with a romantic, tourist-friendly notion of leaping salmon and noble stags competing with the tragedy of the Clearances, when greedy landlords swept crofters from their land in the 18th and 19th centuries in favour of more profitable sheep.
A woman for the job
By an incredible stroke of luck, we have just such a poetic hero hung up in a cupboard, ready to be pressed into action: the accomplished Aberdonian novelist and poet, Nan Shepherd, who played a vital role in the 20th-century Scottish Renaissance.
Born in Peterculter and raised in Cults, her existence was forever focused on Aberdeen, as seen through her degree at the city’s university and her long career teaching at the college, and her love for the Cairngorm Mountains just inland to the west. From her firm footing in the north-east, she was able to step confidently out into the world both through travel and through addressing universal human questions from a confidently north-east perspective.
Shepherd has already been dusted off and given a relaunch recently. In 2016, the Royal Bank of Scotland used a striking image of the poet wearing a self-made headband, looking proud and confident on its new five-pound note. In 2017, a well-received biography, Into The Mountain, was published, digging down into the life of the woman behind the books.
This foundation has prepared the way for a wide popular embrace. But Scots don’t take someone to their hearts because some well-meaning soul has put out a biography. Nor do they warm to someone purely because they decorate the fivers that glide effortlessly through their fingers.
That’s why alongside Burns, I propose Nan Shepherd Night.
This night would be roughly analogous to Burns’ annual birthday bash in that there would be much discussion of themes and politics and social consequence, well lubricated and studded with readings and song.
A force of nature
Raising Shepherd up to this new prominence would give every new generation the chance to interact with one of the most compelling Scots voices of the 20th century. Her work in both Scots and English produced principally in the 1930s spoke to and of a nation in transition. She also wrote of nature in a way that would be intensely valuable for us all to read. In her poem The Hill Burns, she writes:
Wet with the cold fury of blinding cloud,
Through which the snow-fields loom up, like ghosts from a world of eternal annihilation,
And far below, where the dark waters of Etchachan are wont to glint,
An unfathomable void.
Out of these mountains,
Out of the defiant torment of Plutonic rock,
Out of fire, terror, blackness and upheaval,
Leap the clear burns,
Like some pure essence of being,
Invisible in itself,
Seen only by its movement.
Her 12-part essay on time spent walking in the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, has been in the spotlight once again since its timely re-release in 2011 by Canongate Books, with a foreword by academic and nature writer Robert MacFarlane. This slow, revelatory examination of a human immersed in nature is a very powerful piece of writing.
The slim volume could be easily dispatched in a single sitting, but like one of the walks that ramble from page to page, glen to glen, it can be revisited time and again, with new revelations being provoked, new vistas glimpsed on each fresh journey. As mentioned, Shepherd breaks us, and Scottish literature generally, out of the old dichotomy where the Scottish landscape could only be viewed in one of two ways.
Either Scotland was a misty, ancient place of few people and many romantic notions, or it was a bleakly bare northern extremity from which humans had first scoured clean of the trees then scoured clean of their own ramshackle dwellings and cultures.
Shepherd offers us a third way, a way of approaching the landscape that allows a natural and unmediated relationship to be created between human and landscape, between the two living things.
Taking her rightful place
Raising Shepherd up to the height of national figure would at long last put a woman among the pantheon of Scottish greats. Burns, Scott, Stevenson, Grassic Gibbon, Gunn: they all have their place, but they are all men and can only inspire so many of us, and only in so many directions.
A strong, confident female voice being celebrated, read and enjoyed at events around the country with predominantly female speakers would be a welcome antidote to the heavily masculine Burns Night with its conspicuous array of male worthies. Balancing this out would be to the enrichment of both men and women.
Finally, raising Shepherd’s status would undoubtedly also bring the north-east back into focus as one of the cultural heartlands of Scotland. The deep-rooted culture of Scotland’s geographical cold shoulder has often been neglected by those in the central belt. But while Edinburgh softened itself through Anglicisation, Aberdeen retained its sense of self.
In the north-east, there is a special mentality of hard-headedness and a dark passion for enduring hardship with stoicism – locals proudly call it being “thrawn”. There is the linguistic richness of the local Scots dialect that extends across all classes. There are the rich traditions of fiddle music, ballads and bothy ballads, folktales and legends, high literature and street literature, that inform an ongoing strength of identity and creativity here. Nan Shepherd’s work beautifully illustrates this, and for Scotland’s identity builders in the central belt, a better understanding of Shepherd’s work could act as a bridge to the rich kist of tradition and culture in the north-east.
Shepherd skilfully brings the reader to points of transition and contrast – between hills and sky, modernity and tradition, Scots and English, male and female – walking us through the revelatory landscape, examining it, learning from it. By looking at issues such as class, gender, nature and what it means to be fully alive, Shepherd’s illuminating works equip us to deal with change. In the current climate, that’s not a bad skill to have.
Nan Shepherd was a vital player in the Scots Renaissance of the 20th century, and helped secure Scots’ place as a literary language. As a great makar (poet) in her own right, who used Scots regularly in her work, she also acted as a vital motivator and organiser of others in the movement. Now we are in the midst of another Scots renaissance, and during Scots Language Week, it is only fitting that an article championing Shepherd should be written in Scots as well as English.