IT'S mid-afternoon. Avril Wilbourne, the daughter of Jessie Kesson, has met me at Brighton station and driven past sheer white cliffs to her home. Now, we are in her dining room; there are photos of Kesson on the wall and strawberries and cream on the table.

In the preceding weeks, I have been on a pilgrimage, retracing the steps of her mother, author of The White Bird Passes, published 60 years ago this week. I tell Avril how I visited Abriachan in the Highlands, where Kesson, rarely seen without a cigarette at her lips, spent a formative six months; how I stood at the Red Rock, an outcrop on darker cliffs 1,000ft above Loch Ness, and imagined her ashes, released there after her death in 1994, drifting down to the serene waters below.

Hearing the story, Avril disappears, then returns brandishing a small wooden pot. "Not all of mum's ashes were scattered,” she says. “I have some of them here.” She tries to open it, but the lid is on so tightly that, when it finally comes off with a jolt, a small cloud of dust rises up. “Look, she's smoking again," she says.

A former model, Avril, 80, is petite with an elfin face and fine, white hair. Though she left Scotland for London at 13, she still has a faint north-eastern twang, a distant echo of the rich accent her mother kept all her life.

She rarely talks about Kesson publicly, but has agreed to do so today to celebrate her irrepressible personality and shore up her legacy. She is fragile and nervous, but has clearly inherited her mother's wicked sense of humour.

Kesson – born in an Inverness workhouse, taken from her own mother, Liz, aged eight and raised in an orphanage – is one of Scotland's finest writers. Her portraits of a vanished world are works of ethereal beauty and important social documents.

The White Bird Passes, the story of her childhood, is a masterpiece, burnished by her lyricism, sense of place and empathy for the human condition. Though she doesn't shrink from the truth (Liz, was a some-time prostitute who contracted syphilis) this is no misery memoir. Rather Kesson recreates a world which, with its brash "Ladies of the Lane", its tinkers and its Bible-thumping Salvationists, is as vibrant as it is fearsome for her alter ego Janie.

Despite this book, three more novels and many radio plays, Kesson is under-rated. For a period in the 80s, after The White Bird Passes and Another Time, Another Place (her novel about Italian PoWs based on the Black Isle) were made into films, she was feted. Yet, there are many well-read people who know nothing of her work. She is dismissed for all the reasons women tend to be dismissed: for drawing on her own life, writing about the domestic and preferring what she called the Sma' Perfect to sweeping epics. These slights overlook her talent and the grit required for her to produce anything at all.

Forced into domestic service, Kesson suffered a breakdown and spent year in a mental hospital; discharged, at 19, she was “boarded out” – fostered by an old woman in Achbuie, the highest croft in Abriachan; there, she met and ran off with cattleman Johnnie. They were married for 58 years.

Life was hard, but, no matter what she was up against, she wrote. When she and Johnnie were forced to move – from Rothienorman to the Black Isle to Elgin – in search of farm work, she wrote; when Avril and Kesson's son Kenny were toddlers, she wrote. After moving to London in 1951, Kesson worked as a waitress, shop assistant, social worker and life model, but always she wrote. She was lucky to have powerful advocates including Nan Shepherd and Neil Gunn, but mostly her success was born of bloody-mindedness.

Avril's early life had its challenges; her mother was young, volatile and frowned on by neighbours for supposedly putting her literary endeavours before her children. “In later years, she used to say to me this was the thing she found hard – all the criticism that wouldn't have happened if she'd been a writer and a man," Avril says. "But it makes me cross when I read people suggesting I was neglected – it's rubbish. The opposite, in fact. I got more from my mother than most people get."

Like Kesson, Avril refuses to sentimentalise her experiences. She remembers being taken to meet her grandmother, Liz, just once – "She was so ill by then, her mind had gone, she accused me of stealing something" – and says the move to London, after Liz's death, was a moonlight flit, carried out after a large tab had been run up at the grocer's.

She cherishes her childhood, though, especially the storytelling: "Oh, I loved it when there was a storm; the wind would be howling and she would tell me about Jordie Scobie – a bad boy. She would make things up, just like her mother had done for her.”

Avril remembers embarrassing Kesson at Gunn's house by asking what the fish knife was for. "Afterwards, he wrote to say he wanted to buy me a present. 'Tell her she can have whatever she likes.' I wanted a bike, but my mother said: 'Yer nae askin' fir a bike,' so I said I'd like a blackboard, and it was a beautiful blackboard." She also met Shepherd and much later, in London pubs, Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas.

Kesson could be difficult, but she was also great fun. During my visit to Abriachan, Charlie Webster, the nephew of Jean Lindsay, who now owns Achbuie, recalled the day she turned up out of the blue and regaled them with wild anecdotes. “She took no prisoners, but I thought she was marvellous," he said. "She was just kind of: 'Woah'; a real dude. She riveted you, the way she portrayed stories, creating images just as she does in her books. And Christ, she had empathy: that comes across in bucket-loads in her writing and it came across in real life."

With a guilty guffaw, Avril tells a tale that shows Kesson retained her hatred of pretension to the end. "She was in hospital, very ill. She hadn't spoken for two weeks and my brother Kenny came in having had a few drinks. It was a wild night, raining and he said: 'Mum, these are the tears of God, weeping for you.' She stirred and said: 'Aw shite, Kenny,' and then she died. To think those were the last words of a fine writer, but it makes me laugh," she says.

In her living room, Avril tips Kesson's papers on to the sofa. There are faded pictures and letters in tiny hand-writing. In one draft missive – which may or may not have been sent – she takes the writer of a book on Coronation Street to task for patronising her over an idea she once submitted as a potential plotline. Kesson had been insulted to find herself cast her as a little old woman who had contacted the soap on a whim and was overjoyed to have her suggestion accepted. With great hauteur she sets him straight on both her youthfulness of spirit and her status in the literary world.

Avril picks up a photograph of a man in a uniform and I mistakenly assume it's Johnnie. "No, that's Sean [Fitzsimon, a poet Kesson met in the 1950s]," she says. "He and my mother had a romantic friendship, though I don't think they were lovers. My dad was a good man, he kept her grounded, but I hope she had other times as well and I am grateful to Sean."

In Abriachan, Kesson's dulled senses were stimulated by nature: the whin on the slopes; the primroses, the swallows, curlews, and peesies; the oaks and aspens. It was at Red Rock she first lay with Johnnie, their heads propped irreverently on a Bible; there, she sometimes claimed, Avril was conceived while they were on honeymoon at nearby Loch Laide. Watching pied wagtails buffeted on invisible currents, it seems fitting her bones found their way into this soil: a restive spirit in an ever-shifting landscape.