Despite late April sunshine, spring was still holding its breath when I arrived on ‘her’ hillside. I was a thousand feet up at Abriachan, where a dormer-windowed house straddles lush pastureland below and the scratch of heather on the open moor above. This is Achbuie where at the age of nineteen, writer Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) came after a year of virtual imprisonment in a mental hospital. She was ‘boarded out’, as the practice was known, living with and helping an elderly woman on her croft. Amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high and steep that, as she said, ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’, she rambled freely for the six months or so that she stayed. The visceral thrill of the place in springtime pulses through her writing in different genres ever after.
It was curiosity about this powerful influence that took me there in early spring. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. And there, high on the moor to the north-east of Achbuie, seen through my wind-tugged hair – a slash of steep gully sliced inland from the Loch into a south-facing cliff. Red and crumbly, fissured in long downward strikes, a superb visual play was created by the orange-red of newly exposed rock against the petrol-glazed blue of age. I knew from Isobel Murray’s biography Writing her Life that as Jessie ran and rambled across the hillside here she was followed by a stream of younger girls intrigued by her supposed ‘experience’. With its precipitous pathways of loose rock, I could see the lure for a gaggle of youngsters. This was at the far reaches of Abriachan, at the door to another world, edgy and dangerous and out of sight of the cottage and a watching old lady.
Rites of passage were played out here according to Jessie’s writing – a childish game came close to an early sexual adventure. Later, her courtship with her future husband, John Kesson, who quarried the red sand rock, involved meetings on Sunday afternoons. Lying in the shadow of the red rock, they used ‘The Book’, which she was required to carry on the Sabbath, as a pillow.
That day in late April I climbed above the red rock to where the open moor levels. The wind carved down the lochside, and the bare birches rang maroon against a clear sky. Deer poured uphill on winter-dusky heather whose wiry stems snapped at my bootlaces. I kept turning, wondering whose step it was that caught at the back of mine, half expecting to find a line of children in a giggling retreat.
Before dropping towards Caiplich I savoured the long views that Jessie wrote of in I to the Hills through the eyes of a character called Chris: ‘High up in the shadow of the Red Rock, she would lie, knowing that never in a lifetime could she absorb the changing moods and varying beauty of the vista unfolded below her.’ I gazed southwards towards Fort Augustus and the steep-sided finale of the Loch. On its east side, beyond water-pocketed escarpments, the Cairngorms displayed long low-reaching fingers of late snow. To the north-east, the Moray Firth and the sea’s horizon sparkled, the lure that perhaps took the young Jessie away to Inverness, next returning to Abriachan for her honeymoon, and repeatedly afterwards in words.
Up on the open moor, the curlew burbled its high lilt. Peewits crashed within a whisper of the earth as they performed their jitterbug aerobatic displays. The notes they beat in the air with their broad wings seemed reassuring heralds of the spring. ‘Soon, soon’, they soothed.
I was curious about this hillside for another reason. When I was first writing short stories, and about ten years before I came across Jessie Kesson’s work, I wrote Keeping Away from the Water. A young woman is returning to the area of her childhood home, above Loch Ness at Abriachan, and the visit provokes keen memories of growing up on this hillside playground, and of the loss of her father. I wrote about the child’s experience of the place as if it was animate: ‘Voices burble up with the Spring wind, with the sunshine, in the birch trees. I hear them best if I lay my head in the whipping grasses and close my eyes. They never quite let me hear them directly – who they are, what they’re saying. I crunch down on last year’s bracken by the burn, finding primroses amongst the rusty deadness, turning their pale faces to be licked by the sun.’
I’m surprised now that I set my story in a place that I’d only glimpsed at then, in passing. Perhaps it was reading Eona Macnicol’s The Small Herdsman, that prompted it. A native of Abriachan, similar themes find their place in her story. The memory of a terrifying childhood emerges against the backdrop of, ‘…pasture and bracken and trees, and the hyacinthine Loch glinting between them’. My story was personalised by memories of immersion in the wilder corners of my own childhood garden but when I re-read it now I feel a chime with Jessie Kesson’s hillside – the drop to the loch, the animation, music and spirit world of spring, and with her themes of childhood pain and loss. But it wasn’t until 2006 that I properly explored her work.
Commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to choose and dramatise a short story by a twentieth century woman writer, I beat a trail through my favourites from Katherine Mansfield, to Helen Simpson and Alice Munro, but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Jessie’s Until Such Times that the project took off. It’s the tale of a young girl sent to live with her grandmother and envious Invalid Aunt, while her single mother (referred to as another aunt) searches for suitable circumstances to give her a decent home. The child waits, painfully, for the ‘until such times’ of the title. The story evokes the inner world of a lonely child who finds solace in woodland nature and the moments of her beloved grandmother’s full attention. The story’s conclusion suggests murderous triumph over the Invalid Aunt, making the story inherently dramatic, but it was something else which made it compelling for me.
I sought out her other writing, discovered more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years. The dull bass beat of pain was always there, but was somehow overlain with bright, poetic joys found in nature or brief moments of love and belonging. I began to realise that it was the intensity of the inner life of troubled children that I connected to. I wasn’t traumatised as a child but I was introverted, the inner world I inhabited keenly alive, and I’ve come to think of it as the dark inkwell from which my pen flows.
Jessie Kesson’s childhood is described by her biographer Isobel Murray as ‘a series of violent shifts of surroundings and circumstances, with no ongoing family support to provide stability or continuity.’ She was born illegitimate and lived in Elgin slums with her mother who recited nineteenth century poetry and shared her extensive knowledge as they walked barefoot through the countryside. Her mother was also a drinker and a small time prostitute and Jessie was eventually taken away from her to live in an orphanage. Unable to continue her education despite excellence at school, she took on various unsatisfactory jobs, performing poorly because she was enticed away by the outdoors, or lost in a book of poetry while the ironing scorched. At the age of eighteen she spent a year in Aberdeen Royal Mental Hospital following an attack on the matron of the girls’ hostel who had implied a slur on her mother.
Despite such early experiences she became famous in her lifetime, with two novels becoming feature films, including Another Time, Another Place. But it was writing for radio in which she was most prolific and successful. Ironically it was success in this medium – ephemeral, unarchived, largely unpublished – that now, unjustly, might allow her work to fade.
Thankfully the text of her short radio play, The Childhood, set at Abriachan, has been collected in Somewhere Beyond. Danny Kernon, a young lad removed from his alcoholic mother in Glasgow, to be boarded-out with an ‘aunt’ on this same hillside, is shocked by the sudden change of environment: ‘I had never seen a hill before. Nor have I seen one more terrible. It rose sheerly out of the Loch. It was full of deep, narrow gulleys, and covered with great rocks.’ The other boarded-out Glasgow youngsters, having had more time to adjust to the landscape, only increase his terror, goading: ‘The Loch hasna got a bottom… You jump it, Kernon… just one wee slip! He’s yella!’ The play thrums with Danny’s deep ache for his mother. Jessie Kesson evokes the emotional fragility of boarded-out children who had to laugh in whispers and never once knew ‘…what it was to be able to put their heads on the ‘aunt’s’ lap and sob out the bewildering hurts of childhood’
In time Danny stands up to the other boys, drawing strength out of his solitude, from song, and his intimate knowledge of the hill and the hundreds of burns that leap down it. ‘…I could have counted the flowers that grew on the hill by the Loch. I knew each stone. My hands became scarred with grasping the bracken. I discovered that the primrose cheats the eye: only its flower was softer than velvet, sweeter than any mortal things. Its leaves were rough and hairy and ugly.’
On my second visit I’m startled after only a ten-day absence by the progress of spring. It’s a day of sudden warmth and this time I take the sunny green slopes below Achbuie rather than the moor bristling above. The valley sweeps down between two rises. On one sits the most southerly cottage of the village at Balmore. The spur under the moor opposite holds the ruined crofts of Achculin. A burn begins its run to the Loch between them, shadowed on each side lower down by birches.
The cropped greenness of the pasture and its angle invites me to run in Julie-Andrews-gladness; a child again. It’s here that I imagine Jessie making her own plunge to the Lochside in a joyful errand to meet the van that couldn’t get up the steep road, the van that was the grocer, butcher, and draper combined, to which she carried eggs in return for ‘the messages’. I imagine her, with her ear for the music and rhythm of song and speech, singing and laying her feet to a tune as she went. Perhaps it would be like the dance music heard by Isabel in Where the Apple Ripens, ‘following her all the way to Corbie’s wood, and echoing through her mind long after she had reached home. Dispelling sleep itself.
