Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jessie Kesson's nature writings

One thousand feet up on the hillside at Abriachan where the winds sing over the brow of the steep western slopes of Loch Ness, a dormer-windowed house straddles lush pasture land and the scratch of heather on the open moor above. This is Achbuie, where at the age of nineteen, prolific writer Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) went to rehabilitate after a ‘lost 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. The experience of Spring here flushed her into an ecstatic appreciation of nature, and spelt out for her recovery, re-growth and a sense of freedom. Amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high up that ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’, she walked ‘without limits of walls’.

When I set off to explore Kesson’s terrain in 2008 for my own essay for Doubling Back, I wanted to draw more than a glimpse of her hillside. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. I ‘found’ Jessie’s hillside, in the sense that my own rambles seemed to correspond with the joyful arrangements of her own words evoking Spring here, and because I took the sunny green slopes below Achbuie rather than the bleak moor bristling above.

I sought out her other writing, read more of the fictionalised re-workings of her own traumatic childhood years. The dull bass beat of pain was always there, but somehow overlain with bright, poetic joys found in nature or brief moments of love and belonging.

I've written before here about Jessie Kesson's life and writing of this time and place, which bubbled up in much of her later work, including the twelve essays she wrote as 'Ness MacDonald' for the Scots magazine during 1946, entitled 'The Country Dweller's Year'. Last year I had to go to the National Library of Scotland in order to read them, but I'm delighted that these essays and various other pieces of her writing - essays, drama for radio, poetry, fiction - in response to nature during her early writing career, have recently been collected by her biographer Isobel Murray and issued by Kennedy and Boyd. As Murray says they demsonstrate 'a passionate response to the natural world' in a style of writing that is lyrical even in prose, and yet earthy and direct as if the language itself is inflected by place, smell, and song.

1 comment:

Michael said...

You were always interested in her, as I have been since.