‘I wondered whose step it was that caught at the back of mine’
A hillside near Abriachan,
Spring there is more than colour; it is music and scent. The burns literally
hum down the hillside, the trees have rhythm in their shaking.
Ness MacDonald, ‘Country Dweller’s Year’, Scots Magazine, April 1946
Despite late April sunshine, spring was still holding its breath when I arrived on ‘her’ hillside. I was a thousand feet up at Abriachan, where a dormer-windowed house straddles lush pastureland below and the scratch of heather on the open moor above. This is Achbuie where at the age of nineteen, writer Jessie Kesson (1916-1994) came after a 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. Amongst the smell of bracken-mould and primroses, on a hill so high and steep that, as she said, ‘you feel any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below’, she rambled freely for the six months or so that she stayed. The visceral thrill of the place in springtime pulses through her writing in different genres ever after.
It was curiosity about this powerful influence that took me there in early spring. I wanted to share her exuberance and find the Red Rock she wrote about. And there, high on the moor to the northeast of Achbuie, seen through my wind-tugged hair – a slash of steep gully sliced inland from the Loch into a south-facing cliff. Red and crumbly, fissured in long downward strikes, a superb visual play was created by the orange-red of newly exposed rock against the petrolglazed blue of age. I knew from Isobel Murray’s biography Writing her Life that as Jessie ran and rambled across the hillside here she was followed by a stream of younger girls intrigued by her supposed ‘experience’. With its precipitous pathways of loose rock, I could see the lure for a gaggle of youngsters. This was at the far reaches of Abriachan, at the door to another world, edgy and dangerous and out of sight of the cottage and a watching old lady. Rites of passage were played out here according to Jessie’s writing – a childish game came close to an early sexual adventure. Later, her courtship with her future husband, John Kesson, who quarried the red sand rock, involved meetings on Sunday afternoons. Lying in the shadow of the red rock, they used ‘The Book’, which she was required to carry on the Sabbath, as a pillow.
That day in late April I climbed above the red rock to where the open moor levels. The wind carved down the lochside, and the bare birches rang maroon against a clear sky. Deer poured uphill on winter-dusky heather whose wiry stems snapped at my bootlaces. I kept turning, wondering whose step it was that caught at the back of mine, half expecting to find a line of children in a giggling retreat. Before dropping towards Caiplich I savoured the long views that Jessie wrote of in I to the Hills through the eyes of a character called Chris: ‘High up in the shadow of the Red Rock, she would lie, knowing that never in a lifetime could she absorb the changing moods and varying beauty of the vista unfolded below her.’ I gazed southwards towards Fort Augustus and the steep-sided finale of the Loch. On its east side, beyond water-pocketed escarpments, the Cairngorms displayed long low-reaching fingers of late snow. To the north-east, the Moray Firth and the sea’s horizon sparkled, the lure that perhaps took the young Jessie away to Inverness, next returning to Abriachan for her honeymoon, and repeatedly afterwards in
Up on the open moor, the curlew burbled its high lilt. Peewits crashed within a whisper of the earth as they performed their jitterbug aerobatic displays. The notes they beat in the air with their broad wings seemed reassuring heralds of the spring. ‘Soon, soon’, they soothed.