A Sense of Place: The Living Mountain by Jenny Sturgeon

artwork by Hannah Bailey

Now recognized as one of the great masterpieces of nature writing, The Living Mountain is a personal memoir of journeys into the Cairngorm mountains by Scottish author Nan Shepherd. Written during the Second World War, but not published for another 30 years, its twelve chapters convey her experiences in sparse but lyrical terms to present a profoundly different perspective from traditional mountain literature that often emphasized themes of endurance and conquest. “To aim for the highest point is not the only way to climb a mountain” , she wrote. And again,“Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself”.

I first encountered The Living Mountain while reading the works of Robert Macfarlane, who has not only taken direct inspiration from Shepherd’s opus, but has become one of its most foremost contemporary advocates. And it was while following a ‘CoReadingVirus’ online discussion group hosted by Macfarlane during the early lock-down period in Europe & America that I first heard of a wonderful new project to set the book to music by Scottish singer-songwriter Jenny Sturgeon. Having completed the recording at the Clashnettie Arts Centre located in the Cairngorms National Park, Jenny released the album in October featuring contributions from Mairi Campbell on viola and vocals, Su-a Lee on cello, Grant Anderson on bass & vocals, along with field recordings from Jez Riley-French and Magnus Robb.

Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere. It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense with an effortless intensity.

Nan Shepherd

Links: Bandcamp (digital) | Hudson Records (CD/LP/art print) | Jenny Sturgeon website

The album itself comprises twelve songs each one corresponding to a chapter of the book. The lyrics echo its themes and draw from Shepherd’s own words and poems while Sturgeon’s voice rings with uncanny purity and authenticity. She is after all, a child of the very mountains she is singing about as well as an accomplished composer as one of the luminaries of the Scots Trad music scene. The arrangements are understated and pristine and, to ensure that the sound of the mountains resonates in the music, Jenny even plays a unique Nan Taran guitar on many of the pieces that was crafted from reclaimed Scots Pine and other local woods by luthier Rory Dowling. Her affection for the landscape and Shepherd’s way of seeing it along with all of these thoughtful details bind together to form something quite special; a truly beautiful album of music, yes, but much more for those willing to consider all the aspects of The Living Mountain.

Recorded live in the Lyth Arts Centre turret as part of Turret Sessions. The song is adapted from Nan Shepherd’s poem ‘Fires’.

The Living Mountain was recorded, mixed, & produced by Andy Bell who also contributed synth, percussion, and vocals to the album and features cover art by Hannah Bailey. It is available digitally on Bandcamp and other streaming platforms and on both CD and limited edition blue vinyl LP from Hudson Records. In addition, a handmade art print is also available as well as the opportunity to by a tree when purchasing the record through conservation charity Trees for Life. All CD’s and LP’s use recycled paper and paper from sustainably managed forests and products are not shrink wrapped so as to reduce single use plastic waste.

A wonderful podcast series hosted by Jenny is also now available that offers fascinating in-depth interviews discussing topics related to Shepherd’s life, the book, the making of the the album and various related themes. For more information, go to https://www.jennysturgeonmusic.com/podcast.