by Alan Taylor

Elgin Marvel

September 10, 2016 | by Alan Taylor
FOR reasons too boring to explain, I needed recently to find my copy of Jessie Kesson’s novel, The White Bird Passes. My edition, a reprint of the 1958 original, was published in 1980 by Paul Harris, one of the Scottish booktrade’s more colourful characters. On opening it I was surprised to find that it was signed by the author. Dated 21 August, 1985, the occasion was the Edinburgh Book Festival at which  Jessie appeared with Norman MacCaig, a seemingly unlikely but inspired coupling. The volume is inscribed ‘Jessie Kesson’ below which she has written, ‘alias – Iain Crichton Smith and Robert Lowell’.
Jessie, then in her late sixties, was a small woman with a big personality. After the event it was my task to ensure that the pair were fed and watered. Jessie specified that her only dietary requirements involved fish and chips, preferably on the same plate. Norman, a lamppost of a man, said that would do him fine too. A pub near Charlotte Square supplied liquid refreshment to wash down the carbohydrates and a jolly afternoon was had by all.
Jessie was born in Inverness in 1916 and grew up in Elgin. Hers was not the happiest of upbringings. She never knew her father and was brought up in dire poverty by her beloved, poetry-loving mother who made it her mission to keep her daughter out of clutches of the “Cruelty Man”. That she was not always successful was not her fault.
Much of Jessie’s adult life was spent in London with her husband Johnnie, a cottar. Frequently on the breadline, they took whatever work they could to get by. At various points, she was a cinema cleaner, an artists’ model, a farm labourer and a social worker. By chance on a train she fell into conversation with Nan Shepherd who encouraged her to write, which she did prolifically and wonderfully. As well as the autobiographical The White Bird Passes, she wrote Glitter of Mica (1963), Another Time, Another Place (1983) and Where the Apple Ripens (1985), all of which are set in a terrain familiar to devotees of Grassic Gibbon.
Some years ago, researching an anthology of country diarists, I happened upon articles which Jessie, who died in 1994, had written for the Scots Magazine. I took great pleasure in extracting a generous sample of these. Together they would, I believe, make an affecting little book.
Here, by way of a taster, is what Jessie wrote on 4 September, 1946: ‘The last bramble-pickers haunt the precincts of the wood; they seem like shadows rather than like people, as they bend over the ditch; their exuberance is gone. They leave the road – and many unpicked brambles – while it still early evening. On the road townwards their animation returns; they talk and laugh; they are no longer shadows, they are people, happy because they are homeward bound; in half an hour they will be back in town, in known territory, away from the strangeness of the vast wood, unfamiliar to them at all times, but overwhelming in the gloaming of a September night.’

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