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In the footsteps of Nan Shepherd: Elise Wortley

Written by Fiona

May 10 2020

When Elise Wortley learned of the trailblazing 1940s adventurer, nan Shepherd, she decided to follow in her footsteps in the Cairngorms. This article appear in The Scots magazine.

Elise in the Cairngormes National Park.
Elise walking through mist in the Cairngorms National Park.

Women with altitude

Elise Wortley was delighted to discover the benefits of a 1940s Tweed jacket when she spent 17 days walking and camping in the Cairngorms. The itchy underwear, hobnail boots and canvas tent were more of an acquired taste, however.

Yet Elise, 30, was determined to make her adventure as authentic as possible. Her aim was to follow in the footsteps of the late Nan Shepherd, who was a trailblazing Scottish hillwalker and writer of the early to mid 20th century. 

In 1945, Nan wrote a part-memoir, part-field study of the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, although it was not published until 1977. Today, the book is acclaimed as “one of the finest books ever written on nature and landscape in Britain”.

Nan’s important place in history is also marked by her depiction in 2016 on a Royal Bank of Scotland £5 banknote. 

However, there are still many people who are not aware of her legacy. 

Nan Shepherd appeared on a bank note. Credit: Summonedbyfells

Elise says: “In that era, around the 1940s, Nan was unusual because she was a woman who enjoyed spending time in her local mountains, walking and writing about nature. When we look back, she seems incredibly inspiring, especially as a female.

“But, I was surprised by how little known she appears to be, still to this day, and especially compared to male explorers.” 

A fascination with Nan Shepherd

Elise, a part-time marketing professional from London, became fascinated by Nan after reading her book. She says: “I liked the book immediately. It’s like one long poem and the way she describes elements, such as water and the mountains, are beautiful. I wanted to explore as Nan would have done – and to try to understand her motivations and her love of the Cairngorms.”

It was to be Elise’s first time in the Scottish Highlands and while she chose the summer of 2019 for her trip, she was treated to a full range of weather. The Cairngorms comprise a high plateau at 1000m to 1200m above sea level with many rounded summits rising to around 1300m. The range is home to five of the six highest mountains in Scotland.

“The first five days were very wet and windy,” says Elise. “I had not expected it to be so cold in July and it gave me great admiration for Nan in practical terms. She could not rely on the warm, waterproof and lightweight clothing and equipment that we have access to today.

“I confess I was actually grateful for the long, heavyweight Tweed jacket and the woollen tights, socks and a jumper for keeping me warm. But they are not so good in a heavy downpour because they became soaked through.

“The boots were also great, once I had located the source of my foot pain and sanded down the end of a nail with a rock. The soles were slippery though.”

Elise discovered that the tent was “surprisingly sturdy and waterproof”. She adds: “It is a 1940s tent, made of old canvas, and has a clever two-part design that allowed me to wear half of it as a poncho. 

“It wasn’t the sort of tent that you would choose for a lightweight backpacking trip though. It was bulky and heavy and took up a lot of space in my basic Army issue rucksack.”

Elise walks in the famous Lairig Ghru. Credit: Wilderness Scotland
Camping out 1940s style.

Back in time: Clothes and kit

Elise learned to adapt to the conditions and the kit. When the weather was at its worst, she set up camp with as much shelter as possible and stayed put. When the sun finally emerged, she walked every day or two to a new camping spot and then set off to explore glens and summits with a lighter pack.

She hiked the great mountain pass of the Lairig Ghru and visited the Pools of Dee, the “freezing water bubbling up from the ground,” as Nan described. 

Elise adds: “I also walked to many of the high summits, including Ben Macdui, and discovered glorious paths and views. I watched tiny frogs hop between streams and deer chewing on grass.

“There were magical moments, too, when I was surrounded by the silent, high landscape. I tiptoed into the crystal water of Loch Avon, thinking of Nan’s words: ‘Gazing into its depths, one loses all sense of time.’ I began to understand Nan’s world on a deeper level.”

Elise also found respect for the weather. She says: “I went from cursing the bad weather to respecting it, understanding why the rain and wind needed to happen, to keep the ecosystem healthy and alive. 

“I also found a new rhythm to my days and it was a much slower rhythm than the modern world. I did not have a mobile phone or any modern technology and nor did I have a torch, just candles, and no convenience foods.

“I found that I awoke when the sun came up and went to sleep as it set. I learned to sit and think, to be still – to let myself simply sit and be content – to write my journal and to eat simple meals cooked on a basic stove.

“I believe I enjoyed a far more immersive experience because of the equipment and weather.”

Elise at the Pools of Dee.

In the footsteps of another female adventurer

The Cairngorms trip was Elise’s second such expedition to follow in the footsteps of “inspiring female explorers”. In 2018, she spent a month in the Himalaya retracing part of the route of French-Belgium explorer Alexandra David-Néel’s trek into India in the 1920s.

Elise had first read Alexandra’s, My Journey to Lhasa, when she was 16. She says: “The book opened my teenage eyes to the incredible story of a woman travelling and exploring on her own and at a time when few people, let alone women, did so.

“It was a factual book rather than a personal story and it left me with so many unanswered questions. 

“I was in my late 20s, I had recently suffered a period of crippling anxiety and I decided I wanted to be fearless; to do something I wouldn’t normally dare. I decided to set out to follow in Alexandra’s footsteps – and to replicate the journey as authentically as possible.” 

Elise wore 1920s clothing, turned her back on modern technology and trekked as Alexandra would have done when she set off in 1911 on the 14-year journey to become the first Western woman to visit Lhasa.

Elise reveals that the Himalaya and Cairngorms posed different challenges but both expeditions showcased the groundbreaking nature of these women’s paths. This year, she plans is to follow in the footsteps of Freya Stark, who wrote The Valleys of the Assassins and other Persian Travels.

She says: “My aim is to highlight incredible women, whose achievements were often overlooked compared to those of their male counterparts. 

“Through my journeys, I hope to raise awareness of women’s rights in travel, encourage others not to be afraid to take on a challenge, highlight female leaders and prove how hard these expeditions really were.” 

See www.womanwithaltitude.com.

In memory of Nan Shepherd. Credit: watty62

Who was Nan Shepherd?

Anna “Nan” Shepherd was born on February 11, 1893, in Aberdeen and died there aged 88 on February 23, 1981. 

She attended Aberdeen High School for Girls, graduated from the University of Aberdeen and went on to lecture at the Aberdeen College of Education. She retired from teaching in 1956 and was awarded her an honorary doctorate from Aberdeen University in 1964.

Nan is acclaimed as a major contributor to early Scottish Modernist literature. And published her first novel, The Quarry Wood, in 1928.

She was a keen hill-walker and her poetry reveals her love for the Scottish mountains. 

She wrote her short non-fiction book, The Living Mountain, during the 1940s. The Living Mountain is a reflection of her experiences walking in the Cairngorms. She chose not to publish the book until 1977. 

Nan Shepherd’s Cairngorm quotes

Highlight quotes from The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd:

“Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.”

“Eye and foot acquire in rough walking a co-ordination that makes one distinctly aware of where the next step is to fall, even while watching sky and land.”

“The air is part of the mountain, which does not come to an end with its rock and its soil. It has its own air; and it is to the quality of its air that is due the endless diversity of its colourings.

Of water, she wrote: “I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” 

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