“And you shall drink freely
The dews of Glensheerie
That stream in the starlight”.’
Or perhaps she would be arguing with a shower as she hurried downhill:
‘Rainie Rainie Rattlestanes
Dinna rain on me
Rain on Johnnie Groat’s house
Far across the sea.’
I sit on damp grass near Balmore. Birdsong bubbles in a galaxy around my head. Long buzzard-mewls stretch high notes above me against the lighter, closer, chips, trills and warbles of stonechats, skylarks, meadow pipits. The passing buzz of a bee. An aeroplane drones from one side of the loch to the other, its hum eclipsed behind the rocky knoll above Achbuie. Then a crack of sound springs my eyes open as a jet banks behind my shoulder, tilts low over the Loch. It’s as if spring has lofted everything sky-wards.
Soft unexplained pops rise from the grass. A palm rested on a tender nettle tingles sweetly. On this north-facing slope, bracken heads have broken through the turf, heads still curled tight. They look strong and fleshy on their thick single stems, but innocent, belying their summer rampancy. Bracken, as Jessie pointed out, is called in Gaelic, ‘the lovely curse’. Few plants can compete with it, fending off predators, as it does, with an arsenal of chemical weapons including cyanide.
John McCarthy described the marvel of ‘walking into a cathedral of light in Oxfordshire,’ after his release from five years of captivity in Lebanon. And I imagine Jessie Kesson stepping from the deadened enclosure and stale air of the mental hospital into this cacophony of sound and the sense of elevation. Coming from a regimented institution with every thought and activity crowded by other lives, this could hardly have failed to provoke her free spirit and to animate her feet in exploration. Perhaps it recalled her to those barefoot walks with her mother and a sense of inhabiting again her wild self.
I’m pulled to my feet and into the valley to cross the burn, and up the other side onto south-facing Achculin where bracken has been sunned higher from the earth, now tall enough to brush my calves. Colour hums against colour – slate blue of hyacinth and Loch, lettuce-green of young bracken against the pink granite walls. The rusty corrugated iron roofs have been weighted with rocks except for one, burst off by the spraying branches of a rowan tree. Above the buildings is a steep rock outcrop. Below, the spur of hill runs towards the Loch, decorated with brilliant buttons of gorse bush or ‘whin’. In Gaelic the name for gorse comes from the word for ‘wrangle’ or ‘quarrel’ and like a brassy blonde wearing gold jewellery she’s here in a tussle with those around her, draining colour from the exuberant birch leaves, the Loch below and the bluebells. But perhaps you’re allowed to be a bit showy in spring.
‘The smell of Spring in the hills is a blending of peaty thickness, bracken-mould, flowers’ spicyness, and clean, quick, purge of the wind’ Jessie wrote in the Scots Magazine, and her scents are all here. It’s the gorse that beguiles me to stop with its coconut-scented panting. Along with the heat, it licks the hillside promiscuous. Violets on the slope have opened their limbs wide to the sun to reveal their dark, secret clefts.
Sure of Jessie’s route down the burn, I follow a fence tented by a crisp brown cover of last year’s bracken. Down I go, into the shade of coppiced hazel woods where I lose the bold skyline of the steep lochsides. Without the gaudy whins, my eyes slowly adjust to wood anemones glimmering as pale stars on the ground and the green rise of bluebell tips.
I hear the burn chittering on my right as I tumble out onto the steep tarmac lane that climbs to Abriachan from the Loch. It’s breezeless and shaded. I cross the burn, follow the lane a little south, wondering where Jessie would have found the next part of her descent. And there, between one burn and the next is a gate and a path marked by a scattered line of brown leaves, leading down between trees. It is unremarked on the map and delights me with the soft secrecy of its way. Here there is soprano birch leaf and the bronzy tenor of the first clusters of oak leaves. Lit from behind, caught by breezes, they jig against the dark interlocking antlers of the branches. Blaeberry bushes burst around my feet, already belled with round red flowers.
