Shift yersel owre, Rabbie, an mak space fir a national lassie

Burns Nicht is here aince mair. Aa owre this guid green warld, Scots an their sympathisers will pit oan their best tartan breeks, kilts, sashes an bunnets, an heid for a local dinner.

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 AberdeenThis piece first appeared in The Conversation

Comments (8)

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  1. Heather Pearson says:

    Lovely 🙂 Can I propose we have Roberta Burns Night instead though? I’ve been to two this year and I think January 2019 will have a few more in the diary. The idea is to get together and celebrate any Scots women’s poetry or poetry about Scots women. Three people I heard created poetry representing the unheard voices of Jean Armour and Jenny Clough. Roberta’s an every woman. Perhaps, like Janet Hamilton, she’s the peer of Rabbie’s who never got heard because she didn’t own a penis. Perhaps she’s Rabbie’s sister who, like his mother and her good friend, fed Rabbie’s appetite for great conversation. Whoever she is, she needs talked about to counter a male-centric annual point of worship and visitation. Food for thought, indeed, though not every piece I heard read at Roberta Burns get togethers was serious or mournful. The body of Scottish women’s work is a gorgeous spectrum; we all left laughing, energised and feeling like life had been affirmed. You don’t get many nights and days to the pound like that in Brexit Britain, so it’s an avenue well worth exploring, in my opinion. The scope for material is huge and if we’re to behave like the progressive nation we so often profess to be, we can leave room for multiple representations of what a woman (and man) can be, surely? Shameless plug here too – The Grantidote has podcasted on exactly this issue. Twice. Fnnnaarr!!!!

    1. Ally says:

      This is great! Mind and invite me to your next Roberta night!

      1. Heather Pearson says:

        No bother! 🙂 Drop me a message via and I’ll be sure to Ally.

      2. Heather Pearson says:

        No bother! 🙂 Drop me a message via and I’ll be sure to Ally.

  2. Willie says:

    Nan Sheppard may have all the qualities of a fine poet, but so many of the tributes for her promotion to national icon come across as purely being based upon gender equality.

    This to my mind detracts from her skill.

    Discrimination or promotion purely on one’s gender or sexual orientation is never a good thing.

    1. Ally says:

      Willie ma guid man,

      I certainly amnae sayin Shepherd should be borne upon oor shouders as a national symbol just cause she’s no got a Willie.

      Her airt, her style, her experience o navigatin change: between urban an wild, traditional an modren, repressed an free are lesson weel worth learnin by a people sae in flux as oorsels.

      In particular her environmentalism, ane which braks oot o the usual dichotomies o romantic/fearsome landscapes an encourages us tae learn aboot an commune wi it on oor ain terms seems gey relevant an usefu.

      The fact she’s a lassie is braw, but. I’m glad aboot it. It does add somthin tae the mix.

      1. Willie says:

        Cannot disagree with a word you say Ally.

        A braw lassie, and an exceptionally talented one at that. Nae doubt about that.

        Absolutely no slight intended whatsoever.

  3. Erlend Clouston says:

    Ally, I sent you a note about this from Saigon (Nan travels well). Did you receive it?

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