Nan Shepherd and Jessie Kesson: an uncommon friendship

Nan Shepherd and Jessie Kesson: an uncommon friendship

Nan Shepherd and Jessie Kesson: an uncommon friendship
‘For, through myrrh’s smell, past wud’s tremendous green, my frien’ just followed me, the hale wye back’ 
To Nan Shepherd by Jessie Kesson, 1945, North-East Review

Jessie Kesson and Nan Shepherd: it was an unlikely friendship. It began by chance and lasted, despite differences in class, age and education, for over forty years, until Shepherd’s death in February 1981.

The two women first met in April 1941, on a train. Kesson was on her way to visit her dying mother in Elgin. Shepherd was escaping to the hills. 

The Lady in the Train

For Kesson the meeting was momentous. A great one for telling stories, the one about ‘The Lady in the Train’, Kesson told over and over, until it reached mythical proportions.

‘I first met Nan Shepherd on 4 April 1941 to be precise. Precise, because as I was getting ready to go on a train journey ‘the wireless’ as it was then known announced the death of Charles Murray,’ Jessie begins her account published in the Aberdeen University Review. 

Charles Murray: ‘Hamewith’

Hamewith’ I remembered, as I cycled along the eight miles from my cottar house to Inverurie Station. ‘Hamewith’ … ‘The road that’s never weary’ (sic) was how our Dominie introduced us to Charles Murray’s poems. And as Hamewith – never Charles Murray – he remained.

Kesson nearly missed the train that day. Scrabbling into the carriage, she sat herself down and surveyed the person across from her. ‘A Lady’, she decided. 

To Kesson, in those days, women were divided into two species, Wifies’ and ‘Ladies’. Farm workers’ wives were Wifies. And though she resented the label, Kesson was decidedly a Wifie. 

Until then, the only ‘Lady’ Kesson had ever come across was the President of the Rural society and theirs was only ‘a nodding acquaintance’. 

But Kesson was a talker. Dark-haired, bright-eyed and bubbly, she was a nervous person who disguised it with non-stop chatter and Charles Murray’s death was still very much on her mind. 

They tired the sun with talking

‘Hamewith’s dead’ she blurted out. From the look on her face, she could tell immediately that ‘the Lady hadn’t heard the wireless that morning.’  But for the rest of the journey, the two women ‘tired the sun with talking — Murray’s poems, Doric words’ …

Little did Kesson know then of Shepherd’s long friendship with Charles Murray. ‘Nor did she inform me’, she says. But Nan Shepherd had a talent for silence. The only information she volunteered about herself was that she was going to climb the hills. Kesson was a lot more forthcoming: 

‘My name is Jessie, I told her. My husband was a cattleman at a dairy farm not far from Old Meldrum. She got off the train at Rothiemurchus. Before leaving she took from her knapsack a strawberry-coloured silk headsquare. “A small memento of a lovely journey,” she said, handing me the headsquare’.

A letter signed Nan Shepherd

A few months later, Kesson got a letter. Addressed to ‘Miss Jessie — Now Mrs — At a Dairy Farm Near Old Meldrum’, it’s a wonder it reached her at all.

Do you remember a lovely train journey in April?” it began and went on to tell her about a short story competition, suggested she enter and offered to help with the 7/6 entry fee. The letter was signed ‘Nan Shepherd’. 

And for the first time, Kesson learned the identity of the Lady in the Train. 

Kesson entered the competition and won first prize for her short story ‘Sleepin’ Tinker’. An invitation followed to write for BBC Scotland and her writing career took off. Over the next forty years Jessie Kesson published three novels, contributed poetry and short stories to The Scots Magazine, The People’s Friend and the North East Review and wrote over ninety plays for television and radio.

A life-enhancing journey

In the story of ‘The Lady in the Train’ she told so often, it’s always Nan Shepherd, Jessie Kesson credits with kick-starting her writing career. The trouble was, Kesson wasn’t the most reliable of narrators and her stories often changed in the telling. 

There are a couple of discrepancies in her account. For example, Charles Murray died on the 12th, not the 4th April 1941. And it’s unlikely Shepherd left the train at Rothiemurchus as the train from Inverurie to Elgin didn’t stop there. 

More importantly, Kesson’s claim that Shepherd started her writing is not strictly true. When the two women first met, Kesson was already a published author, albeit in a small way.

