Jessie Kesson, author, playwright and producer, died on the 26th of September, 1994.
Jessie Kesson is arguably most famous for her first novel, the semi-autobiographical ‘The White Bird Passes’, which was made into an award-winning film in 1980. However, she is probably equally well known for ‘Another Time, Another Place’, which was made into what one review called a ‘popular film’, but was, in fact, a prize-winning film. When all is said and done Jessie Kesson is, along with Lewis Grassic Gibbon, one of Scotland’s finest and best loved authors. It should come as no surprise to learn that ‘The White Bird Passes’ made it to the list of 100 Best Scottish Books of all Time, which puts Jessie on a par with the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, John Galt and James Leslie Mitchell (Gibbon). Jessie Kesson had to do it the hard way, but her experiences inspired her writing, which was of the highest quality. According to a review by Alistair Campbell, it was Jessie Kesson’s “authenticity …earthy humour …her deep feelings for …the human condition that make [her] outstanding and important to the development of Scottish writing.
Although popular anecdotes exist about Jessie being encouraged to write following a chance meeting with Nan Shepherd on a train in 1941, according to Catriona M. Low, writing on the website dedicated to the author, Jessie Kesson was already being published, most notably in the ‘North-East Review’. Her poem ‘Fir Wud’ was written in 1940 and Jessie became a contributor to the Scots Magazine, before she was encouraged by Shepherd to enter a short story competition, which Jessie won and which led to her being invited to write for BBC Radio in Aberdeen. Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s Jessie wrote plays and programmes for the BBC radio and television as well as writing poetry and newspaper feature articles. Jessie’s writing was drawn from her hard experiences in the rural communities of north-east Scotland in the early part of the 20th Century and she had a fondness for her native dialect as evidenced when she said, “It’s the Scottish words I love. The language seems to have more strength.” Of course, she was right.
When Janie, in ‘The White Bird Passes’, declares that she doesn’t “want to work on a farm” and that she wants to write poetry, “Great poetry. As great as Shakespeare,” rather than writing the words as from her character, it is something that Jessie herself could have said; substituting ‘great poetry’ for ‘great novels’. The entry in the ‘100 Best Books’ describes Kesson’s compassionate and indomitable siding with the ‘ootlin’ (outsider) and suggests that is a recurrent theme in her writing. Isobel Murray, who wrote a biography of Jessie Kesson, called ‘Writing Her Life’, also refers to ‘ootlins’ in an interview, in which Jessie is quoted as saying, “Every work I’ve ever written contains an ‘ootlin’ – lovely Aberdeenshire word; somebody that never really fitted into the thing ...It’s always about people who don’t fit in.” Jessie has assuredly ‘fitted in’ to the pantheon of great Scottish writers, recognised also by Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, the Moniack Mhor at Kiltarlity in Inverness-shire, where there is now a Jessie Kesson Residency Program, which has been established to raise awareness of Jessie’s writing.
Professor Isobel Murray also wrote that “To say that Jessie Kesson’s life was ‘complicated’ would be an understatement” and of her early years, that Kesson’s experiences were such that would have made “even such childhoods as Charles Dickens’ look tame.” Murray states that Kesson sharply dismissed suggestions that she was a feminist writer but goes on to say that the evidence of her books “clearly shows an abiding determination to reveal the situations of women in more or less oppressed situations.” Much of that oppression stemmed from the nature of society in her day – it’s not easy to be an ‘ootlin’, but it’s easier to understand after you’ve read one of Jessie’s books.
Jessie Grant Macdonald was born an illegitimate child in an Inverness ‘puirhouse’ (workhouse) on the 29th of October, 1916. Jessie then lived in Elgin until 1924, when she was removed from her mother’s care by a Court and sent to Proctor’s Orphanage, near Skene. At school in Skene, Jessie was encouraged in her love of writing by the Dominie and she did well in her exams. In fact, she did so well that the Dominie bought her books and was set to coach her for a place at Aberdeen University. Tragically, however, the Trustees of the Orphanage, with the myopia typical of the day, decided a university education would be wasted on a girl. So it was that, in 1932, puir Jessie was seemingly condemned to a life of domestic service, into which she then had no option but to enter. Her frustration at her fate led to a nervous breakdown, which was diagnosed as neurasthenia, and she spent a year in a mental hospital, before being sent to a croft near Loch Ness to recuperate.
In a croft at Abriachan, above the western shore of Loch Ness, Jessie met Johnnie Kesson, whom she married in 1934. Johnnie’s career as a Baillie then took them to a cottar house at Westertown, near Rothienorman, and later, during the war, to the Black Isle. In 1945, Jessie did her first radio piece for the BBC as the family (she now had two children; one of each) moved from farm to farm in the vicinity of Elgin, where her mother remained, desperately ill. After her mother died in 1949, Jessie went to London to ‘seek her fortune’. In London, Jessie took a variety of jobs, including working in a hospital, a cinema, in Woolworths and as an artists’ model, where she posed nude for classes at an art college. According to www.jessiekesson.com that latter was her favourite as Jessie is recorded as having said that was, “the only time in my life I got paid for standing or sitting and simply thinking my own thoughts.”
After the BBC accepted her play ‘Forty Acres Fallow’, Jessie sent for her family and, thereafter, they lived in London, although she never forgot her roots in the north-east of Scotland. As well as a becoming a social worker, a career which spanned nearly twenty years, Jessie worked for the BBC, producing ‘Woman’s Hour’ and over 90 radio and TV plays. Jessie Grant Kesson died in London on the 26th of September, 1994.