Caught by the River

The Living Mountain

Cally Callomon | 15th October 2020

Cally Callomon reviews a new album from Jenny Sturgeon which converses with Nan Shepherd’s celebrated writings on the Cairngorms.

The author Nan Shepherd is no stranger to Caught by the River. Aberdonian Lecturer; author of three novels set in small communities in Scotland; and now admired for her 1940s collection of short intense book of poetic prose The Living Mountain which remained unpublished until 1977. This once-sleeping giant has become what she may be best known for, aided by a leg up from Robert Macfarlane and Richard Mabey.

As with all great literature, Shepherd’s work can be adopted, interpreted and adapted by artists of equal measure and so we find Jenny Sturgeon devoting an entire album that revolves around Shepherd’s work, taking some of her poems literally but more often using them as springboards for Sturgeon’s own view of the work.

Sturgeon comes from a long line of observers, whether as collaborator (with Inge Thomson) on the bird and migration-inspired ‘Northern Flyway’ audio-visual project, or as one third of Salt House, whose Huam album barely left my CD player late last year. She tops it all with this, her second ‘solo’ album, which holds hands with Nan Shepherd and the impressive cast of collaborators throughout the dozen tracks, mirroring Shepherd’s book but often also taking flight.

Now based on Shetland, for Sturgeon the Cairngorms were never far from her Aberdonian upbringing. A multi-instrumentalist, she has a PhD in seabird ecology and organises the Shetland Songwriting Festival as well as running her own cottage industry Ink & Wool.

The songs, ten of her own, with two arrangements of Shepherd’s poems, are all sewn together with field recordings captured within the Cairngorms by producer Andy Bell and CBTR favourite Jez riley French.

Jenny’s voice is a spectacular instrument; crystal clear with an earthy soul-like warmth that puts her up there with Hudson’s other greats — Lucy Farrell and Karine Polwart to name but two. The songs meander across a great variety of terrain, like a hike over the mountains themselves which, one day, I will do with these songs in my earbuds. In these days when ‘full immersion’ seems to demand pointless technology and odd-shaped goggles, all one needs, here, is a dark room and a decent ‘stereo’ and the sense to imagine a time, smell, and a place Jenny conjures up so well. 

There are other instruments in her arsenal: piano, harmonium, dulcimer, thumb piano, foot operated shruti box, whistle and a unique Nan Taran guitar made especially for Sturgeon in Fife out of scrap by Dowling and Morris luthiers. Scrap being a Cairngorm Scots Pine pub bar shelf (whisky bottle stains intact), a Scottish walnut stair bannister, and the beam of an old Scottish fishing boat. Further fishing to be found here, including a song from the album on the guitar itself.

This is yet another spectacular album from Hudson, beautifully packaged and carefully recorded. Sturgeon joins an enviable roster and is currently top of their mountain.


Foot notes:

The Living Mountain is released on Hudson Records tomorrow (physical available here, digital here.)

The Living Mountain audio-visual show, with Jenny working alongside film curator Shona Thomson and filmmaker Robyn Spice, is due to tour in May and November 2021. It includes 1940s film from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive. 

The Living Mountain Conversations podcast: Jenny has produced a nine-part podcast where she chats with artists, writers and ecologists she met in the development of the project and the first episode aired in August 2020.

The Living Mountain Grove: Jenny has set this up with Scottish rewilding conservation charity Trees for Life. Trees can be purchased with the album in a step towards helping to rewild the Scottish Highlands and to offset the carbon footprint associated with her album manufacture.

Assurance: The fact that Jenny’s surname is that of the noble fish often to be caught in the river did not influence this review.