Shepherd herself always felt her role was somewhat exaggerated. ‘What the lady in the train relished so much about that journey’, she said, ‘was just the sense of life gushing out in all sorts of ways — it was a life-enhancing journey’. 

What is true, is that from that moment on, Shepherd encouraged Kesson. And it was Shepherd’s critical opinion of her work that really mattered to her.

Nan Shepherd’s opinion mattered

‘More, in all the years, whatever the critics wrote about my work, in praise or blame, it was Nan Shepherd’s verdict that I awaited. Her opinion I accepted. It was always constructive.’

It was three years into their friendship, however, before Kesson discovered Shepherd was a published author. And even then, she found out, not from Shepherd herself, but one of Shepherd’s former students at Aberdeen’s teacher training college where she was Lecturer in English.

Forty years of friendship the two may have had, but as Kesson said after Shepherd’s death ‘Although we corresponded for many years, I know as little of Nan Shepherd’s life as I did on the day we first met’. 

Famously elusive, Nan Shepherd was reticent about herself. Not about others, though. She would surely be delighted that Kesson’s work has recently been republished. 

New editions of Jessie Kesson’s books

Kesson’s most popular novel, the autobiographical The White Bird Passes appeared in 1958. It was followed by Glitter of Mica (1963)  Another Time, Another Place (1983) and Where the Apple Ripens (1985). 

Now Black and White Publishing has produced beautiful new editions introduced by Linda Cracknell, Jenni Fagan and Candia McWilliam. Click on an image to buy your copy.

Jessie Kesson: Another Time, Another Place

Front cover Jessie Kesson another time another place

Introduction by Candia McWilliam:

In the summer of 1944, three Italian prisoners of war are billeted in a remote village in the north-east of Scotland. For most of the locals, their arrival is of little interest, hardly disturbing the quiet routines of their isolated crofting community. But for the young farmworker’s wife who has to look after them, the Italians bring with them a tantalising glimpse of another more exotic world, reawakening dreams of a future far removed from the harsh realities of crofting life.

Jessie Kesson: Glitter of Mica

Front cover Jessie Kesson Glitter of Mica

Introduction by Jenni Fagan: The parish of Caldwell in rural Aberdeenshire is a stifling, unchanging and insular community, hard as granite but with occasional moments that glitter in sunlight like the flecks of mica in the bleak stone.

Change may be in the air for Helen Riddel, daughter of the head dairyman at Darklands farm, who has returned from university, having seen what the outside world has to offer. But will she be able to cut her family ties to embrace a new life away from the narrow confines of Caldwell? An unforgettable portrait of a world that has now vanished forever, Glitter of Mica is a moving evocation of a close-knit rural community in the early twentieth century.

Jessie Kesson: The White Bird Passes

Front cover The White Bird Passes

Introduction by Linda Cracknell: Poor, crowded and dirty, but full of life and excitement, the Lane is the only home Janie MacVean has ever known. It is a place where, despite everything, Janie is happy. But when the Cruelty Man arrives, bringing with him the threat of the dreaded ‘home’ – the orphanage that is every child’s nightmare – her contented childhood may be coming to an end. A gritty and moving portrayal of a young girl facing hardship and deprivation, The White Bird Passes is an autobiographical novel written with warmth, humour and insight.

Read Nan Shepherd’s review of The White Bird Passes.

More on Jessie Kesson

For more on Jessie Kesson, read Isobel Murray’s:

 Jessie Kesson: Writing her life 

The Time of Their Lives: Two of Jessie Kesson’s Fictional Heroines.

Jessie Kesson: Writing her Life.

Check out The National Library of Scotland’s ‘treasures’ on Kesson too.

Jessie Kesson fellowship

And if you’re a writer inspired by the life and work of Jessie Kesson, why don’t you apply for the Jessie Kesson Fellowship?

Read more about Nan Shepherd on my blog. And for the full story of Jessie Kesson and Nan Shepherd’s friendship, read Into the Mountain.

This post includes affiliate links, which means if you click one and buy the product, I get a small commission. 

Nan Shepherd and Jessie Kesson: an uncommon friendship
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Nan Shepherd and Jessie Kesson: an uncommon friendship
Jessie Kesson and Nan Shepherd. It was an unlikely friendship. It began by chance and lasted, despite differences in class, age and education, for over forty years, until Shepherd’s death in February 1981. It was Shepherd, Kesson always said, who started her on her writing career. Read the story of how they first met in April 1941, on a train.
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