Nan Shepherd - The Quarry Wood (1928)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Nan Shepherd spent most of her life teaching English in Aberdeen, walking her beloved hills and mountains and encouraging other writers. Yet she will be remembered for the three works of prose fiction she wrote in a five-year burst of creativity in her late 30s. The Quarry Wood, The Weatherhouse and A Pass in the Grampians are all directly informed by Shepherd's experiences. Her debut follows the young life of Martha Ironside, born to a poor family in rural Deeside. Self-possessed and fiercely motivated, Martha keeps the local boys at arms' length, struggles against her circumstance and expectation to go to university, and falls inadvertently in love.
It seems like a small story, but Shepherd's intense prose means it is as much about existence itself as it is about day-to-day life. The language often veers towards melodrama ('spirits' are forever 'flowing') and Martha is a flawed and occasionally foolish protagonist but The Quarry Wood works so brilliantly precisely because of these apparent drawbacks. Its conflation of ardent philosophising and blunt everyday speech, rendered in vivid dialect, provides a glorious palette. Martha's spiritualism, meanwhile, contrasts with the drudgery, sniping and affection of family life and her great aunt's drawn-out death from cancer. Her eventual thawing, with the help of a burbling, illegitimate baby, comes with joy and poignancy.
Throughout, the seasons ebb and flow, gossip twists words in its ill wind and compassion and ambition tussle. Shepherd's love of the land underpins this thoughtful book. It is a connection that many of us, stuck in concrete cityscapes, feel less and less as modernity marches onwards. The Quarry Wood works wonderfully as a chronicle of youth, before youth was a marketing tag. But its real power lies in its vivid sense of nature, in all its drabness, colour and dangerous, unpredictable beauty.
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