The burns on each side of me chant louder or softer according to the windings of the path between them. I walk slowly for fear of missing something. The Lochside clamour starts to penetrate the woodland. Motorbikes have been sprung from winter garages to roar along the A82. A voice so amplified it’s inaudible rises through the trees and I glimpse the white wake pulled behind a tourist boat. Would Jessie have been running at this point towards the grocer’s van, despite the eggs she holds?
The sense of a well-loved, shared path keeps pulling me Loch-wards, until it leads to a wicket gate in an unyielding high fence. Beyond it I see the purple flash of rhododendron, hints of laid paths, ponds and house roofs. I skirt the fence to the southerly burn, looking for another way, smashing through bramble and brush and over fallen logs. My legs are scratched and bloody, torn by the open edges of dead bracken stem. With soil and moss smearing my hands, I’m returned to my childhood garden, my wilderness of rust-glazed water and bracken. Hints of suburbia hang between birch branches and drone with the distant lawnmower.
Then I’m out onto the A82, shuddered by the wind-suck of juggernaut, bike, van. I cross, and retreat from the road to the pink shingle shore onto which vast waters splash. A heavy afternoon sky brings a few drops of rain from the south. The Loch sucks at the shore. It’s capricious – glittering blue when seen from one direction, then lashing in black and white troughs, monster-deep and dark from another.
I think of Kesson’s descriptions of walking to church along this shore, but having to stick to the road on a Sunday rather than ‘scushing through the soft, white sand by the lochside,’ laughing and talking with those of her own age once they were far enough ahead of the adults. This rattling chatter seemed to mark her time here too, despite ‘her sense of being an outsider wherever she went, an ‘ootlin’ as she called it, marching to a different beat from other people.’ I like this Scots word ‘ootlin’ – the territory of the writer perhaps. As a shy child, I always felt on the edge, peering in, choosing friends who were also outsiders, alienated by obesity, religion or other kinds of oddness.
My mother’s attempts to integrate me with other children by enrolling me at Brownies or in a summer holiday club at the local park both ended before they began – with her driving me away again, crying. I retreated to my garden refuge where there were acorns to gather and serve to my dolls at mealtimes, or I could dig for treasures and inhabit my own world.
Even before her year in mental hospital, when she was staying at the girls’ hostel in Aberdeen, Jessie wrote of an association between spring and rebellion: ‘It was only when I began to “break a rule” that the girls began to accept me and confided in me. But I didn’t break the rule for that reason. It was broken for no reason that I can give words to. I’d smelt the spring. A different thing altogether from knowing it was there. I smelt it almost before it came, as if it had told me it was coming.’
When she walked on this edge of land and water at the age of nineteen she was perhaps already becoming comfortable with the rebellious identity that would free her from unpromising beginnings and define her as a writer, bringing an intensity of self-awareness, a love of nature, a humour and spirit that overcame adversity. I like to think it was an extreme change of environment and the experience of spring here that propelled her into that self.
After six months, the sensuality and physicality of the place became overwhelming and she ran away.
Despite this, it’s clear that the hillside at Abriachan remained special. She chose it for her honeymoon. She chose it as the place where her ashes were to be scattered; a hillside so alive to her that she returned to it again and again in her writing. Perhaps from the rootlessness of her childhood years she found some stillness or sense of security here in proximity to nature. Perhaps it was for her as it was for Danny in The Childhood who drew strength from the permanence of what he found in the country, saying, ‘I was safe with all those things undying’.
As I turn away from the Loch and begin the climb back, I feel that today I’ve brushed shoulders with a character who, by her own admission, was like a ‘tornado’ at nineteen when she whirled into the life of the old lady at Achbuie making her ask, ‘is there no settle in you?’Alastair Scott described her much later in her life as a ‘one-woman riot’ and Isobel Murray’s biography suggests she stayed that way until her death. Quite apart from the sweet pain and joy of her stories, she’s bequeathed to me a spring day in her special place. I’ve feasted my senses.
With limbs swinging I laugh and pant, sweating up through the green song-tunnels beside the burn. Jessie’s granddaughter described how her grandmother would be remembered – ‘Dancing, kicking up her legs’ – and it seems an apt description also for this hillside in springtime.
FREIGHT BOOKS, £14.99, ISBN 978-1-908754-54-7, 272PP