Fringe Online 2022
The first of a trilogy, followed by Nan in Love and Urban Nan, Nan Makes History is a curated beginning of who she was, what she did and her effect on those around here and the generations which followed her. We begin with an introduction to her place within Scots literary history and then move to the imagined drama of an American interviewer having tracked her down. Mr. Robertson was sent to write about Neil Gunn. In the course of his research, he happens upon a woman, still alive, unlike Gunn at the time, who corresponded with him – Nan Shepherd. Deciding she may be the more interesting story, we are taken through her modest beginnings in the literary world to comparisons with literary greats including Hugh McDiarmid, DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. He believes and it is proven, that this educator, writer and poet would make a more fascinating topic. And she does. We are left teased with the opening of a drawer in which there is a clue as to why she stopped writing in the 30’s and took a 40 year hiatus. She claims it is a love letter which shall enlighten him as to why she as unpublished for so long.
Long before the pandemic brought me opportunities for long lonely walks, podcasts had been part of my routine. The BBC archive boasts, thanks mainly to Radio 4 Extra, an exemplary pathway to worlds long forgotten or works long copied or characters loved for the reasons that they were beautifully created by incredible authors. And there is much in this tradition to love about this entrée into the world of Nan Shepherd.
I firstly have to admit that my knowledge of the woman who in 2016, made history by being the first woman on a Scottish banknote was nil. I blush in writing this. I can point to the lack of any Scottish authors in schools but then I do remember that my Higher English Text was Sunset Song and there were openings for the curious to explore further, if not the encouragement.
But all of this guilt, and socially aware commentary means nought if the product streaming through my lugs is not fit to match the beauty of its subject matter. And it is.
The script has the delightful irony of a man looking to find out about someone of whose existence he knew naught. That this comes about because of his task – to find out about another man – is not lost on me. The conceit works very well. The verbal jousting of these conversations, imagined but based upon extensive research, show a spirited woman, seemingly well versed in batting away the prejudice of misogyny.
It has been directed with the ear in mind as the linguistic dance is one well attuned to be followed, with original music composed to draw the Scot out and give backdrop to the words. It manages to build a mellifluous aural beauty which delights as you listen.
The performances are similarly poised as we switch between the readings of the adventures of one of her characters, Martha Ironside, to the exchanges Nan has with her students in teacher training and the explanations which bookend the piece. Sophie McLean and David Rankine do a damn fine job of it all.
I put this on during one of my walks and can neither tell you what I saw nor tell you where I went. Such was the effect of it that as I listened and dealt with the guilt with which I began and then felt it turn it into a determination to dig more out of our history setting literary figure from Aberdeen. It ended with both Mr. Robertson and Nan unable to get into that drawer in which a love letter was to be found. It would tell us why she stopped writing. I stopped the recording sure that at the bottom of it must be a man. Oh, how right I was, and how wrong could I be!