Firebrand Theater Company: Podcasts go behind the banknote to tell Nan Shepherd’s story
IN 2016, writer Nan Shepherd made history by becoming the first woman to appear on a Scottish banknote.
Yet despite the recognition, she still strikes a mysterious figure – an enigma who dressed as a primary schoolteacher but enjoyed bathing naked in mountain tarns; a woman who lived single but had a love affair with a mysterious man, and a best-selling author who apparently gave up her writing after just three novels, despite being hailed as Scotland’s Virginia Woolf and compared to Thomas Hardy.
She was also one of the first British writers whose work was influenced by Buddhist and Eastern philosophy, but was so ahead of her time that it was only in recent years that her writing really took off – so much so that his book The Living Mountain has been translated into 16 languages and inspired a tour by Icelandic singer Bjork.
So who is the woman behind the image on the banknote? It’s a riddle tackled by the Borders-based Firebrand Theater Company, who have made three podcasts about it in association with the Pitlochry Festival Theater and can be listened to for free on October 24, November 21 and January 30.
“We wanted to see if we could meet Nan the Woman in person, dramatizing her in a podcast series that we could eventually turn into a play,” said Firebrand director Richard Baron. “When we did our research we found an exceptional woman who rather belied the glamorous portrayal on the note. She was someone who had lived in a small village in Aberdeenshire for most of her life and who had yet written three very extraordinary feminist modernist novels in the late 1920s and 1930s, but which were forgotten and out of print for most of her life.
READ MORE: The Forgotten Scottish Woman’s Attempt to End US Slavery
Although her novels were critically acclaimed, Baron said the problem was that her publishers were English and based in London.
“She liked using Doric in her books because she thought it was extremely expressive and imaginative, but the English editors didn’t really understand some of the language she was using,” Baron said. “Her novel The Quarry Wood was eventually published with a glossary at the end with all the ‘foreign’ Scottish words, which she considered ridiculous and unnecessary.”
This, and an extremely poor review from Sunset Song author Lewis Grassic Gibbon, may have dissuaded Shepherd from writing, Baron thinks. The theory is that Grassic Gibbon felt she was walking her plot because her work was set in a similar location with a female lead character and similar use of dialect.
“He may have seen her as a rival even though Sunset Song came out after the first two of his novels,” Baron said. “She seems to have largely stopped writing fiction soon after. I don’t think she was that confident in her work and the review might have put her off.
His most famous book now is the non-fiction The Living Mountain which was written during World War II but did not see the light of day until 1977 when Shepherd was over 80.
Baron believes her love affair with a mysterious man (who he claims was her best friend’s husband) and The Living Mountain, a hymn to the high hills of Scotland, were linked.
“She immersed herself in nature and found a new way to express her love and come to terms with herself in the mountains,” Baron said. “She doesn’t delve deeply into Eastern philosophy, but she was certainly influenced by it.
READ MORE: Critically acclaimed show tells story of gender transition
“She bathed naked in the tarns, walked barefoot in the heather and loved to sleep on the mountains. She sees her relationship with the mountain as an experience of friendship, which is a nice way to express it.
Shepherd showed the manuscript to a single London publisher who rejected it so she put it in a drawer where it sat for years. Doubts led her to self-publish the book in 1977, but it has only recently become famous, especially during pandemic shutdowns.
“One of the great things about the book’s philosophy is that it’s good for mental health and has interested people all over the world, including Bjork who did a concert tour based on it” , Baron said.
“Nan was truly a woman ahead of her time. She was also a very passionate but unconventional teacher – much like a main character in Miss Jean Brodie. She loved Scottish literature and one of the things she wanted her students to understand was that Scotland had literature and it was important for them to read it.
For free tickets to A Journey With Nan Shepherd, visit www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com and www.firebrandtheatre.co.uk