The Cairngorms in Nan Shepherd’s Footsteps

I am lying with my head in a spray of blaeberry, looking up at the twisted limbs of a Granny pine, my mind wandering over Nan Shepherd’s words that have just been read. “No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it.  As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid: the body melts, perception remains.” I wonder why my own ventures in the mountains aren’t punctuated more often by stops to observe, to lie down, or even to dose. Why is it always about the summit and the route? Why not stop to notice the baby pines pushing up the hillside, the spring of the lichens tangled in the heather, the sound of the rushing burn. And then I wonder whether there are many ticks in these parts.

I am with a group of people here to take part in the performance of ‘Into the Mountain’, a site specific dance work by Simone Kenyon, dancer, choreographer and artist.  She has taken her inspiration in the writings of Nan Shepherd, particularly her extraordinarily lyrical meditation on the Cairngorms written in 1944, but not published until 1977, ‘The Living Mountain’. Part of the experience is in the approach to the performance site in Glen Feshie.  We crouch to touch the ground, we listen to the changing tones of the Alt Ruadh, as Nan wrote, “The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking.” We are one of three groups taking three different routes and converging on one point in Glenfeshie.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Simone invites participants to “walk out of the body and into the mountain” as Nan describes in her book.  We are invited to take off our boots and walk barefoot on the heather, to dip our feet into the mountain stream.  One of our group braves the rain to stand ankle-deep in a perfectly round basin in the rock.

The site of the performance is between two streams running parallel and we take our seats on the springy heather as a cluster of people in black waterproofs start to sing. Bright spots appear on the distant hillsides: glinting gold are five space blankets held by five dancers who then leap, gallop and zig zag towards us from all directions. The movements of the dancers evoke the wild place we are in and its nature and reflects passages from the book we have read on our approach to the performance space.

The choir’s music, composed by Hanna Tuulikki, is less song and more sound – evoking the wind and the water of this landscape. At times I hear bird calls in it: a red grouse or a the peeping of a wader, once, perhaps a black grouse’s bubbling gurgle.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.

Later at the Old Post office Café in Kincraig, where hot soup brings us all together at the end of the day to dry out, to warm up and to share our experiences, I meet Simone, and ask why she chose the site for the performance. She explains that she wanted the performers to see the lines of people filing, in their bright mountain gear, to converge on the performance spot. “It’s such a beautiful thing to see people in their lines on a mountain, I wanted to choreograph people’s own walks to the site” she says. Glenfeshie is also the site of an incredible transformation, as deer numbers have been brought down, Caledonian pine forest is regenerating and everywhere we see baby pines. The performance site set on the 600m contour will, in 50 years, be the point at which trees, dwarfed by the harsh conditions at this altitude, give way to the open hill.


The following day I head into the Cairngorms once again, Sgor Gaoith our objective. But our experience is changed by what we have experienced. We stop to sit, we lie with our noses in the lichen, at one point on the plateau my companion dozes off, we listen to the wind and the thin piping of a golden plover and later find a golden plover eggshell among the moss. We reach the summit eventually, but we have taken to heart Nan’s words, “To aim for the highest point not the only way to climb a mountain” in our journey there.


Into The Mountain, the first project of its kind, has been developed over the past six years by artist and choreographer Simone Kenyon, in collaboration with hundreds of women who live and work in the Cairngorm Mountain Range and Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Photo: Felicity Crawshaw / Scottish Sculpture Workshop.


Getting a Nan Shepherd view on the Cairngorms.


Nan may have said that heading for the highest point isn’t the only way to climb a mountain, but we went there anyway


Noticing an empty golden plover shell on the ascent we hoped the chick had harvhed successfully


getting a different perspective on the massive Cairngorms in these teeny tiny creeping azaleas


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