They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes. But what if you had the chance to follow in their footsteps? This is what Merryn Glover set out to do in The Hidden Fires: retrace Nan Shepherd’s journey into the Cairngorms as documented in The Living Mountain. Prior to reading I wondered how a modern-day retelling – refracted through all its realities – could compare with the romance and rose-tinted experiences of yore?
Main image: Merryn Glover taking it all in on Braeriach | Credit: Merryn Glover
The resulting book – an homage to Shepherd peppered with ecological updates, sociopolitical interpretations and reframings to include previously omitted stories or correct half-truths – is not only beautiful but perhaps even more important for modern day hillwalkers.
Merryn Glover feels “an eternal beginner” in the mountains. Likewise, Shepherd did not claim to be an elite athlete or all-conquering explorer. This is just one of the many things these nature writers have in common – including a breathtaking way with words.
As Nan was guided by her knowledgeable friends, she also became guide to others and eventually – albeit through her writing – to Merryn. With the voices of both women weaving together, you will instantly be welcomed into this book’s mountain world.
The Hidden Fires places the Cairngorm massif on the same pedestal as the ranges of India and Nepal where Merryn grew up. While she and Shepherd share a love of the Cairngorms, there is delight in the differences in their experiences. Despite the influence of Shepherd’s gaze, Glover’s own voice – thoughtful, honest, funny, and utterly full of feeling – shines.
As a reader, I am grateful to have both perspectives in one book. There’s a “fey and fearlessness” about Shepherd that I find aspirational but, at times, far removed from my own sense of self outdoors. Merryn’s experiences are more familiar. Indeed, these differences in perspective highlight exactly what Shepherd meant when she noted how mountains change from moment to moment, sometimes even simply by adjusting the tilt of your head.
Of course, time passes, too. In The Living Mountain, Shepherd mourns the felling of Scot’s Pine during WW2. By the time of Glover’s writing, these trees have crept back in uprising. Glover’s book reminds us that while nostalgia feels nice, ultimately, it’s best to live in the now.
With ever more popular footpaths to the not-so-secret pools and ‘hidden gems’, Glover’s experience also encourages sharing space outdoors. While Shepherd’s encounters with other hillwalkers are few and far between, we must now learn to tread only where people have trodden before – a lot. Glover invites all to revel in the mountain journey and experience everything with openness and awe. It’s only a hunch, but I think it’s what Nan – the mother of mountain mindfulness – would’ve wanted.
The Hidden Fires – A Cairngorms Journey with Nan Shepherd is published by Polygon Books (£10.99, paperback).