Dani Garavelli

LATER this month, as the nights grow darker, a village hall perched high above the western shore of Loch Ness will come alive with music, dancing and readings from the work of one of Scotland's great literary talents.

The ceilidh in Abriachan has been organised by the creative writing centre Moniack Mhor to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Jessie Kesson, a force of nature who produced beautifully-crafted novels, radio plays and poetry inspired by early experiences of hardship and her love of the rugged Highland landscape.

In the 1980s, when two of her books, The White Bird Passes and Another Time, Another Place, were made into films, Kesson's reputation flourished and her legacy seemed secure. But while The White Bird Passes was recently included in a BBC list of the top 30 Scottish books, her profile has waned in recent years.

Some believe her gender has led to her being sidelined in comparison with, say, Lewis Grassic Gibbon; others that the ephemeral nature of radio was responsible for her falling off the radar. Either way, her centenary is the perfect opportunity to rekindle interest in a writer with an instinctive lyricism, an economy of language and an empathy with the human condition; a writer who strove to create, not epics, but “the sma' perfect.”

Already, an exhibition of Kesson's letters, manuscripts and invitations has opened at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. And, on October 27, Black and White Publishing will issue new editions of three of her novels: The White Bird Passes, Glitter of Mica and Another Time, Another Place, with forewords by writers Linda Cracknell, Jenni Fagan and Candia McWilliam.

“Jessie Kesson is an important voice in the Scottish literary landscape,” says Black and White managing director Campbell Brown. “Her centenary is a good time to show her work is well-worth reading or revisiting, and how influential it has been.”

The story of Kesson's childhood, which forms the basis of The White Bird Passes, is well-known. She was born Jessie Grant McDonald in a workhouse in Inverness to a mother who turned to prostitution after being cast out by her family, and she spent her early years in a back lane in Elgin. There she mingled with “tinkers” and hid from the "cruelty man.” Then, at eight, she was removed from her mother's care and placed in an orphanage in Skene in Aberdeenshire.

Encouraged by her beloved "dominie", she shone academically, but her aspirations to go to university were stymied when the Board of Trustees decided an education would be wasted on her, and sent her into service. Unable to cope, she suffered a breakdown and spent a year in Royal Cornhill Hospital in Aberdeen. On her release, she was "boarded out" with an elderly woman on a croft in Abriachan. For six months she roamed the bracken-covered hills before eloping with cattleman Johnnie Kesson.

As the couple moved from farm to farm, Kesson began to produce poetry and plays for Radio Scotland. Then – in the early 1950s – they upped sticks and went to London, where Kesson subsidised her writing with jobs in Woolworths, children's homes and as a life model.

By the late 1980s her contribution to Scottish literature was widely acknowledged, and she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Aberdeen University; finally, she got her "scarlet goon" from the educational institution she had so wanted to attend.

In her biography of the writer, emeritus professor Isobel Murray argues Kesson – who produced at least 15 versions of The White Bird Passes before settling on the definitive one – felt compelled to write about her traumatic past in order to make sense of it.

She also points out that while Kesson would have rejected the notion she was a feminist, her books are an indictment of the limits placed on women in the early to mid 20th century. In Glitter of Mica, Helen Riddel's disastrous affair with Charlie Anson leaves her humiliated and desperate; in Another Time, Another Place, Kirsty, the cottar's wife, is as much of a captive as the Italian prisoners of war she looks after.

With no strong roots, Kesson clearly identified with the "ootlins" – outsiders – she so often portrayed. Though she wrote in English, her books are peppered with Doric dialect. “She was a beautiful writer who was able to weave Scots words into her novels very effectively,” says Scots scriever Hamish MacDonald, the former director of Moniack Mhor, who has been conducting Kesson-related workshops with north-east schoolchildren.

Radio drama director Marilyn Imrie got to know Kesson when she produced several of her plays for the BBC. "I absolutely loved Jessie," she says. “When I knew her, she would have been in her 60s, but she had wonderful bone structure and elegant legs she used to show you. There was a quality of real beauty about her, and also of enormous kindness and wisdom and humour. She had the most wonderful laugh, and she taught me a lot about writing and how to work with writers. When I first worked with her, I was on my own with my daughter and I would tell her about my disastrous love affairs and lack of love affairs. Then, when I finally met my husband, she said: 'Thank goodness. You've got a right man at last'.”

Kesson's own "right man", Johnnie, understood little of his wife's intellectual needs, which were fulfilled through a number of intense epistolary relationships, but was a constant support. "She used to go away and have lunches with the high elite of literary people: Women's Hour editors and publishers in London,” says Imrie. “Then, she would come home to Johnnie and make the mince and potatoes and they would have a cigarette together and do the football pools. He sort of grounded her.”

Now working in theatre, Imrie is just back from the Borders, where she has been touring an adaptation of two of Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro's stories about her Ettrick ancestors' migration to Canada.

"There are similarities in their work, which is, I guess, why I am so fond of Alice Munro," she says. "Munro captures in a few sentences a woman's dilemma or pain or anger or secrecy in a way that Jessie could also do. Jessie never went into great depth, but she captured character very easily and quickly and she would use snippets of poems and folk songs or hymns that she remembered and use them as a woven illustration. I would say she is up there with Nan Shepherd and Violet Jacob."

Kesson's significance lies not only in her own work but in the way which it has inspired others. Sean Burn, poet, performer and maker of “outsider” art spent a month at Moniack Mhor as this year's Jessie Kesson Fellow, a post introduced by MacDonald to celebrate the writer's links with the area. Burn was first attracted to Kesson's work because he too was a patient at the Royal Cornhill Hospital.

Kesson only wrote about her incarceration a handful of times, most notably in the play Somewhere Beyond, but it is clear she feared she would never get out. During his time as fellow, Burn wrote a cycle of 12 prose poems called Patchwork for Jessie, and ran literary workshops with a group of people with experience of mental illness.

For writer Linda Cracknell, whose subject is often wild places, it was Kesson's relationship with the landscape around Abriachan that proved most intoxicating. Although Kesson lived there for less than a year, the time she spent roaming the hills was important to her. In one of her monthly columns for The Country Dweller's Year in The Scots Magazine, she wrote about being so high "you feel at any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below".

In Cracknell's book Doubling Back, a collection of 10 walks in the footsteps of others, she retraces Kesson's steps, finding the dormer-windowed house, Achbuie, on a 1000ft-high plateau of land between Inverness, Beauly and Drumnadrochit. "What I was looking for was her deep sense of spring there. It is incredibly vibrant and she captures it beautifully," she says.

Earlier this year, Cracknell took a group of aspiring writers to the cottage, before returning to Moniack Mhor to write. "Later, we talked about childhood territory and how vivid and mythical some of the places are," Cracknell says. “We extended that into our own childhood territory and tried to practise the way she brought that to life."

Kesson died in 1994, just weeks after her husband. As Murray recounts in her biography, Kesson once said her gravestone should read: "Here, very much against her will, lies JK." But, in the end, her ashes, along with Johnnie's, were scattered at Abriachan, and her daughter Avril planted a rowan tree in her memory.

It is hoped Avril will head north for the ceilidh where school children will sing and Burn will perform his Patchwork for Jessie accompanied by fiddlers. It sounds like precisely the sort of tribute her irrepressible mother – who loved “kicking up her legs” – would have whole-heartedly endorsed.