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“Being alone, it’s not so bad,” says my hiking companion Sue, breathless, as we marvel at the vast, lonely mountains around us. I’m two days into a week-long, early-spring trek traversing the peaks of Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands with an all-women hiking group. As the discussion turns to the merits of hiking and living solo, I’m reminded that this rugged landscape has long been a place of solace and solitude for women in Scotland, a history few knew about until recently.
In my backpack, I’m carrying Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, the writer’s hymn to the Highlands, where she spent most of her life wandering and writing about nature, often alone. The book, which Shepherd wrote near the end of World War II, sat unread for decades until the late 1970s when it was quietly published. It is only now being recognized as one of the most poignant pieces of 20th-century nature writing. (Many contemporary critics and writers have sung Shepherd’s praises, and in 2016 the Royal Bank of Scotland designed a £10 note bearing her visage.) Along with Shepherd, the Highlands drew other 18th- and 19th-century artists and adventurers, including the poet Anne Grant and writer and photographer Isabella Bird. The creative works inspired by their time in the mountains provided an alternative narrative to the dominant, oppressive discourse surrounding women in the outdoors, a shift that paralleled the women’s suffrage movement in the country.
Spend a day in the Scottish Highlands and it’s easy to see what drew these freethinkers there; the same magnetic pull I had felt for years. Sloping mountains dusted with snow roll like cresting waves in every direction, and lower down, heather-blanketed hillsides are studded with gnarled Scots pine. It’s a fierce, melancholy beauty that seeps into your bones. Still, at the beginning of our seven-day journey, led by ecotourism company Wilderness Scotland, we’ve already seen the mercurial weather shift, in minutes, from blue skies to sideways snow. Today, our climb to Creag a’ Chalamain (Pigeon Rock), one of the Cairngorms’ lesser summits, has led us along icy riverbanks and up a trail obscured by knee-deep snow.
It’s tough enough to tackle this terrain in sturdy hiking boots and waterproof outerwear; it’s nearly impossible to imagine doing so in the bloomers and petticoats donned by the pioneering women who ventured out here hundreds of years ago, an activity that was met with outrage.
“Going off on your own in the muddy, dirty countryside with other women was really frowned upon,” says Paula Williams, a curator at the National Library of Scotland who spearheaded a recent exhibit that celebrates the unsung history of Scotland’s mountain women. “Women weren’t mentioned anywhere in the history of Scottish mountaineering and yet I knew that they climbed,” says Williams. (Even prior to the 18th century, dairy maids followed transhumance routes through the mountains.) “I kept asking myself, where were we?”